Remember when The Avengers came out, and it was just so gleefully jam-packed with crazy shit? Like, they shook the bag until every last thing fell out? The Mortal Instruments is like that, except for teen urban fantasy. This movie has everything in it, and it will make you laugh until you pass out.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is based on a bestselling book series by Cassandra Clare, and if you're a fan of the books, you'll appreciate this movie on a whole different level. You'll probably even understand the plot. But for those of us who didn't get around to reading the books before seeing the movie, it's basically just nonstop zany randomness, in the best possible way.
I can't remember the last time I saw a movie as joyously silly and ridonkulous as Mortal Instruments, with as much of a "kitchen sink" feeling. Doomsday comes to mind. So does Drive Angry. Basically, Mortal Instruments makes Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters look like a Dogme 95 film.
Movies like The Mortal Instruments don't come along too often, especially ones which are so merrily in on the joke. Mostly because it's rare for a Hollywood studio to decide to throw $60 million at such a totally bonkers property.
At some point during this film, I kind of lost track of what was supposed to be going on. There were about 20 plot points happening at once, characters were changing sides, everybody turned out to be related to everybody else, there was a McGuffin that the main baddie wanted and it was totally unclear what would happen if he got it, and so on.
But here's a thumbnail plot synopsis, for the uninitiated: Lily Collins (Mirror Mirror) plays Clary Fray, a seemingly ordinary girl who's actually secretly part of the supernatural world of demons, witches, vampires and werewolves. After her mother (Lena Headey, underutilized) gets kidnapped, Clary joins up with a group of "Shadowhunters," or demon-fighters, who use cool rune tattoos to do magic. And it turns out that Clary is the key to finding a magic cup that can something something magic thingy.
Candy for Dinner
The whole thing piles escapist trope on top of escapist trope. Clary is the key to everything, and she also has unique powers, and two hot boys are into her, and she has plenty of excuses for angst (that the film thankfully never wallows in for a second.) She gets awesome makeovers and romantic moments and lots of "fuck yeah" moments, and it's basically like gorging yourself on the most amazing candy ever.
This film is over two hours long, but it whizzes along at an insane pace and everybody approaches the material with total good humor, like a goth pantomime. Jamie Campbell-Bower channels a manic eccentricity and goggle-eyed weirdness that remind me of a young, underwear-model version of Tom Baker. Robert Sheehan is basically still playing Nathan from Misfits, and gets some lovely moments of taking the piss out of all this supernatural wackness.
Lily Collins, meanwhile, looks believably dazed and thrilled at all the supernatural reveals that come at the rate of one per minute. You can chart her heroic journey by the amount of eyeliner and fetishwear she has on.
Just the fact that this movie takes place in New York, and every single person in it is British, is kind of awesome. I feel like most of the people in this movie are doing some version of their real accent, but it's hard to tell — occasionally it feels like someone tries to do an American accent for a few minutes, here and there. You should see the film and decide for yourself what accents these people are doing.
Every time you start to think you have a handle on what's going on in this film, a gang of werewolf car mechanics comes bursting in and gets into a fight with pigeon demons. Or a mob of vampires mounts a very West Side Story-esque attack. By the end of the film, when people are spitting super-dramatic declarations at each other, the entire theater at my screening was laughing hysterically.
But you know, I feel like we were mostly laughing with this film, not at it. There is a ton of sly humor in this film that comes from the characters being self-aware and a bit clever, along with all the stuff where the movie pokes fun at its own excesses. The whole thing is extremely tongue in cheek, but the characters also get in a lot of nice wisecracks.
Money makes things ponderous
I want to return to what this film has in common with The Avengers. Namely, the thing of throwing all of the toys out of the box and smashing them in all directions, until a bunch of them break and absolutely none of them is in mint condition.
True, The Avengers is a much, much better film than Mortal Instruments — but they're both similarly untrammeled. And the animated GIFs coming out of Mortal Instruments will be just as prolific and wonderful as the Avengers GIFs have been.
Generally, when more than about $30 million is spent on a movie, a certain amount of storytelling lethargy tends to set in. Things get ossified. The people who are bankrolling the thing want to keep making sure the movie will appeal to all the quadrants, and that the whole thing can be distilled into a trailer. And the film has to pause constantly, so we can admire all the money they spent on this shot or that shot.
You only get this kind of "fuck it, let's just do everything" spirit on zero-budget movies, or in rare cases where somebody has been convinced it'll work. Avengers, because a bunch of movies built up to it. The Mortal Instruments probably gets a special dispensation because the books had such a huge following.
In any case, this kind of "every flavor at once" world-crafting is worth celebrating, even when the result is ultimately kind of baffling. When you mash up a ton of genre ideas and intertwine a million subplots into a frenetic mess, you end up with something that destabilizes genre.
I feel like the not-so-subtle message of Mortal Instruments is: It's okay to be greedy. You're allowed to want all of the supernatural escapism and romance and eye-candy and escapism at once, you don't have to pace yourself. This movie never once shames Clary for lusting after Jamie Campbell-Bower's frequently bare torso, and it never shames the audience for wanting every yummy teen story trope, all at the same time.
Sure, The Mortal Instruments laughs at itself. A lot. But it never laughs at its audience, or acts like there's anything wrong with reveling in silly nonsense. And that's what makes it a beautiful piece of trash culture, in the end. It's such a guilty pleasure, it loops around and becomes innocent again.