The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)


“Two Worlds Will Collide”

Directed by Harald Zwart
Starring Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower

On her birthday, Clary Fray (Collins) sneaks out to a nightclub, where she is seemingly the only one able to witness a murder committed by three teenagers in mad goth threads. The next day her mother vanishes, a monster tries to eat her and she is drawn into the world of the three killers; the world of British People… I mean, Shadow Hunters, and the demons they police. Learning that her mother was English… I mean, a Shadowhunter, Clary is roped into a quest to find the Mortal Cup, an artefact of angelic power and the key to the ruthless Valentine’s dreams of a revitalised Shadowhunter line.

What’s wrong with it?

Made on the back of the success of Twilight – which I probably ought to review if ever I get around to seeing it – City of Bones is a tale of moody goth teenagers saving the world because no-one else can or will or, indeed, is there to do so. The vast and palatial Institute, a repository of power and major centre of organisation and mystical transportation for the Shadowhunters, is home to three teenagers and one adult, and no indication is ever given that they have any immediate back-up to call on. Given that Valentine’s forces number three highly experienced Shadowhunters, it’s a little unclear why he never just kicked in the doors.

The outfits are… well, I think they’re a little silly. I guess they might be cool these days; I wouldn’t know. If I were cool, I wouldn’t be writing internet movie reviews.

Very few of the characters are very sympathetic, or even truly memorable. Jace (Campbell Bower) is snarky and mean, but not detached or fragile enough to carry the supposed emotional vulnerability which offsets it, and Collins doesn’t convey the confusion which would be needed to truly hold the audience through the discovery of her superspecialsnowflakeness.

What’s right with it?

Although doubtless owing much to Twilight in terms of market creation, City of Bones – based on the first in a five-going-on-six volume series by Cassandra Clare – has a much meatier story, with stakes and consequences and everything.

Lena Headey (briefly) as Clary’s mother, Aidan Turner as her ‘special friend’ (adding werewolf to his resume alongside vampire and dwarf) and Jared Harris channeling his dad to play the dubious Dumbledore Hodge add a little class to the proceedings. Moreover, the fact that of the many, many European actors in the piece, only Lily Collins (who isAnglo-American anyway) uses an American accent prevents this film picking up a howdy-doody accent tag and an extra helping of scorn.

In terms of production values, the film is pretty slick.

How bad is it really?

I describe this section as defining the badness of the film on a visceral level, and the sin of City of Bones is actually that it lacks any kind of viscerality. It’s not terrible, but it lacks any real heart, which makes it hard to feel bad when bad things happen to people.

Best bit (if such there is)?

If I live to be a hundred, I will never tire of watching CCH Pounder kick the shit out of a group of kung-fu goth kids.

What’s up with…?

  • The total emptiness of the Institute? I know the Shadowhunters are supposed to be dying out, but with fully half of the Shadowhunters in the film on his side, why is Valentine still sneaking around and making pacts with demons?
  • The sexy goth combat look?
  • Clary swiping Isabelle’s glowy-writy thing (IIRC the book names it as a stylus) and apparently never giving it back?


Production values – The fight scenes are slick, the effects well done. The demons are pretty icky, and in particular the burning-inside crow demons are really rather snazzy. 4
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue is as ridiculous as any urban fantasy exposition, but delivered with a straight face. The main problem with the performances is that they are understated where they need to be fiery. At one point, Jace explains that Bach played precisely and without interpretation is a demon-hunting weapon, while Clary argues that music should have passion. By that standard, much of the acting in this film must be painful to demons. 9
Plot and execution – The plot rattles along at a frightening pace, burning through several hundred pages of dense story and backstory at the expense of adequately establishing context and subtext. The combat choreography is slick and precise; the organisation of the expository plot is not. 12
Randomness – For the most part, the film keeps a lid on this and is internally consistent. In places you might get a little lost, but that’s the speed, not the cornering. 6
Waste of potential – The film captures approximately half of the essential good points of the book, missing out on the heartwrenching angst through the excessive control of the leads. I might surmise that they were trying to avoid going too far, but the result is that they rein in too much. 10

Overall 41%


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