Cinematic Flashback: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013) Review

Shadowhunters. Half Angel, half human. Beings of immense power, strong enough to restore balance and protect the war in a war against evil. Everything you’ve heard…. about monsters, about nightmares, legends whispered around campfires. All the stories are true as Jason’s Movie Blog delves into the underworld of vampires, werewolves, and demon hunters for the “cinematic flashback” of 2013’s The Mortal Instruments: The City of Bones.


“Two Worlds Collide”

Director: Harald Zwart

Writer: Jessica Postigo

Starring: Lilly Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Lena Headley, Jared Harris, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Run Time: 130 minutes

Release Date: August 21st, 2013

Rated: PG-13


On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, the typical New York City teenager girl, Clary Fray (Lilly Collins), has a shocking revelation. Instead of being an ordinary girl her age and dealing with normal teenage problems, Clary discovers that she is part of a mythical race known as the Shadowhunters, who are protectors of humanity and those who can see malevolent creatures of the night that the average “mundane” humans can’t. Against the backdrop of the eternal battle between good and evil forces, Clary finds herself amid a fierce war with the supernatural when her mother, Jocelyn (Lena Headley), is abducted and the sudden appearance of Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower), a Shadowhunter who takes to Clary in a mysterious way. Thrusted into an unfamiliar terrain, Clary is guided by Jace and his fellow Shadowhunters into the underworld of the city; delving deeper and deeper into a nightmarish realm of vampires, werewolves, and demons.


With everything going on with the COVID-19 pandemic, I had a chance to revisit some of the older movies in my collection; some of which I haven’t seeing quite some years. One of these films was The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, a 2013 teen fantasy paranormal feature. While the movie didn’t get that great of reviews, I was one of the few that I actually liked it. It wasn’t super great, but I believed it to be better than most. I did read the book….the first book in author Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instrument series prior to seeing the movie in theaters back in the summer of 2013 and, while the novel was definitely geared towards the Twilight fan of teen literary format, I did like it and decided to give the cinematic movie a chance. So….without further ado…. here are my thoughts on City of Bones.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is directed by Harald Zwart, who had worked on several other projects (from various genres) such as Agent Cody Banks, Hamilton, and The Karate Kid (the 2010 version). Given the success and familiar pop-culture fandom of teen paranormal romance around the late 2000s / early 2010s, the idea of taking Cassandra Clare’s first installment for a theatrical feature film was a good idea and definitely has the right intent, with Zwart mixing the teen melodrama aspect and paranormal creatures / fantasy nuances to create a film that works and delves into a bit more of a mature teen audience than the normal. Yes, most of the characters are the “pretty” type for teen movies, but Zwart handles all of it better than most and even better than what I expected the movie to be. Yes, as I mentioned, I did read the book prior to seeing the movie and there were a few changes here and there made, but City of Bones definitely works as a teen fantasy story of magic, shadowhunters, and mystical powers against the forces of evil. The movie never feels boring as there is always something to see and look at it as Zwart keeps the narrative moving forward. Plus, I did like how the movie “looked” as its presentation was solid from onset to conclusion. All the costumes, set-designs, and cinematography were greatly utilized in the feature as well as the various CGI effects for such an endeavor (nothing super grand like a blockbuster, but I was certainly pleased by it. Even the film’s score, Atli Ovarsson delivers a solid composition to compliment the movie. However, some of the various “teen” mood pop songs feel a bit wonky in the film.

The main problem with the City of Bones is that it can be a bit conventional and cliché to the touch. Sure, there are plenty of solid storytelling elements to be had in the narrative (giving his literary source material), but the movie just can’t seem to rise to the challenge of creating concrete elements that of its own. Thus, a lot of feature’s spectacle and scenarios that takes place seems a bit borrowed from other film franchises and stories. Coinciding with that is that the film was released at the end of the so-called “paranormal” romance teen lifecycle, with more popular dystopian feature films such as The Hunger Games (and Divergent and Maze Runner being released the following year) moviegoing audiences lost that particular spark of the Twilight era romances of vampires, werewolves, and high school youths falling in love. Of course, I do know that the literary world of Clare’s works continued to flourish, but I guess not movie industry and the masses of moviegoers out there. Plus, given the source material, a lot of the film is a bit confusing to digest, with various paranormal beings, the laws of which they are all govern and side with, and the actual mortal instruments. Additionally, the movie’s narrative is can be a bit clunky due to the whole teen melodrama angle that can be quite a groaner with plenty of eye rolling moments of forced love connections and “meh” dialogue lines.

The cast in City of Bones is good with plenty of recognizable names attached to the project. However, some are just a little bit better than others. A case in point is in the film’s two main leads, with Lilly Collins pulling off an effective / convincing Clarissa “Clary” Fray in the movie. Yes, it’s bit of the stereotypical female protagonist character in teen drama narratives, but Collins definitely holds her own. On the other hand, Jamie Campbell Brown is only adequate in the role of Jace Wayland. He’s definitely the “pretty” and “allusive” cliché male lead character for a teen drama presentation, but its not enough and he just doesn’t perform as well as his co-star. I just think he’s okay, but could’ve been played by someone else. The rest of the younger cast, including Robert Sheehan, Kevin Zegers, Jemima West, and Godfrey Gao, do give good performances in their various capacities throughout the movie. Some do shine better than others as some character / acting parts fall into the “teen” melodrama angst. That being said, I’m fine with the choices. The older cast members, including Lena Headley, Aidan Turner, Jared Harris, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, anchor the feature and certainly do lend theatrical weight to the feature and to its younger cast to bounce off of. I just wished that these individuals could’ve had better roles in the movie (i.e. better character developments / meatier roles to play around with).

The legacy of City of Bones is a confusing one as the potential sequel that was initially planned The Mortal Instruments: City of Ashes for a 2014 release was cancelled due to the film’s below expectations and general mixed to negative reviews from critics. Thus, the cinematic tale of Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instrument ended after its first installment. However, it would eventually find life on the small screen in the form of Shadowhunters (or also know as Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments). Premiering back in 2016 on the TV channel Freeform, Shadowhunters, which retold the City of Bones and continued forward (as well as recasting all of the acting talents) ran for three seasons and faced mixed reviews from critics and viewers.

Overall, The Mortal Instrument: City of Bones is one of those movies that works, but it doesn’t. It definitely has all the right ingredients for a solid franchise starter, but the time of its release and how it was all handled just didn’t mesh quite well. While the movie didn’t perform well and received low marks online (i.e. Rotten Tomatoes), I actually personally liked it a bit more than most. It was definitely ten times better than Twilight (any one of them) or any other paranormal romance teen storylines, but I just wished that it could’ve been better handled. In the end, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones ends up being beautiful failure of sorts as it all looks good and is definitely have the right intent (heart) in the right place, but just never comes off as strong simply ends up as another misstep launch for a potential cinematic franchise starter.

Cinematic Flashback Score: 3.5 Out of 5

FUN FACT: Warner Bros. Studios originally had the rights to The Mortal Instruments. Kulzer speculates that they were looking for the next Harry Potter, but had trouble with the female lead character and eventually let the property go. Kulzer grabbed the rights and took the movie to Sony.


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