Movies Without Pity
<i>The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones</i>: Your Burning Questions Answered

Is Lily Collins the next Kristen Stewart? Could it be more obvious that she's running around the streets of Toronto rather than the streets of Brooklyn? And what the heck is a "mortal instrument" anyway? You've undoubtedly got questions about the latest wanna-be YA franchise-starter The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and we've got the answers… with some spoilers in the mix as well.

So here's the most important question: when I step up to the ticket booth window -- or, more likely, one of those electronic kiosks -- what do I say I want to see: The Mortal Instruments or City of Bones?
It really is the franchise with two first names, isn't it? At least the Harry Potter series always had the "Harry Potter and the…" construction going for it, while Twilight was always just Twilight, no matter which specific film you were talking about. Here's the correct breakdown: The Mortal Instruments refers to the series as a whole, while City of Bones is the title of the first book and now film, so probably best to lead with Mortal Instruments. But honestly, if you're not a genre-crazed teen, the chance of you requesting a ticket to either title is slim to none. And even the majority of that audience is probably savvy enough to spot what this movie is: a calculated cash grab produced by folks more interested in lining their pockets than the source material.

On that note, what exactly is the source material anyway? A comic book? A series of trading cards? A Tumblr page?
Try a five-part book series by Cassandra Clare, a prolific author of Harry Potter fan-fiction turned mainstream YA writer. Though how much The Mortal Instruments series owes to her own fanfic is a matter of much online debate.

Wait… there are five of these things?
Well, technically six, but that installment won't be published until next year. And as for when it'll hit movie screens, the answer is almost certainly… never.

Are you sure? They got eight movies out of Harry Potter and five out of Twilight
Yes, but only one movie out of Beautiful Creatures. And The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. And Eragon. And Cirque du Freak. And even though Screen Gems is already forging ahead with a second Mortal Instruments to be shot this fall, the chances of this thing spanning all six books seems like a long shot. I mean, if the studio were really serious about making this a lasting franchise, they would have tasked someone other than Harald Zwart as director.

You know, Harald Zwart! The auteur behind Agent Cody Banks, The Pink Panther 2 and The Karate Kid remake! Say what you will about the careers of Chris Columbus and Catherine Hardwicke, but they were each logical choices to launch their respective franchises. Columbus' history at coaxing memorable performances from child actors, plus his proven ability at handling the moving parts of a big-budget production dovetailed nicely with what the Harry Potter series needed as it started out (though I would have sided with J.K. Rowling's pick of Terry Gilliam -- a bolder, though potentially disastrous choice), while the heady aura of teenage ennui that Hardwicke brought to Thirteen fed nicely into the adolescent romantic longing in the original Twilight. Zwart, however, has no discernable personality or interests as a director and that manifests itself in the largely anonymous finished product. He may have delivered the movie on time and on budget, but boy is it one heck of a generic genre piece.

So all the familiar elements are front and center, then? Ordinary teen suddenly discovers he/she isn't so ordinary? Major mommy/daddy issues? A secret society of mystical warriors? A love interest that makes the heart go pitter-patter?
Don't forget the pining best friend, the wise mentor figure, the light side/dark side equation, the expendable sidekick etc. etc. City of Bones hits just about every item on the fantasy checklist. If you need specifics, the adorable and moderately talented Lily Collins plays Mary Sue Clary Fray, a Brooklyn-by-way-of-Toronto resident who learns that her ability to see runes, creatures and handsome demon hunters that remain invisible to other peoples' naked eyes stems from the fact that she's a descendent of two "Shadowhunters" -- her mom Jocelyn (Lena Headey, parachuting in from Game of Thrones for a quick cameo before her character is put in a coma) and a father to be named later. (Psst… it's the Darth Vader of the Shadowhunters, Valentine, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.) While the muggles "mundanes" of the world go about their daily business, Shadowhunters keep the forces of evil, which include demons, vampires, witches and certain kinds of werewolves (but not zombies, we're told), at bay. Recruited by a small band of age-appropriate Shadowhunters headed up by blonde British heroin chic model type Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), Clary discovers powers she never realized she had, fights various digitally-rendered creatures she never knew existed and tries to keep Valentine from getting his hands on the Holy Grail.

The actual Holy Grail?
Nah. Indiana Jones is like the one franchise The Mortal Instruments doesn't rip off. No, she's just protecting some fancy schmancy goblet that apparently has the ability to create Shadowhunters and which her mother hid inside a tarot card using her super-special parlor trick of hiding three-dimensional objects inside of paintings. It's just one power that Clary shares with Mom, the other being carving various runes onto her skin -- each of which has its own mystical properties, from temporarily freezing time to telekinesis -- with a magical pen that looks a heck of a lot closer to a knife.

You're saying her special power is… cutting?
Well, that wasn't my intention, but come to think of it, the way it's dramatized in the film does make it look an awful lot like Carly is cutting herself in order to access her abilities. Huh. And here I thought the most unintentionally disturbing thing in the movie was the love story!

Do tell.
Are you sure? It's, like, the only thing in the movie that even remotely surprised me.

Spill it.
Oh man, this is so wrongheaded, it's almost too good to give away.

Will you just spoil it already?!
Okay, okay -- jeeze. So you've obviously figured out that Jace and Clary are on their way to becoming the next Bella and Edward, making kissy-faces, undressing each other with their eyes and counting down to their wedding day so they can have sex.

Obviously! But here's the catch: their Bella/Edward story takes a hard left towards Luke/Leia territory when Valentine reveals that, not only is he Clary's father… he sired Jace as well!

Get out!
Nope, that's the big "twist"… at least, for those people who have never seen The Empire Strikes Back. But the really hilarious thing is that in this case, there's no Han Solo waiting in the wings to give Clary a backup option. She's totally into Luke and he's totally into her, regardless of their shared parentage. Towards the end of the movie, he even says something to the effect of, "I don't care what Valentine says -- I know I love you and I want to be with you and I'm 100 percent sure he's lying. Okay, 90 percent. Okay, it's 50/50, but you're so goddamn hot that I don't care. Now let's get a motel room." That's not a direct transcription, but it's more or less what he's saying.

Incest is best, yo.
From your mouth to V.C. Andrews' ears. To be fair, I guess, the movie does give them an out in that Valentine could very well be just a lying sack of mystical feces. And Wikipedia tells me that Jace discovers another potential father in a later book. But that's another reason why I hope the film franchise doesn't make it that far. There's just something so delightfully perverse about a fantasy film where the central love story involves a brother and sister trying to prove they're not related so they can visit the bone zone ASAP. If John Waters ever directed a YA film, that's the kind of love story he'd tell. Actually, he'd probably just make them bone anyway.

Last question… what the hell is a "mortal instrument"?
It's a shame that SNL's Stefon has retired into happily wedded bliss, because he'd probably come up with a much better answer to that question than the film provides. ("It's that thing where a raccoon and a stallion…" aah, forget it.) A "mortal instrument" is one of three objects handed down from an angel named Raziel to the first-ever Shadowhunter. The Mortal Cup is the first and then there's also a Mortal Sword and a Mortal Mirror, which gives the characters two more magical items to pursue should the studio manage to carve three movies out of the six books. Even in the extremely unlikely event that that happens, The Mortal Instruments will never become an immortal franchise like Harry Potter, Star Wars and the many, many films that it's ripping off. No, it's destiny is a quick, painless death and an afterlife spent as a footnote to the great YA phenomenon of early 21st century cinema.

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