Sunday, August 25, 2013

Franchise Nonstarter: THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES


The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones had all the raw material for a decent fantasy spectacle, but somehow managed to fumble putting it all together. Based on the first of many books in a series by Cassandra Clare, the story follows a young woman who learns that she has secret powers and is drawn into a world of Shadowhunters, an elite race of beings who are sworn to protect the world from demons. It’s a full mythology full of theoretically interesting paranormal lore, but the film gives off the distinctly flat feeling of presenting only the tip of the iceberg. Much like Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters from earlier this month, Mortal Instruments seems like the work of a studio desperate to start up a Harry Potter­-style franchise without feeling the need to put forth the effort needed to properly set up the world. It plays like a movie that may require a read of the book to decode, or at least to see what all the excitement is about.

The plot that’s built to rocket an audience into this fantasy world takes off right away, launching into fantasyland before even orienting us in the “normal” character’s “reality.” A teenage girl (Lily Collins) finds that her mother (Lena Headey) has been kidnapped by mysterious forces. A young man (Jamie Campbell Bower) that only she can see steps in to welcome her into the world of the Shadowhunters, introducing her to the Institute, New York City’s branch of the worldwide organization of demon hunters, armed with magical weapons, dressed in leather, and tattooed with powerful spell-casting runes. The group decides to help her track down her missing mother, who, it turns out, was actually a Shadowhunter who years ago fled the group, hiding a supernatural artifact (a “mortal instrument”) from the villainous Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who had been in hiding, but is now back and causing trouble. Collins is a great every-girl at the center of all this, cute and capable, totally in over her head but willing to sit patiently while the much-needed Jared Harris (late of Mad Men and Fringe) steps in as the requisite Older English Exposition Machine to explain all of the above and provide a dose of appealingly-accented gravity.

This is one of those fantasy movies in which a seemingly average person experiences wildly fantastical events with a surprising sense of calm. It’s bad enough the girl’s mother was kidnapped, but learning that she’s now been drawn into a centuries-old conflict between Shadowhunters and demons, complete with various neutral factions of vampires, werewolves, and warlocks, among other legendary beasts, seems to be something that should at the very least surprise. All things considered, she takes it in here with a remarkable degree of calm, especially when she learns her downstairs neighbor (CCH Pounder) is really a witch and her mother’s boyfriend (Aidan Turner) is a wolfman. She’s willing to go with it. Her best friend (Robert Sheehan) gets drawn into all this as well and seems to be more or less agreeable to what’s going down around him, matter-of-factly asking a veteran Shadowhunter (Jemima West) how to kill a zombie. (Turns out they don’t exist in this fantasy world. That’s a nice joke.) The sense of urgency drains away along with the characters’ sense of surprise.

It’s all so blandly presented. Director Harald Zwart doesn’t try anything too cinematic, simply capturing the production design in a flat, unadorned and inexpressive way. He fills the screen with appropriately gross CGI beasties and assorted worldbuiling paraphernalia, but it’s basically the CliffNotes version of the YA series. There’s a lot of backstory left on the table, inelegantly excised or clumsily shoved in. I appreciated a funny little moment in which we discover Johann Sebastian Bach was a Shadowhunter, but that’s a rare moment mythology is allowed to take a breath before zipping along to the next plot point. (It also doesn’t matter much in the long run, aside from providing a rare bit of poking fun at its own premise.) The screenplay by Jessica Postigo grows muddled and slow, even as it rushes along. It avoids overheating romance subplots and keeps its expansive backstory strangely small. The movie ends up feeling cautious and generic, unsure how to bring forth its source material’s best assets.

There’s no good sense of the size or scope of this fantasy world. How many Shadowhunters are there? We hear references, but it’s unclear how the organization operates. Why does the fate of the world seem to come down to a small group of teenagers hiding out in New York City? The movie is filled with the kinds of questions that I’m sure fans of the books could answer for hours, but that’s the kind of stuff that could have and should have ended up on screen. I’m not asking for a movie that sits around explaining its world for hours at a time. But wouldn’t it be nice if the world unfolded with the narrative instead of clumping along, introduced only when necessary to get us to the next scene with as little context as absolutely needed? The main thrust of the narrative frays until the movie becomes less of a story and more a collection of events recreated from the source material in more or less the appropriate order. It’s not always clear what the connective tissue is from one scene to the next, because the world feels half-realized.

In the end, it all comes down to a typical climactic conflict of good versus evil, but because the world has been so sketchily built and the ensemble so vaguely characterized it’s hard to tell what exactly is at stake. What are we to make of a warlock (Godfrey Gao) who sails into the story, speaks a few lines that conveniently push things along, and then disappears from the film without a trace? (“Oh, by the way, you’re being invaded,” he basically says, before never appearing again.) Or what about a pack of werewolves that speak ominous references to “breaking the accords” and then proceed to scamper around helping our heroes despite having no introduction and who disappear before the dénouement? The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones seems like it knows what it is talking about, but maybe next time (if there is a next time) it should figure out how to tell it in an entertaining way.

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