Something clearly happened during the mid-part of the ’00s. Some sickening muse overtook the literary populace and, within a year of each other, Stephanie Meyer gave us Twilight, Suzanne Collins offered up The Hunger Games, while Judith Rumelt, under the pen name Cassandra Clare, unveiled The Mortal Instruments. All three tomes featured misunderstood girl protagonists, competing male love interests, and grand supernatural/sci-fi psychobabble cabals determined to keep our plucky, if often pensive, heroine down.
All three also became massive bestsellers, which meant Hollywood would soon come calling. Ms. Meyer’s works have already stained the Cineplex while Ms. Collins’ Battle Royale rip-off is in its second big screen installment. Ms. Rumelt is the newcomer to the bunch, though one imagines that with The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, hers will also be the first major flop of the bunch.
The decidedly fan-fiction narrative (which makes sense, since the former entertainment reporter got her start writing same on the web) features a young girl named Clary Fray (Lily Collins), whose mother (Lena Headey) is hiding a deep, dark secret. Apparently, she is a shadowhunter, a non-human demon hunter duty-bound to protect “the Mundanes” (read: everyday people) from the influences of evil. Mom has passed on these gifts to her child, but before she can warn Clary of her destiny, she is kidnapped by forces working for the traitor Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). He wants the “mortal cup,” a talisman that will allow him to rule the world. With the help of her best buddy Simon (Robert Sheehan) and an enigmatic shadowhunter named Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), Clary will discover what her mom did with the item, as well as learn about her own inherited skills.
Considering how liberally it borrows from it, Ms. Rumelt/Clare should probably send George Lucas a royalty check. Absent a certain Obi-Wan Kenobi and a fuzzball named Chewbacca, this is Star Wars for spinsters. It follows the same story arc, employs the same twists, and in the end, feels a lot like the failed prequels Big George forced on us. Part of the problem here is the director. This material is so weird, so dark and desperate in its desire to thrill with inferred horror, that it required someone with vision, someone like Terry Gilliam who can balance out the fantastical with the fear. Instead, Pink Panther 2‘s Harald Zwart is behind the lens and he’s barely competent. Considering his creative canon, should we have expected anything else?
The movie has a herky-jerky style that never settles in to provide a consistent approach. There is broad humor, gruesome death, puppy love romance, oddball asides (why is the entire werewolf community made up of Grizzly Adams wannabes?), and a true lack of narrative cohesion. The script doesn’t follow one path — it follows dozens. We get Simon’s unrequited bits, Jace’s battle with his sense of self, Clary’s personal discovery and coming of age, her mother’s heroic backstory, Valentine’s desire for power, the whole mythology about truces, pacts, and duties… and that’s just in the setup. It’s not long before everyone is pulling out enchanted weapons, self-tattooing magical runes on their bodies, and basically prepping the audience for the next few installments in the series. Looking at the results here, it will be quite a wait, if it ever happens.
The Mortal Instruments is paranormal pabulum for a contemporary, short-attention-span crowd. It’s never as clever as it thinks it is, as frightening as it hopes to be, or as thrilling as it planned on. Instead, it’s a miserable genre mash-up at best.