Feeling like something's wrong? Is your teen life refusing to be amazing? Nobody noticing how special you are? Then you must be a wizard. Or a giant-slayer. Or an angel that can extinguish demons. One of those things. In fact, you're more than special. You're chosen. You'll be the center of the ultimate clash between all the forces of good and evil in the entire universe. Now how do you feel? Pretty good, right? No? Still not enough? Okay, then, here are a couple of attractive rival lovers who will fight over you and who are also supernaturally gifted. But not as gifted as you. You're still everything.
There's nothing inherently wrong with the aforementioned narrative. In the right hands, in any of its variations, it can be exciting and even moving (the Harry Potter franchise) or at least fascinatingly weird and full of its own puffed up romantic importance (the Twilight series). It can even be stripped of all extraneous subtext and aimed squarely at young children (the somewhat unjustly maligned Percy Jackson films). But ten, twenty or fifty years from now how will this moment's supernatural fantasy YA trend in media look? Beyond its superficial trendiness, box office power and total saturation of the culture, what will we think about it besides its function as a response to a kind of collective anxiety? Maybe nothing. And that's fine, too. Faced with a real world of endless war, economic struggle, looming environmental catastrophe and a future that seems to hold none of the prosperity promised by virtually every other era since the end of World War II, who wouldn't want to just retreat into a mass dream of otherworldly power over terrifying forces? This stuff has a function.
For this visit to the well of self-esteem, super-abilities and body-conscious battle outfits, we meet Clary (Lily Collins), a young woman with haunting visions of a symbol she can't decipher. At a goth-lite, bondage-and-dog-mask-themed disco she witnesses some freaky tattooed people killing a guy with a sword. But she's the only one who can see it. It turns out that Clary's part of a supernatural legacy of demon-killing human-angels known as "Shadowhunters", a bit of family lore kept secret from her by her mother (Lena Headey), explained to her by a pouty blond thing named Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) and grumpily received by her pining best-dude-friend Simon (Robert Sheehan). So far, so whatever.
But here comes the true cinema-crime, the one that could have been avoided by a visionary filmmaker, a person committed to turning rote teensploitation into a roaring rocket of craziness. This film features the following roll call of weird elements: hellhounds, magic chalices, gay warlocks, mind-control, pentagrams, silly rune tattoos, Johann Sebastian Bach with silly rune tattoos, churches employed as secret arsenals of demon-slaying weapons, pantheism, incest, good witches, bad witches, werewolf motorcycle gangs, water-portals to secret dimensions, young men with impeccable eyeliner technique and CCH Pounder with tentacles growing out of her neck. And that's not all. I even didn't get to Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and his Captain Jack Sparrow hair.
This laundry list of potential B-movie awesomeness, in the opposite-of-capable hands of director Harald Zwart (Pink Panther 2, the Karate Kid remake), reads as generic and tiresome, teasing a sort of spikiness and perversity but never delivering, draining whatever life existed from the performances of its young, pretty cast, defusing any sense of danger or urgency. Hooray for easily offended focus groups.
At this stage in the game, where an endless series of movies endlessly repeat each other's tropes, the stakes should be higher. At the very least, the goal of this kind of thing is engagement, that spark of friction between identification and aspiration, danger and cuddliness, wholesomeness and depravity. It demands an unresolved tension that will drive readers to the second book and moviegoers to the sequel. And when what makes it to the screen on the test drive is as self-satisfied and dying of internal boredom as this, taking that next step is pointless.
Wait, what's that? They're shooting the next one already? Great. Maybe the hellhounds will have taken over by then and we'll all be spared.