The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Written by Matt Denny.

Photo from the article At the time of writing this piece City of Bones has the dubious honour of being the lowest rated of all the films I’ve reviewed for Alternate Takes. It’s a shame really, because based on the evidence of the trailer (and a swift perusal of the first chapter of Cassandra Clare’s novel) I was quite looking forward to writing about the supernatural teen film that had it all. In some respects, City of Bones is that film. It really does have everything you’d expect a post-Twilight teen movie to have. Or at least it does if you’re of the opinion that this potentially vibrant genre can be reduced to the key ingredients of love triangles and vampires vs werewolves. The Mortal Instruments must have looked like the ideal franchise now that Harry has hung up his specs and Bella was living happily forever after. From a cynical perspective, it’s the franchise that would finally bring the warring tribes of Twihards and Potterheads together. There’s the aforementioned supernatural conflict and love triangle(s), but there’s also a secret institute hidden from ordinary people and a hero who learns her obscurity in the mundane world is just a cover for her true status in the fantastical one. There’s also disturbing secrets she has to learn about her parents. These crossovers with Potter aren’t incidental - the books apparently started out as Potter fan-fiction (although Clare has clearly created an intriguing fantastical world of her own). And as anyone who’s pretended to read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey can tell you, the Potter similarities merge with an inevitable (and at times bizarre) cross over with the original Star Wars trilogy.

Clearly someone looked at The Mortal Instruments and thought “hey, here’s something for everyone!” The problem is, while whoever was responsible for the film had an eye for the ingredients, they didn’t really care all that much why those ingredients should be there, or how they should be combined. It’s like a chef realising that chocolate ice cream and steak are the most popular items on the menu, and serving them at the same time as some sort of grotesque dairy-based soup with a beef sundae side.

A number of reviewers pick up on the derivative and seemingly cynical nature of the film. These reviews are coloured, however, by a generally dismissive attitude towards the supernatural teen film. The reviewers dislike for the City of Bones seems to be as much directed towards the genre as a whole as it is this particular iteration of it. In the Guardian review for example, Francessca Steele attacks the film for not explaining how the portal works, or what the chief Warlock of Brooklyn is. In my opinion these aren’t valid criticisms of the film and instead reflect a dismissive attitude towards “this sort of film”. Even the reviewer of cinefantasique, a site devoted to Sci-fi, horror, and fantasy films, treats City of Bones as beneath consideration. In a crass demonstration of his disdain, the reviewer chooses to write their review in the voice of his imaginary 16 year old nephew. This is a reprisal of the technique used by the same writer to review Twilight. Such juvenile tactics may make for entertaining copy, but I think it invalidates a critic's right to have their opinions taken seriously. That reviewers can get away with this is when reviewing a film like City of Bones is indicative of the broad cultural disdain towards the genre and its fans.

These critics all seem to have gone in to City of Bones expecting to hate it, wanting it to be a bit shit so they can justify writing the funny-funny trash piece they’ve got planned. I went into the cinema with a lot more at stake: I expected to like City of Bones and really wanting it to be good. If I’m honest I was quite excited, but 130 long minutes later I left the cinema disappointed, and sulkily concluding that the best thing about the whole trip had been seeing the trailer for Kevin MacDonald’s How I live Now. Although my feelings have mellowed considerably now, reading these reviews is all the more frustrating, especially as there are plenty of valid criticisms one could level against City of Bones. Quite a few of these reviews have closing remarks along the lines of “fans will no doubt still enjoy it”. I can’t help but translate these platitudes as “While you and I know this is rubbish, those mindless preteen fangirls will lap it up”. It’s in remarks like these that the reviewers set up a dichotomy of them and us. They assume a fraternal bond with their readers, a bond strengthened through a shared disdain for certain things. It also constructs “them”, the core audience of the films, as one incapable of making taste distinctions. In my experience this seems to be the general attitude adopted towards fans by non-fans. There is an assumption that the fervour of fandom will be directed at any suitably similar object, which for the non-fan is indistinguishable. Aren’t Star Wars and Star Trek pretty much the same - they’re both in space, right? Isn’t Game of Thrones just Lord of the Rings with nudity? American Football is just Rugby with pads, right? The reality is of course that fans are highly discerning connoisseurs, highly tuned to the most minor of distinctions between texts that seem indistinguishable to an outsider. I’ve known people tear they’re hair out in frustration when a supposed screen “Dragon” is depicted with no forelimbs (That’s not a Dragon, that’s a Wyvern, duh!)*. If you want to test this hypothesis for yourself, why not wander into your local comic book shop and suggest that Iron Man and Batman are the same because their superpower is money. This doesn't just stop at choosing between various kinds of text, but includes being able to differentiate between good and bad art objects. Just because I love Hot Fuzz doesn't mean I automatically like The World's End, just because I like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre doesn't mean I will enjoy Funhouse.

This is something the reviews of City of Bones don’t take into account. City of Bones isn’t bad because it’s a supernatural teen film, it just happens to be a bad supernatural teen film. Hopefully it isn’t too optimistic to hope that audiences can distinguish between the two. The film is so preoccupied with hitting all the appropriate genre beats, it doesn’t stop to think why those tropes are there. There is a moment in the film where Jace (Jaime Campbell Bower) plays the piano (hey, like Edward!) and is frustrated because he plays it with too much passion. He’s attempting to play a piece composed by Bach that reveals the true form of a demon. In order for this to work, Jace explains, the notes must be replicated precisely, without passion. That’s all well and good for fighting demons, but it makes for terrible music. Unfortunately, Jace’s musical mentality appears to have informed the adaptation of City of Bones. All the notes are there, but played with a complete and utter lack of passion or emotional intuition.

A particularly frustrating example of City of Bones’ lip service to the genre is its failure to develop the themes of perception and perspective that are right there in the text. This is doubly frustrating for me because perception is at the very heart, in my opinion, of what makes the supernatural teen film such an interesting and fulfilling genre. At its best, the supernatural teen film uses fantasy, horror, and the supernatural allegorically to explore the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. They’re the same familiar concerns as the standard teen film, but everything is heightened by the addition of the supernatural. There are also a number of supernatural teen films that emphasise the apparent separation of the teen and adult world. The teen world is incomprehensible to the adult world, and vice versa. It reflects a real world distinction: the adolescent belief that what happens in school and amongst your friends is the most important thing in the world, and the adult assurance that this is not the case. The distinction is all a matter of perception, and these supernatural teen films play on this, revealing the invisible teen world to really be more important than the mundane adult world. The most successful example of this is probably the seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer covering the characters High School years (1997-2000).

City of Bones initially looks like it’s offering an intriguing spin on this formula. There is a secret world that Clary (Lily Collins) is becoming increasingly aware of, but which her mother Jocelyn (a sadly sidelined Lena Heady) is trying to keep hidden. The secret world in City of Bones is one that is coded in terms of an adult, maternal secret. Adolescence becomes the gateway to adulthood. This mother/daughter dynamic is never really explored as Jocelyn gets fridged early on, although this removal of the mother - just at the point she would be most useful to the daughter - is interesting in itself. There’s a suggestion that Jocelyn should be initiating Clary into adulthood, guiding her rather than trying to keep her magically trapped in childlike innocence and ignorance. There are tantalising hints of this potential meaning in the film, such as Jocelyn's concerns about Clary coming to harm if she stays out late stemming not from parental paranoia but knowledge of hidden dangers, but you have to work pretty hard to make them signify.

Perception even appears integral to the mythos of Clare’s Mortal Instruments. Clary’s Shadowhunter abilities first manifest as her ability to perceive things that others cannot. She sees a symbol on the sign of the club in which she then witnesses a murder no one else can see. Later it’s revealed that Clary (like her mother) can confound others by hiding objects in their own images. Both Clary and her mother are artists - a talent with an emphasis on looking at the world differently, translating it into images. The institute appears as ruins to mundanes, but Shadowhunters can see its true form. After being bitten by vampires, Simon no longer needs his glasses - an obvious metaphor for his entrance into the hidden supernatural world. Even the painfully heavy headed revelation/falsehood that Jace might be the son of Valentine Morgenstern hinges on perception. Valentine convinces Jace that his signet ring could just as easily be an “M” for Morgenstern than the “W” for Wayland Jace had always assumed. The abundance of instances of seeing and not seeing suggest the importance this dynamic, but they are disparate and disconnected.

One such isolated moment even potentially ties this to teen movie concerns, but it isn’t developed. Clary spots an attractive young man in the queue to the club, and later sees him again inside. She is dancing alone, and thinks he is returning her gaze, but then she notes he is actually looking at another woman behind her. This should be a crucial moment, setting Clary up as having desires and wanting to be desired, followed by the devastation of realising she is invisible to the object of her desire - not the right sort of girl. The irony, is that Simon is overlooked by Clary in exactly the way Clary is ignored in the club. Of course the later revelation that the man is a demon and the woman the Shadowhunter Isabelle (Jemmima West) demonstrates that at this stage even Clary’s keen perception can be fooled. It’s in this short moment, so near the start of the film, that City of Bones is at its best, and it’s the only moment when it really makes its supernatural elements mean anything.

City of Bones also manages to bungle the crucial makeover scene, a stalwart of the teen movie genre. It's particularly infuriating that this scene should be made to refer back to the sequence described above, but it doesn't. As teen movies have taught us, cliques can have some pretty restrictive dress codes ("On Wednesdays we wear pink!") and it seems the supernatural world is no different. In order to be accepted by the Chief Warlock of Brooklyn, Calry is told to dress the part. She's borrows some "suitable" clothes from Isabelle, but finds uncomfortably tight and short. This is something of a mid-way make over for Clary as she adopts Isabelle's style before finally creating her own. Recalling the sequence outlined in the previous paragraph, it should be significant that Clary is wearing Isabelle's clothes, clothes that suggest Clary's to-be-looked-at-ness. The scene makes nothing of how Clary previously envied Isabelle, and wished to be looked at the way Isabelle was looked at, and yet now as she attempts to appropriate Isabelle's style she finds it is not suitable for her.

Clary later discards the boots of this outfit as they are impractical. Clary's final costume is a combination of her earlier style with the established Shadowhunter style, a nice representation in costume of the journey of the character. The film makes little of this pivotal moment, Clary just appearing in this new outfit. I'm not calling for a full on Molly Ringwald turning up at the prom in Pretty in Pink scene, but an acknowledgement, a nod, would have been nice. Such a scene wouldn't have been out of place, and it would have been an opportunity to plan around with the convention of the makeover from the teen genre, perhaps combining it with the "gearing up" sequence more familiar from action films.

There are also problems with City of Bones that have nothing to do with its genre. One in particular is the apparent borrowing of a plot device from long ago, in a galaxy far away. Valentine, the Shadowhunter gone bad and main antagonist, is revealed to be Clary's father. This in itself I don't have a problem with, and works fine as a plot device. It's the revelation that love interest Jace is also the progeny of this dark father. This understandably puts something of a dampener on the burgeoning relationship between Clary and Jace. This culminates in an immensely awkward final scene where the two admit they still fancy each other, and refuse to believe that they're siblings. Now, thanks to the wonders of the internet I was able to establish (spoilers) that Clary and Jace are not, in fact brother and sister. This is reassuring, but it makes so much of the film irrelevant. Valentine's lie was intended to "break" Jace and make him turn on Clary. This doesn't happen, so the only effect the "revelation" has is to stall the relationship an adds an unwelcome ick-factor to an earlier, already rather boring, romantic scene.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is not a very good film, that's something we can probably agree on. It is however, even more important that we understand and address why it isn't a very good film, rather than using it as switch with which a genre comprised of films of varying quality. It is one thing to be criticise something, it is quite another to dismiss it.

*When I say people, I mean me. No one else seems to care very much.

This Alternate Take was published on October 08, 2013.

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