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A seemingly ordinary teenager, Clary Fray (Lily Collins), discovers she is the descendant of a line of Shadowhunters, a secret cadre of young half-angel warriors locked in an ancient battle to protect our world from demons. After the disappearance of her mother (Lena Headey), Clary must join forces with a group of Shadowhunters who introduce her to a dangerous alternate New York called Downworld filled with demons, warlocks, vampires, werewolves, and other deadly creatures. (From Sony’s original synopsis)

 Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The
The Harry Potter franchise created a Hollywood phenomenon. At first, the studio execs noticed that its success coincided with The Lord of the Rings and thought that it was the fantasy elements that sold, but, following enough failed experiments with fantasy properties, the big wigs realized it was Harry Potter’s young-adult novel roots that fed the phenomenon. Soon, every popular YA book series with a fantasy or science fiction slant was being considered for a big screen adaptation. So many of these movies have disappointed at the box office that, even with the success of Twilight and Hunger Games, it’s surprising that studios are still pushing them so hard. 2013 alone had at least five high-profile YA releases, include Francis Lawrence’s Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Richard LaGravenese’s Beautiful Creatures, Andrew Niccol’s The Host, Thor Freudenthal’s Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game (based on a much older book than most of these adaptations), and the subject of this review, Harald Zwart’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (I suppose that, technically speaking, Peter Jackson’s second Hobbit movie, Desolation of Smaug, also counts as a YA adaptation).

City of Bones was originally written by Cassandra Clare (who named her main character Clary, seemingly after herself) and is the first part of the Mortal Instruments series, which is, apparently, made up of two different trilogies (the final book has not been released yet). I haven’t read any of these books, so I’m basing my opinion of the story on Jessica Postigo Paquette’s screenplay adaptation. The key problem with stories like these, besides the saturated market, is that most of them are based entirely around literary archetypes. This is great for high school English teachers, who use the books to introduce students to the classic novels/stories YA fiction borrows from, but these tropes are simply repetitive when adjusted for a mainstream audience. City of Bones is an extreme case. It has original-ish elements mixed into its specific mythology, but is indiscernible from dozens of similar tales on a plot level. It’s boring, obnoxious, and sometimes even inadvertently funny in its predictability. Clare seems to have written with the intent of checking off every YA cliché from a laundry list – not very surprising when you take into account the fact that the Mortal Instruments books originated as a series of Harry Potter fan fiction stories.

 Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The
Of course, Clare’s plagiarism isn’t limited to Rowling’s books, either – there’s plenty of Twilight, Underworld, and True Blood in the mix, too. The bigger problem is that she’s stealing from stories that are already heavily indebted to classic literature, making City of Bones a secondhand knock-off. Also, like so many other YA-based movies, City of Bones is bloated with plot. Paquette drives aggressively through exposition and monotonous mythology, unveiling what I assume was chapters worth of information in less than 30 minutes. This is admirable in terms of efficiency, but means that about half the dialogue is expositional in nature. And even the most efficient adaptation can’t mask the dour, dull core of Clare’s story. I understand why ‘tweens, teens, and early twenty-somethings like ‘dark’ themes, but what they may consider a ‘mature’ trait in storytelling is, more often than not, laughably juvenile. The Harry Potter films and Avatar: The Last Airbender television series successfully escalated from youthful fun to more somber moments, but it’s incredibly rare for youth-oriented fare to begin the story bleakly (so far it seems that the Hunger Games series is pulling it off). City of Bones’ darkness is usually pretty awkward, including steamy, neon dance clubs, leather costumes, and tribal tattoos. Just imagine a humourless Blade movie without any of the gore.

Zwart is a logical choice for the material – he’s the guy that made Agent Cody Banks and The Karate Kid (2010), so he has experience with kids and using special effects on a modest budget (‘modest’ in this case being about $60 million). He does his job well enough here, including generally crisp action and the brisk pacing. He also handles the digital effects well, especially the computer generated sets and creatures, though that ‘modest’ budget shows when the composite shots become complex. The film was made with a youthful audience in mind, but members of its supporting cast, including Lena Headey, Kevin Durand, C.C.H. Pounder, Jared Harris, and (I suppose) Jonathan Rhys Meyers, will likely appeal to the older audience. The cast is mostly good, especially when they’re allowed to act semi-natural or purposefully comedic, but there’s some terribly stilted dialogue that none of the less campy actors are able to overcome. I’m not sure anyone could overcome the mind-numbing romantic sequences or the convoluted love octagons (I suppose some credit is due to Clare for including a homosexual character, even if his affections are unrequited). Sadder still, the more exciting actors appear in the film only briefly. I assume they will be used more in later films, but find it hard to care.

 Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The


The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones was shot on 35mm film and looks as such on this 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. The source format shows in general dynamic ranges and stylized, blooming highlights, though only a few of the scenes feature notable grain and film-based artefacts. Details are crisp without any major over-sharpening effects, though the complexity of textures/patterns is limited by shallow focus and anamorphic lens distortion. Sometimes, the sharpness is detrimental to the overall effect, like when the hyper-clean digital effects stand out against grit of traditional film. Zwart and cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen don’t go overboard with their digital colour-timing, but they have changed the footage significantly beyond the source material. The palette is eclectic, alternating between warm and cool bases with dynamic highlights and elaborate hue differentiations. The colour separation is mostly tight. Only the darkest scenes have issues with black level purity, leading shadows to be engulfed by whatever hue they’re overlaying (usually orange, blue, or green).

 Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The


City of Bones is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The sound design is about as aggressive as some bigger budget features, but has no obvious shortcomings in terms of sound quality. Action sequences are the obvious highlights, including one particularly noisy skirmish with vampires at the center of the film. Because the filmmakers want to maintain a PG-13 rating, they avoid blood, replacing it with especially loud impact noises, weapon clangs, and creature screams. Other highlights include the scene where the ‘Silent Brothers’ (oi, these character names…) speak to Clary with their minds (their voices bounce and echo through the channels) and the swirling, bassy sounds of the orange…whatever that thing is that bursts out of pentagram at the end of the film. Atli Örvarsson’s musical score rumbles beneath the expositional scenes and pound their way through the action scenes, giving an aggressive bass to the occasionally thin mix. Some of the music includes high-end sounds that has an annoying ring to it, but I believe this is an intentional effect, not distortion.

 Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The


  • Into the Shadows: From Book to Screen (8:40, HD) – Concerning the book’s history, the process of adapting it for the movie, and the general behind-the scenes process.
  • Bringing Them to Life (6:40, HD) – Concerning the film’s characters and the cast hired to enact them.
  • Deadly Attraction (4:20, HD) – Concerning the Clary and Jace’s characters specifically, including the design of their costumes.
  • Descendants of the Cup (4:40, HD) – Concerning the film’s stunts and fight choreography.
  • Entering the Shadow World (4:50, HD) – Concerning the creature design and special effects.
  • 'Almost is Never Enough' by Ariana Grande (featuring Nathan Sykes) music video
  • Six deleted scenes (4:40, HD)
  • Character lineage tracker – An interactive text and image-based tool divided by character and species type.

Interviews throughout the featurettes include Clare, Zwart, Paquette, producers Don Carmody and Robert Kulzer, art director Anthony Ianni, costume designer Gersha Phillips, stunt coordinator Jean Frenette, prosthetic effects designer Paul Jones, CG effects director James Cooper, CG texture lead Sean Mills, and cast members Lily Collins, Robert Sheehan, Jemima West, Kevin Zegers, Jamie Campbell Bower, Aidan Turner, Lena Headey, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and C.C.H. Pounder.

 Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The


It’s mostly monotonous, derivative junk, but I will give City of Bones credit for having a real ending, unlike the vast majority of YA novels (I recall Jumper having three different cliffhangers?). But, then, I also have to verify that the ultimate moral appears to be something about loving whom you want, even if it’s your own long-lost sibling, and that just doesn’t sound right. I assume that at least fans of the books will probably be satisfied with director Harald Zwart’s generally competent adaptation. Those fans have a sharp, colourful, and filmic 1080p transfer, a slightly above-average DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and half-decent series of featurettes and deleted scenes to look forward to here.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.