How not to launch a movie franchise

I took a chance on home-theater entertainment and rented the DVD of “The Mortal Instruments” tonight, and it’s a good thing you can only lose a buck fifty at Redbox Roulette.  What a stinker!  I don’t know what anyone involved with this thing was thinking, but it’s almost like a graduate course in how not to launch a franchise.

Obviously, everybody wants a slice of that deep-dish “Twilight,” “Harry Potter,” and “Hunger Games” pie.  “Twilight” touched a nerve despite its literary and cinematic shortcomings.  “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” are genuinely good books and movies, with plenty to offer the adult reader and viewer.  I’ve always admired the way a darker, more mature story involving the adult characters is running in the background of the Harry Potter series while the kids take center stage.

But “The Mortal Instruments” is sheer derivative crap, a bunch of stolen plotlines and pretentious nonsense thrown into a blender and drizzled slowly across your eyeballs for an agonizing two hours and twenty minutes or so.  (It seemed longer while it was in progress.)  The excessive length is one of the first big mistakes it makes.  I suppose the first entries in the big, successful young-adult series ran pretty long too, but they didn’t feel like punishing exercises in exposition.  If “Mortal Instruments” had to exist at all, it should have been far shorter and punchier, even at the risk of annoying fans of the books it was based on.  Trim some characters out, tighten up the plotting, whatever it would have taken to get it under two hours.

The world is confusing and distinctly uninteresting.  I enjoy an intricate fantasy tale when it’s well-told, and perhaps the long books this movie is based on brought the setting into sharper focus, but everything is so murky and random that it’s hard to give a damn about any of it, even if you have a very healthy ability to suspend disbelief.  Most viewers are going to scratch their heads and wonder what the heck they’re watching as the screen fills with poorly-drawn supernatural warriors, a renegade faction of the same, warlocks, witches, vampires, werewolves, demons, and horribly misplaced British thespians.

The young main cast is instantly forgettable, and not well-served by boring dialogue and aimless character motivations.  The adult cast is criminally under-utilized.  When you’ve got Jared Harris hiding in a library, Lena Headey in a coma,  CCH Pounder as the crazy lady living downstairs, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers treating a glorified cameo villain turn as a drive-thru order of scenery to chew, you’re doing it wrong.

The whole affair is laced with a dense fog of stupidity – meet the literary world’s first agnostic demon hunters, one of whom was Johann Sebastian Bach – but it does lead to the single most unintentionally entertaining moment of the film: one character’s shocking discovery that he’s been wearing a signet ring upside down for his entire life.  The villain dumps a shattering revelation on him by pulling this ring off, turning around, and slipping it back on his finger, to show him that it’s emblazoned with an “M”, not a “W.”  I damn near fell off the couch laughing, which in all fairness, justifies the rental price of the movie.

But all its other problems would be forgivable, maybe even comparatively unimportant, if “Mortal Instruments” didn’t completely flub the vital task of myth-building, in every clumsy manner imaginable.  As mentioned above, a seminar could be taught to aspiring epic-fantasy screenwriters based on all the ways this movie blows it.  The central conflict is so poorly drawn out that it fails to deliver a MacGuffin to Hitchcock’s simple standards; the importance of the central magic cup, and the villain’s desire to obtain it, is never made clear enough to the audience, so you just don’t care who gets the goblet.  

The heroes are likewise so badly sketched that it’s hard to understand what they do, what they want, how their supernatural abilities work – which really deflates the tension of the obligatory “wow, the heroine is something else, she breaks all the rules!” moments in the finale – or why they do most of the things they do.  (Or, for that matter, why they make a fetish of dressing the way they dress.  Or why they’re all twentysomething.)  The one real twist in the plot is inexplicably telegraphed halfway through the interminable running time, so when the Guy Everyone Thought Was Dead shows up for the finale, the audience is not even slightly surprised.

Fantasy films are hot these days, as are young-adult adaptations.  A trip to the local Barnes & Noble will show you that we’ve got a lot of YA best-sellers left to go, before Hollywood gives up trying to catch that “Hunger Games” lightning in a bottle again.  So learn from this train wreck, screenwriters, and remember that you’ve got to design a setting the audience can appreciate, so they understand the stakes, feel some sympathy for the heroes, dislike the villains (or at least understand what they’re trying to accomplish) and ideally feel a spark of interest for the cinematic interpretation of Volume 2 when the credits roll.