The Mortal Instrumements: City of Bones Review

Posted: September 4, 2013 by moviebuff801 in moviebuff801's Movie Reviews

By: Michael “Moviebuff801” Dennos

Whether we want to admit it or not, we all have our own “weak areas” when it comes to the genres of storytelling; those certain styles or tropes that render us generally helpless when we come across them.  For me, it’s always been stories involving secret societies that operate in the shadows of our own world as they protect us from the evil supernatural forces that threaten our very existence.  So, in a way, perhaps I was always going to be defenseless against The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, based on the series of Young Adult novels written by Cassandra Clare.  When the previews started popping up, my curiosity was raised, so much so that I just had to go ahead and give the books a whirl.  At the time of this review, I’ve finished the first book and started the second, and the one thing I can say about this series so far is that I’ll certainly take this interesting hybrid of Harry Potter, Star Wars and in a general sense, the T.V. show Supernatural over Twilight any day of the week.

Borrowing quite a bit from other big fantasy series, our intrepid young heroine in The Mortal Instruments series is Clarissa “Clary” Fray (Lily Collins), a fifteen year-old who’s recently become obsessed with drawing a mysterious symbol anywhere she can, despite not knowing the meaning of it.  Things get even stranger one night when she and her best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) enter The Pandemonium Club, where Clary witnesses a murder committed by a couple of other teens adorned in black and who have curious tattoos covering most of their skin — and Clary is the only one who sees it happen.  True to the laws of Young Adult fiction, this means that Clary is one of this new group, called The Shadowhunters.  The Shadowhunters are warriors who protect the world against supernatural forces of all kind: demons, warlocks, witches, vampires, werewolves, etc. and they also happen to be half-human, half-angel.  If you’re not a Shadowhunter, then you’re a Mundane, a title which is pretty self-explanatory.  This is all explained to Clary by Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower), a Shadowhunter with an immaculate record and gorgeous golden hair.  Clary happens to be a Shadowhunter because her recently-kidnapped mom (Lena Headey) was one, too.  Clary’s mom was abducted by Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a rogue Shadowhunter who wants to get his hands on The Mortal Cup, one of the three Mortal Instruments which Valentine plans to use for his own purposes.  So in order to find her mom and The Cup and, you guessed it, save the world, Clary must align herself with New York’s Shadowhunter branch, headed over by Hodge Starkweather (Jared Harris), learning the tools of the trade as she goes along.

The nature of the beast when it comes to book adaptations of any kind, whether they be Young Adult or plain old adult, is that there’s always going to be stuff that’s in the book and not in the movie or in the movie, but not in the book.  So speaking as a newly-minted Mortal Instruments fan, my experience with this City of Bones movie was an interesting one.  As an urban fantasy action-adventure, I liked it well enough and had a good time with it, but as an adaptation of its source material, City of Bones is a curious thing.  I say “curious thing” because that’s the most neutral phrase I can think of.  If you’re a fan, and also one of those people who thinks that nothing should be altered or changed in any way, then prepare yourself for this movie.  I’ll reiterate that I enjoyed City of Bones, just enough to recommend to fans of the books and this particular genre, but I can’t help scratching my head when I see all of the “adjustments” to the way in which the story is told, what with a few scenes that are jumbled out of order, despite the story still making sense.  Even with a running time of 130 minutes, there are times when this movie can feel a little rushed; it hops from plot point to plot point quickly enough to leave anyone unfamiliar with the book almost scrambling to keep up.

Alright, so enough of that mild fan griping for now.  It’s time to bring all you non-fans currently rolling your eyes back into the conversation more fully.  The main question here is how does City of Bones work as a movie, period?  The answer is about as well as you’d expect a film adaptation of a Young Adult fantasy novel series with a loyal, but more limited fan base than something like Harry Potter to work.  I admit that sounds like faint praise, but then again, how often do these types of book adaptations hit the ground running right out of the gate?  There’s plenty I liked about this movie, but there’s also plenty of room for improvement.

The acting is the spottiest thing here which, in retrospect, isn’t all that surprising.  Like with the first Harry Potter film, for example, the adults do better work overall than the teens.  As the centerpieces of this movie, Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower are respectable enough, and for my money, Collins outshines Bower.  Ms. Collins personifies the character of Clary pretty well, hitting all the notes she needs to and providing the film with the majority of its charm.  Bower, by comparison, is much more one-note.  In terms of his acting style, I can’t tell if it’s something that was intentionally written into the script by screenwriter Jessica Postigo Paquette, or purely an acting decision on Bower’s part.  If it’s the latter, and the sequels do get made, then Jamie Campbell Bower needs to step it up.  As written in the book, the character of Jace has quite a bit of personality, and even though all of his sarcastic quips remain intact in the movie, because of Bower’s stoicism, not all of them hit the mark.  Is that to say I think it’s a bad performance?  Not really, but out of all the main teen cast, I really feel like Jamie Campbell Bower’s the weakest.  On the adult end of the spectrum, actors like Jared Harris, Aidan Turner and CCH Pounder are all solid, but my favorite is Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Valentine.  Sure, the character is painted in broader strokes (in the book, Valentine is more calm and calculating, and more insane and bloodthirsty in the movie), but he still makes for a very fun villain, even if the bulk of his screentime is in the last half hour.  Regardless, I can’t wait to see more of him.

The action, on the other hand, is actually pretty good.  Director Harald Zwart, the man behind the recent Karate Kid reboot, manages to stage some fairly exciting and entertaining set pieces, such as a scene where the Shadowhunters take on a room full of vampires and the big finale.  By extension, the special effects are also fairly decent for a modestly-budgeted film.  On top of that, there’s a surprisingly good score here by Atli Ovarsson.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, despite its issues, is still a movie that will work for fans of the novels and of the genre, and work best for them.  This is an example of how, these days, it’s not so much about what story you tell, but how you tell the story.  The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones doesn’t break any new ground in the genre, but I still found it effective in what it set out to do.  My hope is that if City of Ashes does indeed get made, the filmmakers try to work out the kinks, but for now, I’m satisfied overall with this first attempt.


  1. Good review! I haven’t read the books but was curious about the trailer.

  2. moviebuff801 says:

    Thanks. I enjoyed the book a little more, but I will say that even with all the changes the filmmakers made, it still works as a fun little ride.

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