Do the Monster Mash

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones has room for a bit of everything—except God and zombies

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Reel Rating: (3 Reels out of 5)  

Demons, werewolves, and vampires! Oh my! The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is a monster mash of various paranormal creatures all corralled together with reasonable success in a fun if confusing teen romance/action-adventure movie.

This description could easily be used for a host of other series like The Vampires Diaries, Beautiful Creatures, or Percy Jackson. Bones differs slightly by incorporating more spiritual elements; the term “spiritual” and not “religious” is deliberate because God is curiously absent in a world that otherwise contains a multitude of heavenly and hellish beings. It scrapes the bottom of the creative jar but still manages to pull out a few remaining morsels.

Clary Fray’s life seems pretty dull, but that’s only because her memories have been erased by a warlock. On a whim one night, Fray (played by Lily Jane Collins, daughter of singer Phil Collins) decides to enter a nightclub that is way over her sixteen year-old maturity level with Simon, a cute hipster hopelessly locked in the friend zone. Amongst the leather and bad music, she sees a blonde hunk, Jace Wayland, who is invisible to everyone else. Things only keep getting weirder when she returns home to find her mother has been kidnapped and a demon/squid creature attacks her. Jace returns to kill the demon and rush Clary to safety in an old church called the Institute, also hidden from “mundanes,” members of the human world.

In quick exposition, Jace explains that this world is guarded by shadowhunters, human/angel hybrids of extraordinary abilities who keep the world safe from demons. “It’s a war we cannot win, but a war that must be fought,” he explains, negating the Paschal Mystery entirely. Jace needs Clary because she holds the key to finding the Mortal Cup, which created the first shadowhunters and is simultaneously pursed by werewolves, vampires, demons, and Valentine, a rogue shadowhunter who is trying to create a pure race out of human, angel, and demon blood.

Yes, this is all rather ridiculous. Yet Bones manages to rise above its mundane premise, if only slightly, because it has moments of great mystery and plucky supporting characters. There are crazy love triangles and even love squares, with one revelation that was just as shocking as its twin from a galaxy far, far away. The writers also get credit for having a huge CGI fight between vampires and werewolves without cracking a single Twilight joke.

An obvious weakness in Bones is mixing various mythologies into one cohesive storyline, but the writers are aware of this. While showing Simon around the Institute, a shadowhunter lists off various ways to kill demons, werewolves, and other creatures. “How do you kill a zombie?” he asks. She gives him a quizzical look. “Zombies don’t exist.” Zombies and vampires are rather similar and might be redundant in the same story. However, if they suddenly showed up, it would have made for an even better joke.

With all the talk of angels and demons, religion should play a major role, yet it is reduced to a few tiny references. Before Clary and the shadowhunters fight the vampires, they stop by a Catholic church. Clary enquires if the shadowhunters are Christian. Jace replies that they could just as easily visit any synagogue, temple, or place of worship for what they needed. He then moves the altar and opens a trapdoor to reveal a stash of vampire hunting equipment including knives, whips, and a gun that shoots launches a stake. The Roman Missal states that relics are placed beneath the altar; thank goodness Hollywood has revealed to the public another safely guarded Vatican secret! The origins of the shadowhunters should be easily recognizable to anyone who has read Genesis, but the Nephilim are only mentioned in passing, glossing over every geek’s favorite Bible passage.

Even more frustrating than the absence of the Nephilim, God appears nowhere. It is incredible that so many demon or paranormal focused films have no interest in the One who runs the show. This is probably an attempt to please everyone, like Jace’s belief in the equality of all religions in the fight against vampires, or a reflection of a society that is increasingly secular and skeptical. However, it must be admitted that were God present, the stakes would be much lower. Look at the last book of the Bible. As Dr. Ron Farmer points out in his commentary, Revelation, the Apocalypse is one of the most anti-climatic stories of all time. In chapter six, all the armies of Heaven and Hell gather at Armageddon for the final battle, and the God simply pronounces, “It is done!” God triumphs—end of story. While God is never invoked, paranormal movies rarely have a problem with witches, spells, or runes. Characters frequently circumnavigate God’s appointed spiritual routes to get what they want. Demons are clearly bad but the occult is a gray area. Like Harry Potter, Bones will not cause teenagers to become Satanists, but it does lower their sensitivity to dark places they should never go near.

This movie can be an entertaining experience if you are will put your brain in the seat next to you, but Christians should never be willing to remove their soul to enjoy a film. Bones is silly enough that its problematic material will not be taken seriously, but it requires a more mature teenage viewer to not passively accept incorrect theology. It still remains to be seen if Hollywood can make a riveting paranormal action film where religion is shown in a respectful and truthful manner. The few films that come close are almost always about exorcism, which at least requires a Catholic priest. Bones is not such a film, but if werewolves vs. demons is what is desired on a Friday night, it will do just fine. But again, why no zombies?

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About Nick Olszyk 207 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".