Netflix – Premiered: 13th January 2016
Screenplay by: Ed Decter
Directed by: McG
SUPERNATURAL FIGHT CLUB
Author Cassandra Clare’s popular teen fantasy series The Mortal Instruments was originally adapted for the big screen in 2013 with the clunky addition of the first novel’s subtitle making for a rambling, incoherent mouthful to spit out at the box office. Maybe that was one of the reasons the film failed to make enough money to justify proceeding with book two? That, and after an engaging introduction, City of Bones dissolved into a convoluted nightmare which left franchise newbies out in the cold.
Determined to make the most of the property rights, defiant producers Constantin Film took the brave decision to instead adapt the series for television, and just over two years later, Shadowhunters is that small screen reboot. Available on Netflix UK in weekly instalments (and just a day behind the US broadcast), episode one brings us a new cast retelling a familiar story – and seemingly failing to learn from the film’s failings.
On the night of her 18th birthday, Art student Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara) learns that vampires, warlocks, demons… “All the legends are true” and she herself is a Shadowhunter, a human/angel hybrid with the ability to see supernatural entities invisible to the human eye. When her mother (Maxim Roy) is abducted by demons intent on possessing the titular antiquity, Clary accepts her destiny and joins a band of fellow Shadowhunters to hone her powers and save her mum.
Exposition is to be expected in all pilot episodes, but “The Mortal Cup” barely gives us time to settle in our seats before assaulting our senses with a tumult of in-universe jargon and incredulous concepts we are meant to rapidly assimilate and apply to the narrative unfolding before us. “Mundanes” are humans who don’t have “The Sight” – the ability to see supernatural creatures who can “Glamour” (become invisible) – but “Downworlders” (demons) can.
With me so far?
My review notebook also includes numerous other hastily jotted monikers, some of which mere hours later I am failing to recall descriptions of: “The Circle”, “The Clave”, “Shapeshifters”, “Ravener Demons”…?? “You’re just saying words now” Clary knowingly denounces – and it’s true, there is far too much to take on board in one forty minute episode, particularly when we’re still learning to accept these strangers as lead characters. And don’t even get me started on the potions, runes, weapons and mystical heirlooms which whizz before our tired eyes!
There are some nice touches in Ed Decter’s screenplay: references to Twitter ground the status quo in a present-day comfort zone, while the first innocuous glimpse at Clary’s uncanny powers (her biscotti transforms into a drawing etched into the café’s table) is nifty and original, but all-too-soon things start to feel superficial and false.
The eye candy cast were clearly chosen for their looks rather than their delivery, with even Clary’s “normal” best friend Simon (Alberto Rosende) a barely-disguised hunk. “All you… stunning people!” Clary backhandedly compliments Jace (Dominic Sherwood), head of her new band of Shadowhunters, as she all-too-willingly changes into a leather mini-skirt. Apparently that’s what all the demon-hunters wear these days…
It’s hard to believe that feature film director McG (Charlies Angel: Full Throttle, Terminator Salvation) was calling the shots on this debut, because there was an inauthentically glossy sheen to everything which pulled me right out of believing in this world. The fight scenes felt over-rehearsed and strictly choreographed, while the camera seemed to linger just a split second too long on all CGI shots and stunt work. Even the rainstorm looked unnatural!
For all its nice touches, the script is also not free from reprimand. Having the bad guys quip “Demons dig blondes” made me cringe the first time it was uttered, only for it to be called back to! Meanwhile, Clary’s mum admitted she had been waiting 18 years for the opportunity to reveal her daughter’s life-defining prophecy to her, only to bungle it in such a flippant, spontaneous manner that you wonder if she’d ever bothered to prepare for it at all!
I’m not going to give up on Shadowhunters quite yet – Clare’s novels are obviously popular for a reason. I will give the series a couple more episodes to find its feet and get beyond re-treading the film’s storyline, however the “The Mortal Cup” was a startlingly shaky start profuse with flaws which did not leave me spellbound.