Have we coddled the current crop of kids to the point where they only recognize reflections of themselves in superhero movies? Or is modern life so daunting that they seek escape in stories where they can defeat armies of enemies and stay young forever?
The latest expression of this youthful ardor for paranormal tales is “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” the first movie in a proposed franchise about angels and demons (and vampires and werewolves and celestial hit men called shadowhunters) in contemporary New York City.
Jamie Campbell Bower (a graduate of the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” movies) stars as a pre-Raphaelite heartthrob named Jace who looks as fresh as morning though he’s been battling Earth’s demon trespassers for more than a thousand years. Luckily for him, the Gothic look of his youth is in fashion again, and he blends into the club landscape. Lily Collins plays regular gal Clary, whose doodles of a rune-like symbol suggest that she’s unknowingly connected with Jace’s battle clan of hot, pouty angel/human halfbreeds.
The film works better than it might have, thanks to well-conceived characters and agile direction by Harald Zwart (2010’s “The Karate Kid”).
When otherworldly bad guys break into the Brooklyn apartment of Clary’s artist mother in search of an enchanted chalice, Jace comes to Clary’s rescue. An attraction is instantaneous. She’s pretty; he, with his bedroom eyes, preposterous cheekbones and luxuriant hair, is prettier. They share missing-father issues, which has made him rude and sarcastic, while she has a thing for strong, protective older (much, much older) men. Even running for their lives, the duo show a gift for creating characters who can needle each other and bicker while zig-zagging toward a close-up kiss.
The movie has a zippy energy that makes it easy to slide over half-baked plot points, but the puzzlers keep piling up. By the messy, confused finale I felt like I was watching a Scientology PowerPoint presentation.
Why would the story’s immortal villain, Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), employ a pair of (apparently) human henchmen to do his dirty work? How can a mortal get a vampire bite but not become a vampire? When Valentine discloses a secret about Clary and Jace’s parentage, is he a reliable witness? Above all, where is everyone in New York City? Other than a crowded disco scene, the Big Apple seems to have a population of about 11.
Perhaps they scrimped on extras to splurge on visual effects. The film has a look, with dark, grandiose interiors, cobwebby catacombs and several varieties of demons. I especially enjoyed the humanoids made out of ash and embers and the attack dogs composed of Silly Putty. With its spectacle, morbid sense of humor and hustling pace, “The Mortal Instruments” encourages you to shrug and just go with it.