This determined franchise launch isn’t quite so teen-goopy as the “Twilight” films or the dreadful books on which they were based. The lead character here is played by Lily Collins, a more appealing actor than the mopey Kristen Stewart, and her supernatural suitor has the great advantage of being portrayed by neither Robert Pattinson nor Taylor Lautner. The movie is a compression of Cassandra Clare‘s “City of Bones,” the first of the five books (so far) in the author’s “Mortal Instruments” series, which reportedly has sold some 16 million copies worldwide, mainly to teenage girls. Sony clearly is hoping those readers will flock to this picture, and maybe they will. But will anybody else? At a guess, I’d say no way.
The movie is an exhaustingly jumbled mess. Author Clare started out writing Internet fan fiction, riffing on “The Lord of the Rings” and the “Harry Potter” books, and her rise to print world bestsellerdom has been trailed by allegations of, shall we say, shameless borrowing from other fantasy sources. Here, for example, the protagonist is a 15-year-old girl, named Clary (Collins), who is unaware that she has supernatural powers. She encounters a group of wizardly youths — the evil-fighting Shadowhunters — who take her to meet their kindly leader at a sprawling headquarters called the Institute. (Hello, Hogwarts — or is it the X-Men mansion?) In an especially brazen lift from Bill Willingham’s long-running “Fables” comic book series, this grand edifice is located in New York City (or perhaps in leafier Toronto, where the movie was partly shot), and it’s protected by powerful spells to deflect the attention of clueless humans — Mundanes, or “mundies,” as Willingham has always called them. For “Star Wars” fans, there’s also a long-lost father (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who has gone over to the dark side; and for “Twilight” adepts, there’s a PG-13 love triangle, as well as a generous helping of vampires and werewolves (known as Downworlders). There are also a number of icky demons on hand who have a computer-generated familiarity of their own.
The story likely will be impenetrable to anyone unfamiliar with Clare’s book. (It’s 500 pages long; I gave it a cursory look and decided life was too short.) Clary is haunted by visions of a mysterious rune. Her mother (Lena Headey) knows why. But after Mom is kidnapped by a demon team, Clary is left to puzzle things out with a runically tattooed Shadowhunter, named Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), whom she encounters while he and two associates, Isabelle (Jemima West) and Alec (Kevin Zegers), are terminating another demon in an improbably wild teen nightclub. Back at the Institute, under the tutelage of headmaster Hodge (Jared Harris), Clary learns that she, too, is a Shadowhunter and that it is now incumbent upon her to help locate the Mortal Cup, in which the blood of angels and the blood of humans were long ago mixed, brewing up the Shadowhunters’ origin story.
Why director Harald Zwart (who previously gave us the “Karate Kid” remake) didn’t instruct first-time screenwriter Jessica Postigo Paquette to concoct an introductory rundown of all this cumbersome mythology is a mystery — especially because there’s so much more going on. There’s a witchy tarot card reader, named Dorothea (CCH Pounder), and there’s the High Warlock of Brooklyn (Godfrey Gao), a heavily mascaraed individual who’s secretly hot for the secretly gay Alec. There’s also a vampire hostelry (the Hotel Dumort), as well as a spooky catacomb (the titular City of Bones), a tribe of ember demons (they look as if they were scraped up from the bottom of a barbecue pit) and an otherworldly portal at the Institute that looks like a window into a giant aquarium. All of this and swordfights and knife battles beyond number, most of which are staged for maximum monotony.
Collins makes a good Clary; she’s just the kind of butt-kicking beauty any girl might want to be. But Bower’s Jace seems unworthy of her; with his bony countenance and stiffly styled hair, he suggests a male model on a meth binge. By the time Clary decides whether to stick with him (for the sequel, already in preproduction) or give a shot to her friend Simon (Robert Sheehan), who finally musters the gumption to tell her he loves her, we’re past caring. The movie’s deadening hash of genre clichés and oddly un-rousing action has defeated us. At one point, Clary actually says, “This is so confusing!” We hear you, honey.