Review: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Something happened while every film critic was dismissing films like The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones as mere “Twilight Rip-Offs.” At some point, movies like Beautiful Creatures, Warm Bodies and even the beastly Beastly became a legitimate subgenre. That’s what happens when a ton of films get made within a brief period, follow established tropes and only differentiate themselves by their storyteller’s unique personalities… eventually, they actually become credible.

And honestly, a genre as rich as the teen fantasy one deserves its small place in cinema history, adapting the overpowering emotions and personal drama of adolescent life into entertaining stories that strive for universality through accepted fictional metaphors. The hopelessness of the zombie holocaust became an ironic setting for a hopeful teen romance in Warm Bodies. The southern gothic witchhunting backdrop of Beautiful Creatures gave the humanist, intellectual heroes something broadly disapproving to rail against.

So now we have The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, a teen fantasy story about normal kids discovering a secret underbelly of modern New York City that embraces fetish outfits, outsider sexuality and tattoos. Frankly, that’s not even much of a stretch. It only qualifies as a fantasy because some of the characters are demons.

The Mortal Instruments doesn’t pit its eroticized youths against disapproving authority figures. If anything the authority figures actually seem to encourage their exploration of the dark side. If The Mortal Instruments stands out amongst its teen fantasy brethren it’s through the film’s acceptance of outré lifestyles, and perhaps its embrace of the rough-and-tumble creepiness that sometimes comes with them.

And regardless of whether you think The Mortal Instruments has anything worthwhile to contribute to popular culture or academia, there’s little denying that, as far the teen fantasy genre goes, this is one of the fun ones. If nothing else, it unsticks its head from its ass long enough to revel in entertaining visual effects, violent action sequences and a fast-paced narrative full of amusing, albeit rarely fleshed out ideas.

Lily Collins stars as Clary Fray, a “normal” teen girl with a somewhat overpossessive mother played by Lena Headey. But, as all young girls must, Clary discovers that she was actually born into a secret society of demon fighting half-angels called “Shadow Hunters,” and she soon embarks on a journey through the supernatural club culture of New York City to save her kidnapped mother, learn the magical properties of tattoos and discover the empowering nature of skimpy black leather outfits.

Joining her are hunky love interests Simon and Jace, played by Robert Sheehan and Jamie Campbell Bower. Simon is the nerdy boy-next-door type who gets dragged along for the ride, frequently winds up shirtless and at least once gets chained up in what looks like a bondage club for vampires. Jace is the mysterious bad boy type who drags them along for the ride, frequently winds up shirtless and is the center of an egregiously perverse third act twist that The Mortal Instruments just goes for, regardless of common standards of decency. And I respect it for that.

Harald Zwart fills The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones with sexualized teenagers and grotesque creations like inverted dog monsters, tumor-like neck lampreys and Kevin Durand’s embarrassing haircut. Although Zwart’s action sequences bear the over-edited zeal of a filmmaker working with shoddy choreography (or at least actors unprepared to kick ass like the real thing), he keeps the adventure moving quickly from one amusingly subversive local to another, the frame filled with icky and pleasurably sticky things, and has the wherewithal to arm Clary with a vampire-killing retractable wooden dildo gun that looks like it was designed by John Doe from Se7en.

All of this is to say that The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is a little slipshod, but never dull. The dialogue is mostly expositional pronouncements about “the world you know” being a lie and the arbitrary rules of magic and monsters. The romance is mostly formulaic, at least until that weird third act, but at least nobody seems to think it’s the most important part of the film. The Mortal Instruments plays like a 1990s fantasy thriller, more excited by the machinations of its tawdry plot and all the eerie locales its production designers could build than anything purely dramatic, and yet there’s an undeniable charm to the film’s insistence that this is an action thriller first, and an adolescent crush story second… or even third, behind a mainstream embrace of goth culture, kinky sensuality and horrific images that generally speaking have no place in a PG-13 movie for kids.

While a more meaningful screenplay would have been nice, The Mortal Instruments strikes me as the kind of film that will expose youngsters to a more interesting culture of style and a more daring form of storytelling. Hey kids, did you like The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones? Well then, you’re finally ready for Re-Animator or Evil Dead 2 or Dead Alive or The Vampire Lovers or The Devils or American Mary or Splice or Blood for Dracula or Cemetery Man. And you’re going to LOVE them.

And what is the teen fantasy genre about if not the evolution of immature, sheltered children into adults capable of dressing themselves and making their own decisions? And what are our teenage years for if not exploring the shadowy corners on the edge of conventionality, embracing our burgeoning and sometimes frowned upon desires, and learning more about the unsettling aspects of humanity that our parents tried so hard to hide us from? And what is an adult if not someone who can enjoy these dark impulses in our own inner ids and derive strength and independence through them, as opposed to denying the base yearnings that make something like The Mortal Instruments enjoyable to watch?

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones may not be technically proficient enough to qualify as a great or even particularly good movie, but it’s competent enough to celebrate all the sexiness and violence that most of the other Twilight rip-offs (and especially Twilight) are afraid to even glance at. That at least makes it special.

Can’t Get Enough The Mortal Instruments?

Watch CraveOnline’s video interview with stars Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower and Kevin Zegers.

Watch CraveOnline’s video interview with co-star Jared Harris.

Watch CraveOnline’s video interview with director Harald Zwart.

Watch CraveOnline’s video interview with creator Cassandra Clare.

Watch CraveOnline’s video interview with co-star Godfrey Gao.

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.