Cassandra Clare, the author whose young adult fantasy books The Mortal Instruments is being turned into a film series, has been open about the fact that she’s unafraid to use allusions to other pieces of pop culture. There’s bits of Star Wars here, a little bit of Harry Potter there, and even a smidgen of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer for good measure. But while perhaps she can gloss over those borrowed ideas in her prose, when translated to the big screen, these references come glaring out, and boy are they ungainly. Unfortunately, those little pieces culled from other works of fiction and film aren’t the only awkward aspects of City of Bones, the first of the series’s filmic adaptations: the whole picture is an out-and-out mess, turgidly paced and given to delusions of grandeur.
The dull homunculus of a plot in City of Bones simply adds to its clutter. Following the epic storytelling playbook, we follow Clary Fray (Lily Collins), a young woman who hits her sixteenth birthday and finally learns she is destined for something more. In this case, it is to become a powerful Shadowhunter, half-humans that hunt and kill demons, vampires, and other assorted fantasy nasties. Clary only becomes aware of her fate after her mother, a fellow Shadowhunter, is abducted by mysterious forces looking for something called the Mortal Cup. This is one of the titular instruments of the series, but I’ll be damned if I can explain what its purpose is. Aiding the young woman on her quest is a gang of fellow beautiful Shadowhunters, and Clary’s poor, love-struck pal Simon (Robert Sheehan, he of Misfits infamy). As the story trudges forth, massive battles take place, secrets are revealed, and otherwise well-meaning actors (Lena Headey, Jared Harris, C.C.H. Pounder, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers) are forced to make the best of underwritten supporting roles.
Watering down the unwieldy source material not only brings its more obvious reference points to the surface, but also a bevy of simply uncomfortable imagery and themes. Just before Clary and Jace, the prettiest Shadowhunter, kiss for the first time, glowing flowers open up. After they lock lips, the sprinklers go off. Icky. Weirder still are the strange religious images and undertones threaded through here, the Mortal Cup being a dead ringer for the Holy Grail, with Jace and Clary standing in for Jesus and Mary. The fact that the most evil character in the story is given a Jewish surname — Valentine Morgenstern — is just the icing on a fairly nasty tasting cake. But even if you leave all — and all the aforementioned borrowed plot elements — aside, you’re still left with a by-the-numbers fantasy picture undone further by the lumbering acting of its leads and some supremely laughable plot reveals.