I think we’ve reached a point at which we as film lovers and critics have to accept that girly supernatural romances have become a legitimate genre in cinema. As such, we can either bemoan their following the same derivative template, ignoring the fact that it’s what defines them to the movie-going public, or try to distinguish them through each entry’s veneer as we do rom-coms, slashers, and action flicks. Yes, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones checks all the boxes on the Twilight (2008) knock-off list, but I like the way it rearranges these familiar elements to promote a more tolerant, unflinchingly liberal worldview.
You know the drill at this point. Based on the first of six novels by Cassandra Clare, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones tells of a headstrong, introverted teen (Lilly Collins) trying to find her own way in the world by adhering to hipster fashion, disobeying her mom (Lena Headey), and stringing along her best friend (Robert Sheehan), who worships the air in which she farts. Her name is Clary (like the author), and she is, of course, destined for greater things, including rune magic, a secret legacy, and a pasty, gloomy heartthrob played by Jamie Campbell Bower with all the range and charisma of a two-by-four.
Sheehan and Bower prove by far the weakest links in an otherwise decent cast, making their love triangle with the film’s heroine somewhat of a drag. It doesn’t help that Clary rejects her “mundane” love interest, Simon, almost from the get-go, though, in fairness, one scene does suggest the character will change significantly in future instalments. No, the real issue comes in the third act, when her other, more convincing suitor, Jace, reveals what we’re, for now, meant to take as his true origins. Let me put it this way: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones offers up a number of twists, some more predictable than others, but this one, which draws inspiration from Star Wars of all franchises, just plain goes off the rails.
Fortunately, director Harald Zwart doesn’t spend too much time setting up the star-crossed lovers before things get all weird and uncomfortable, preferring to fill the screen with wall-to-wall action as Clary tries to find the Mortal Cup and rescue her mother from a corrupt demon hunter called Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). I dig the brutality of the fight, which convey our heroes’ awesomeness not by lingering on their cool feats but by pitting them against seemingly impossible odds. This provides The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones with a genuine sense of stakes, something I found thoroughly missing in The Twilight Saga.
Yes, I realise the Twilight series is about restraint, whereas this one speaks of claiming your place in the world, an inherently more dangerous proposition in light of all the openly racist and homophobic legislation cropping up these days. This notion doesn’t just inform the action scenes. It permeates every facet of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Consider Clary’s reply after Valentine discloses his plan to create the ultimate breed of demon hunters: “You haven’t been around humans much, have you? When people start talking about master classes, nothing good ever follows.”
In other words, the message of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones pertains to acceptance, and I like that the filmmakers have respected Clare’s attempt to lead by example in her choice of supporting cast. For instance, to make up for his poor competition in Simon, Jace is provided with an admirer of his own: Alec (Kevin Zegers), a fellow demon hunter who remains in the closet despite everyone around him having figured out his sexual orientation and not caring a whole lot. He, in turn, has got another love interest in the form of Magnus Bane (Godfrey Gao), a pantless gay Asian sorcerer who also happens to be the coolest character in the movie.
That’s right: Zwart, Clare, and screenwriter Jessica Postigo have made the mysterious gay Asian dude their Han Solo, the guy on whom their young audience is meant to flock and project all of their daydreams of awesomeness. I bet you never thought you’d see this in a Hollywood flick addressed to teens, and technically you still haven’t because The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is a Canadian production. Regardless, I can’t bring myself to knock the girly supernatural romance for lacking creative ambition when it aspires to so much more on a social level. Also, come on, who doesn’t love the idea of demon hunters carving pointy symbols on their skins to unleash mad spells?