I’m not sure where to begin with this film. It’s too long for a start. It’s ridiculous, filled with all kinds of supernatural phenomena and pseudo-religious mysticism, and there’s seldom a moment when the protagonists are not running around doing something that defies logic or sense. There are scenes that are so overwhelmingly over-the-top that I can’t believe that everyone didn’t just burst out laughing when staging them. But then again, maybe they did and maybe that’s the point. I found the film likeable quite in spite of itself, somewhat the way I felt about the Twilight Saga. Maybe I’m just projecting, but amongst all the po-faced battles against demons, it seemed like the film had its tongue firmly in its cheek.
I was introduced to this oeuvre as having derived from Harry Potter fanfiction communities, but what The Mortal Instruments offers is more a pastiche of every fantasy film ever, via some classic horror thrills and action-adventure hijinks. It twists the Twilight paradigm in having the female lead be the most powerful character (though sure, she does go through a period of being weepy and defenseless while she learns her powers), but there’s scarcely a single shot or a narrative trope that seems original. Still, it keeps things moving at a swift pace, since the idea of recycling familiar narrative motifs is to avoid unnecessary explication — when the film does deign to explain the world of Mundanes and Shadowhunters, it’s all a bit surplus to requirements.
The dialogue, sadly, is the weakest element. And yet, although the characters mouth the most stultifyingly banal platitudes, somehow it works in the context of this kind of film. A central romantic scene takes place in a rooftop gardens of the Institute where all the Shadowhunters live (a large gothic cathedral invisible in the centre of New York City), where under a gauzy camera filter, mystical green lights play amongst the fecund flowerbeds, where the characters leaning in for a kiss is accompanied by unnaturally-coloured plants flowering and rain pouring (inside!), over the top of which plays a teasingly banal pop power ballad (“Heart by Heart”, by Demi Lovato, which I just listened to, and quite enjoy outside the context of this particular scene). As I said, it’s the very archetype of ridiculousness, but that’s fine. There need be no deep character insights — I have no idea what motivates any of them, and even central character Clary (pronounced “Clarry”)’s backstory is cast into some doubt by the end. Everyone just knows what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and the film is in a way bold by not explaining it.
I haven’t really mentioned the plot or most of the central characters yet, partly because none of it really matters. There’s a lot of supernatural hocus pocus and earnest entreaties that “the stories are all true”, but perhaps the most magical thing about the film may well be the fact that just off the packed avenues of Brooklyn is a verdant little street of cottages where Clary (played by Lily Collins) and her mother live. Clary is at the heart of the film in her quest for a sacred Cup (one of the titular ‘Mortal Instruments’), much desired by chief villain Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). She’s aided in her quest variously by the Shadowhunters — a group of pasty-faced goths, who as ever are headed by a wise older English character actor (here it’s Jared Harris) — and by some werewolves, who perhaps appropriately take as their human form what looks like a group of hipster craft-beer drinkers. And then there are her dalliances with nerdy best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) and pretty blond Shadowhunter Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), who has, in the finest style, a secret past. Or does he? I haven’t even mentioned the role Johann Sebastian Bach plays, but it’s probably the funniest bit in this whole ridiculous mess.
I’ve tried, though, to avoid giving the impression that I hated this film, mainly because I thought it to be rollicking great fun, like a supernatural Goonies. The possibility of further instalments comes via a line delivered by Jared Harris (along the lines of “it’s a war we can never win, but must keep fighting forever”), which rather suggests an infinity of sequels, but given this first film’s box office performance that may never happen. And yet, though it may not be a cinematic masterpiece, it’s an enjoyably silly ride through a fantasy-adventure theme park.
Director Harald Zwart; Writer Jessica Postigo Paquette (based on the novel City of Bones by Cassandra Clare); Cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen; Starring Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jared Harris; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Stratford East, London, Wednesday 28 August 2013.