"The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" will make you yearn for more "Twilight" movies. Based on the first novel in Cassandra Clare's six-book young adult romance/fantasy series, "City of Bones" is essentially a reaction to Stephenie Meyer's sparkly-vampire-vs.-werewolves-with-six-packs saga. But "City of Bones" is even more conflicted about serving up sex-less sex for tweens than the "Twilight" films are. You can see that tension-less tension in a scene where one male love interest keeps his shirt on.
Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower)—a brooding, blonde demon-hunter—does shed his top later in "City of Bones." But when Clary (Lily Collins), the film's main protagonist, gets a wound on her forearm, she jokes that Jace will stanch her wound with his shirt. "If you wanted me to get naked, you just had to ask," he winks. Jace then keeps his shirt on and heals her with rune magic. This isn't the last time "City of Bones" tries to set itself apart from "Twilight." It tries to do the same things that "Twilight" does but it goes about it in even worse ways, with weird ideas about romance and almost-sex. Admittedly, you may want to take the admonitions and speculation of a twenty-something male film critic with a pinch of salt. But if "City of Bones" is going to address hormonal teens, even ones who will be seeing the film with their mothers, then the film really shouldn't make such a big thing of wanting a little canned romance, and some eye candy, too.
Like most YA heroines, Clary is not your average teenage girl. She realizes the extent of her above-averageness after she sees a forceps-like symbol everywhere she goes. Soon after she sees this loaded symbol in the foam head of her cappuccino, Clary's world is turned upside down. Musclebound, leather-clad heavies attack her home and force her mother Jocelyn (Lena Headey) and Jocelyn's boyfriend Luke (Aidan Turner) to run away. Clary looks for answers with two boys who have feelings for her: Jace, a mysterious Byronic boy with runes all over his body, and Simon (Robert Sheehan), a nebbish childhood best friend with flat abs. With the help of Jace's equally secretive friends, Clary and Simon go in search of a magical chalice.
Along the way, they find love, the kind that starts with protests of disinterest, and ends with…well, more disingenuous disinterest. By the end of "City of Bones," Clary is more confused and aroused than she was before. According to the low standards of YA romance that were set by "Twilight," that is progress. Clary isn't much more independent than Bella Swan. In the end, she doesn't make all of her own decisions. When she inevitably has to choose between her two almost-lovers, she rejects one of them as a consequence of a bewildering but convenient and familiar plot twist.
Despite the film's desperate attempts at distinguishing itself from other YA series (Irish werewolf bikers! A gay Asian magician whose short-shorts barely cover a single cheek!), "City of Bones"' romance is at least as tortured as "Twilight"'s love triangle. Preludes to sex and romance are unhealthily stigmatized. Girls aren't supposed to look at half-naked boys out of sexual interest, it seems, so the looking is excused with scenarios loaded with weirdly negative connotations. Simon loses his shirt before Jace does, but it isn't a choice he makes. Simon's divested of his shirt by vampires that use him for bait. He's stripped, and suspended in mid-air with chains and plastic tubing, making Simon accidental eye candy. He's still gratuitously semi-naked, but he's not getting sexy to please Clary. Jace only loses his shirt to self-mortify with a rune. And when Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the film's main villain, does show up, he's conspicuously shirt-free.
Even the scene where Clary kisses one of her two wannabe-lovers is marred by the begrudging acknowledgment that yes, canned romance or no canned romance, when they kiss it starts to rain. They're indoors at the time, so after the kiss, the boy-bait in question sheepishly explains that they were cooled down by fire sprinklers. Still, explaining away the mystery of this kiss's absurd theatricality (I was hoping there would be thunder, lightning, and brimstone, too) is an unnecessary cop-out.
But what would you expect from a series where demon-hunters kill monsters with abandon, though, as Jace stresses to Simon early on, they only kill demons who look like humans ("They looked like cops!" "They weren't cops.")? With that look-but-don't-look-for-those-reasons mentality in mind, it's no wonder that Jace and Clary only initially touch each other through a magical, water-based teleporter. He sticks his hand through the teleporter (In true Danielle Steel fashion, he calls it a "portal"), and touches her halfway across the room. These kids have to contrive magical pretexts just to lay hands on each other, and boy, are their excuses rotten.
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