If I had known what would come after, I never would have made fun of Anne Rice.
Yes, her vampires seemed a little fey and their clothes a tad frilly, but deep down, they walked the walk (in darkness, natch). Rice herself looked the part of a dark fortune teller in her gothic New Orleans chic, and when it came time to make a movie based on her characters, she pushed hard for Rutger Hauer to play Lestat, which was pretty badass of her, even though she didn’t succeed and eventually had to publicly apologize to Tom Cruise. It didn’t hurt that badly, though, since Cruise proved willing enough to go dark.
I feel bad for the generation after, whose vampire zeitgeist was defined by the confused dreams of a mixed-up Mormon put down on paper without much thought to rhyme or reason, and embodied stiffly onscreen by Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner. Twilight was a property we pretty quickly learned to leave to the self-professed Twi-hards and pretend to ignore as much as possible – but once it ended, things got confusing. The Hunger Games was pitched to the pop-culture world as the next Twilight, but it turned out to be reasonably coherent and entertaining. Which brings us to the next would-be contender: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. After sitting through two different convention panels on this film, I was unable to quite get a handle on it, save that author Cassandra Clare came off like a giggly fangirl both times.
So I subjected myself to the movie, just to see. If it turned out well, I could lead you to it; if not, I’d suffer for your sins. As it turns out, this is a step above Stephenie Meyer…but there’s still a ways to go if it’s going to get really good in any way other than by comparison. Here’s how it is still like her creation – and how it represents progress on the tween-lit movie front.
1. Broody Girl With a Nickname Meets Team Love Triangle…
In place of Isabella “Bella” Swan, we have Clarissa “Clary” Fray (Lily Collins), whose last name could theoretically allow for all sorts of unfortunate dirty jokes about jumping into the Fray. Unlike Bella, she’s proactive; like Bella, her affections are torn between a brooding, vaguely supernatural emo-guy (Jamie Campbell Bower’s English-accented “Shadowhunter” Jace) and her semi-platonic, regular guy best friend (Robert Sheehan’s Simon), who eventually proves to have great abs under that shirt, and a supernatural secret that’s being saved for a sequel.
Since I’m basing this list entirely on the movie and not the books, we won’t go into how this whole thing may or may not play out long-term. But it’s unlike the Jacob and Edward situation in one key respect…
1a. …But It Isn’t Clear From the Getgo Who She’ll End up With.
Apologies to Team Jacob (not really), but if you ever actually thought wolf-boy had a shot at living happily ever after with lip-biting girl, you probably never read a book before (if you predicted him ending up falling in love with a baby, on the other hand, you’re as insane as the writer). It was masterful to include two conflicting archetypes of manhood so that everybody could fantasize about their type, but give Cassandra Clare more credit for throwing twists into the mix that make the choice more difficult for Clary. Yes, one of them is straight out of The Empire Strikes Back, but look on the bright side – you can tell fans of these books that The Empire Strikes Back is just like it, and they might actually watch it for that reason. Gateway drug to geekdom is the key here.
Better yet, Clary doesn’t sit on her ass while seasons pass, waiting for the men in her life to make a move. She’s too busy trying to save her comatose mother, invent new tattoos (runes, whatever) and learn how to pass through watery portals.
2. Supernatural Beings Still Look Like Models in Ren Faire Goth Gear…
It’s pretty hilarious early on when Clary ventures into her first goth club, where hidden Shadowhunters murder demons unseen by mere mortals, or as they call them, “Mundanes” (one of many not-so-veiled Harry Potter lifts; the Mortal Instruments of the title are essentially the Deathly Hallows too). The “goths” in question look like they just got their club gear off the rack at a department store, and the “runes” they adorn their bodies with look like badly painted-on tattoos, though we are assured they hurt so badly to apply that Mundanes will just die from the pain.
There’s also no particular reason given why their demon-killing swords are made from stylin’ see-thru plastic, but it makes the weapons look unfortunately prop-like, as if wielded on a fashion runway as a gimmick. We won’t go into how perfect everyone’s hair is, because…
2a. …Thankfully, the Vampires and Werewolves Aren’t Total Dorks.
Yes, the vampires have fangs, and get burned by sunlight. Happy? You should be. All our style-conscious slayers are their own breed of thing, while the bloodsuckers wear dirty clothes, live in rotted tenements, and like to chain up their victims as if they were ’90s McFarlane Toys. Meanwhile, the werewolves are mostly CG, but by day, they’re all Irish-accented bikers. Once they go full canine, they’re not averse to mauling little girls to death…but don’t worry, we’re talking little girls who have proved themselves to be demons by having crazy eyes, which makes it okay. Still a little shocking, but okay.
Another demon manifests itself as a particularly nasty mutant dog whose guts reassemble after being blown up in a gas fire. Give the movie credit for figuring out a way to give you a good gross-out like that under PG-13 rules.
No, vampires don’t sparkle in daylight – but Jace does make Clary fall for him by taking her to a special garden where the flowers all sparkle at midnight, in a scene that’s similar in intent, and augmented by a horrible song which spells out the obvious.
3. The Adults Get All the Good Bits…
Just as Billy Boyd, Michael Sheen and Peter Facinelli stole the eminently thievable show in their franchise, so it is here. Lena Headey spends much of the movie unconscious, but while awake, she gets to beat the holy crap out of Kevin Durand with a frying pan. CCH Pounder initially seems to be going through the motions as the shy neighbor, but once she reveals her true self, all bets are off and shit gets hilariously freaky.
And Jared Harris, as the guy who you know is going to be a celebrity reveal even before you see him, is wonderfully restrained, suggesting inner torment in a manner you’d expect more from Philip Seymour Hoffman. Since the main cast are somewhat lightweight, it’s fun to see such veteran character actors in the mix to keep the parents and older siblings awake.
3a. …But the Kids Kick Ass.
Trust me, it gets proton-y a moment later.
Okay, yeah, maybe the love triangle moments are not the film’s greatest scenes, in part because it’s hard to play pouty when you’re supposed to be a master demon killer. But heavy thespian lifting isn’t so much the point here – our lead characters have to fight, flee and fall, and they do so quite effectively against invisible things.
I particularly liked the part where Jemima West’s Isabelle suddenly had a giant flamethrower that came from nowhere, only to shoot out Ghostbusters-style proton streams. Is she a goddess? Well, the next time anyone asks her, she should say yes.
4. Yes, There Are Arbitrary, Plot-Convenient Powers…
Could have saved us a whole lot of time by just predicting the ending upfront.
One of the most aggravating aspects of the Twilight saga – aside from it calling itself a saga, which is an insult to any classical works bearing that term – was the way each vampire had a completely different special power, so that by the end of Breaking Dawn it felt like the lamest X-Men spin-off ever.
The Mortal Instruments explains away many of its powers with the aforementioned runes, but then suddenly gives Clary the power to turn 3D objects into flat paper drawings. Why? Well, it sure does help the plot along, but at least in this movie, it’s never explained. And since it only seems to work on animate objects, it’s not a helpful gift in most normal situations – turning enemies to paper dolls would be cool, but either she never thinks of that or she just can’t do it.
4a. …They Need Them to Fight Bats and Lava-Monsters.
Your movie can’t suck too badly if you have lava monsters. It is funny how they never think to use the animate water in the portal to snuff out the beasties’ flaming embers, but there’s probably some canonical reason for that which won’t be explained until the fifth film that may or may not ever be completed.
The silver snake bracelets that turn into whips are cool too.
5. It Doesn’t Seem to Make a Lot of Sense Overall.
Again, the books may explain all things perfectly, but those of us not inclined to read them just have the one movie to go by, and we wonder things like why the secret world of all these supernatural creatures seems so sparsely inhabited, why those guys at the graveyard have their mouths sewn shut (besides looking cool, circa 1995), and how arch-villain Valentine’s plan appears to hinge on the fact that we don’t already realize a “W” looks like an upside-down “M,” or that plunging a bunch of swords into the ground in a Pentagram shape isn’t all that effective if even one can just be pulled out again.
And how is it that Clary’s mom was so hard for the evil forces to find when one was living in her building the whole time? Is this a magic world with no Internet or phone books?
5a. …But at Least It Has a Sense of Humor About That.
Seriously. Twilight’s version of humor was to have the characters go see a movie called Face Punch. The Mortal Instruments busts out a gay warlock named Magnus Bane who walks around parties in his tighty whities. Advantage: TMI (the book-title acronym, and the too much information). Also, the characters here make pop-culture references you’ve heard of, from Close Encounters to Ghostbusters. They even rope in Johann Sebastian Bach and name him one of the original Shadowhunters.
On the other hand, I think the benevolent angel Raziel is proof that Clare does not play video games.