When leftovers pile up in the fridge, hungry families often mash dishes together into a casserole. Slices of beef and bowls of vegetables might end up next to squares of lasagna. It’s not something you’d serve to company. But so long as it’s hot enough, you have what passes for an edible meal.
Mortal Instruments is casserole cinema. Director Harald Zwart and screenwriter Jessica Postigo may be adapting the first book in Cassandra Clare’s YA literary series, but the movie woefully cuts and pastes recognizable elements from every popular predecessor without ever establishing its own voice. Instruments is the Frankenstein offspring of Harry Potter, The Twilight Saga, Beautiful Creatures, I Am Number Four and, unexpectedly, Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. It’s edible, but every flavor reminds you of an earlier, superior endeavor.
Mortal hits the ground running, and maintains its urgent pace throughout, because if it dared to stop long enough for us to analyze it, the whole thing would crumble like a sandcastle exposed to a gust of wind. We meet Clary (Lily Collins), a Manhattan teen who’s prone to sketching these rabbit-head symbols. Clary’s mother, Jocelyn (Lena Headey), knows exactly why her daughter favors this doodle, but chaos erupts before proper explanations can be dished out, and Clary – as well as the audience – must scramble for answers in a world that no longer makes sense.
How strange do things get? I’ll attempt to paint you a picture, but it’s all going to sound illogical (and more than a little stupid) to anyone who hasn’t read Clare’s novels. Clary, we learn, belongs to a breed of emo warriors dubbed shadow hunters – demon killers who have been around for thousands of years. Their lineage can be traced back to the angels, and their magical powers separate them from Muggles ... er, “Mundanes,” or humans.
For years now, Jocelyn has been protecting The Cup, a powerful instrument that’s being tracked by the ruthless Voldemort … er, Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Sensing that evil forces are near, Jocelyn hides both herself and the cup. Clary commits to finding them, but her quest keeps derailing because she’s trapped in a love triangle between Jacob and Edward … er, Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) and Simon (Robert Sheehan).
The convoluted Mortal Instruments confounds and distracts because it knows its mythology makes very little sense. It hopes you won’t complain so long as werewolves and warlocks are fighting demonic dogs and goth-rock villains who look like the dudes who trashed Ilan Mitchell-Smith’s house near the end of Weird Science. There’s enough flowery prose in Postigo’s screenplay to stuff a pre-teen’s diary. But the central mythology’s spares enough to fit on the inside of a matchbook cover.
Instruments needed to streamline its narrative and factor in relevant stakes. Clare may have filled her pages with blood-sucking vampires and water-based portals which transport characters anywhere they can imagine. But the movie buckles under the weight of everything thrown against its walls, particularly because none of it builds to any rational conclusion. What’s worse, Collins and Bower commit the mortal sin of taking this material too seriously. To be fair, I’m probably being too harsh on these beautiful but limited young actors-- Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis would find it challenging breathing any life into this supernatural nonsense conjured by cheap effects and recycled YA twists.
Mortal Instruments doesn’t offer one memorable set piece, one outlandish performance (even the usually campy Rhys Meyers is strangely neutered), or one legitimate reason why producers should push forward with future installments. I’m still not sure how this graduated to theatrical release. At best, it’s a failed pilot for another teen-centric primetime soap on The CW. Pray that this dreary franchise gets Golden Compassed, and the planned 2014 sequel, City of Ashes, gets shelved.
Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. Sean created ReelBlend, which he proudly cohosts with Jake Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy. And he's the author of RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT, the Spider-Man history book WITH GREAT POWER, and an upcoming book about Bruce Willis.