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Monday 18 February 2008

"Escape to Your Library!"
A Review of Jumper

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Doug Liman

Written by David S. Goyer and Jim Uhls and Simon Kinberg, based on the novel by Steven Gould

Starring Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson, Jamie Bell, Rachel Bilson, Michael Rooker, Tom Hulce, Max Thieriot, AnnaSophia Robb, and Diane Lane

In one of its rare, lame attempts at humor, the film Jumper has an early scene in which hero David Rice (Hayden Christensen) teleports out of danger to his local library, and the camera briefly lingers on a poster, "Escape to Your Library." Audiences, however, would be well advised to regard this message not as a joke but as earnest advice; indeed, if for whatever reason you ever find yourself in a theatre showing Jumper, you should immediately teleport, or drive, or walk, to your nearest library, where you will be able to find many, many better ways to entertain yourself. For example, if it is available, you would undoubtedly enjoy reading a fine juvenile science fiction novel by Steven Gould, coincidentally also entitled Jumper (1992).

Pondering why Gould's novel works so well, and why this film doesn't work at all, reveals yet again that the wisest observation ever made about the film industry is, "Nobody knows anything." In this case, with access to delightful source material that might have yielded a charming, low-key movie classic, a small army of Hollywood smart guys made all the right moves and ended up producing a one hundred million dollar mess which, if it is lucky, will earn back enough money to cover its catering bills.

In the novel, Gould begins with a teenage boy, David Rice, who seems all too contemporary in the problems he must deal with: he lives with an alcoholic, violent father who long ago drove David's mother away by repeated physical abuse and now regularly beats up his son; as a runaway, the boy hitches a ride with a truck driver who calls up his friends to join him in an attempted homosexual gang-rape; and he is mugged in New York City and has all of his money stolen. But Gould has endowed David with the newly discovered magical power to instantly teleport himself anywhere in the world (as long as he has previously visited the place), and all of his problems soon vanish. After mastering his newfound skills, he can easily avoid all of his would-be tormenters and steal enough money to live a comfortable life and court Millie, an attractive college student. When he later becomes obsessed with tracking down the Arab terrorist who killed his mother, his idyllic existence is mildly disturbed by the government authorities who become aware of his existence and try to capture him; but none of their efforts are genuinely threatening, so he can continue to placidly employ his powers to settle his scores and finally achieve happiness with Millie. Despite the harshness of its opening chapters, the overall atmosphere of the novel is anachronistically innocent, providing a soothing saga of undiluted wish fulfillment of the sort that today's cynical age can rarely deliver. In effect, then, Gould has taken a modern teenager and appealingly shifted him back into the comforting, optimistic world of a 1950s science fiction juvenile novel.

But the wheels that were turning in the heads of screenwriters David S. Goyer, Jim Uhls, and Simon Kinberg when they planned their film adaptation of this novel are all too obvious. First, this whole business of an Arab terrorist killing the boy's mother would surely arouse the fury of Muslim advocacy groups, so that subplot was surgically excised to avoid any distressing controversy. Furthermore, scenes of truck drivers about to sexually assault a teenage boy, or a drunken father brutally pummeling his son, might prevent the movie from getting that desirable PG-13 rating; so the truck drivers are eliminated and the father is toned down to only a mildly repellant figure (the book's father beats his son with a belt and constantly guzzles bottles of scotch; the film's father [Michael Rooker] merely yells at his son and limits himself to an occasional beer). Thus, the film's young David Rice initially seems to be living a much more sheltered life than other modern adolescents, recalling the lives of teenagers in the 1950s, when one's major problems were adults who didn't understand and bullies on the school playground.

As another area for needed revision, the novel's plot must have struck the screenwriters as much too sweet, much too tame, for modern filmgoers — not enough conflict, not enough danger, not enough violence. So, the screenwriters concluded, we must ratchet up the action. Let's create an improbably capable, well-financed, centuries-old band of fanatics, the Paladins, dedicated to ruthlessly tracking down and killing all of the jumpers, and let's give them some fancy electrical equipment which will, somehow, enable them to neutralize the jumpers' teleporting power so they can be easily captured and slaughtered. To let audiences know that the film will include all the blood and guts that they crave, let's cast Samuel L. Jackson as the group's leader, the chilling assassin Roland, and for additional conflict let's introduce another jumper with an erratic personality, Griffin (Jamie Bell), to alternately advise and battle with David. Let's create a film, then, that will never allow David to really enjoy his amazing abilities because, every ten minutes or so, he will face yet another lethal attack requiring yet another desperate struggle for survival. The overall result is an unfortunate reversal: in contrast to the novel, the film takes an innocent teenager from a 1950s juvenile science fiction novel and unappealingly thrusts him into the sordid, stressful world of contemporary America.

As this summary might suggest, the film's best moments come at the very start, before all of the fireworks, with a series of flashbacks featuring Max Thieriot as a nerdish, teenage David first discovering his special abilities. In one especially interesting scene, David gives a gift to the classmate he has a crush on (AnnaSophia Robb as young Millie) — a crystal snow-ball with flakes floating around the Eiffel Tower, in honor of her dreams of world travel, which may be intended to recall the most famous such item in film history, the crystal snow-ball that prompts Charles Foster Kane to remember his childhood sled Rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941). In fact, come to think of it, both Kane and David Rice are boys who lose their mothers at a young age and never fully recover from the loss, even though they are as adults blessed with wealth and power. But Orson Welles, who came of age at the time when the rules for sure-fire box-office success were not yet codified, foolishly neglected to carry on his saga by having Kane hounded for the rest of his life by bloodthirsty assassins, reducing his film to a fascinating character study; the smarter people behind Jumper didn't make the same mistake, and hence dropped the crystal snow-ball, and the evocative theme of lingering childhood regrets that it represents, like a hot potato as soon as the flashbacks end and Thieriot is replaced by the adult Christensen.

In the scenes that follow, the dominant impression of the jumping experience, quite surprisingly, is that it is utterly, relentlessly joyless — in stark contrast to Gould's novel, which did a wonderful job of giddily conveying just how much fun it would be to have the power to instantly go anywhere you'd like to go and grab anything you want. As already suggested, this grim tone stems in part from the screenwriters' fear that simply allowing David to enjoy himself at length might bore audiences anxious for thrills, but there are other problems as well. The way jumping is depicted in the film is all wrong: in the novel, the process of jumping is described as quick, unostentatious, and effortless, as well conveyed by the recurring tagline, "I jumped" — David merely wishes it to happen, and it happens. In the film, the process of jumping makes a booming noise and sets off a minor earthquake, making everything in the vicinity shake, leading to a new tagline, the advice David gives to any jumping companion — "take a deep breath" — implying that jumping is a painful ordeal. Casting Christensen as David also spoils the mood; for one thing, since he was too old to credibly portray a teenager, the film (unlike the novel) needed to leap forward eight years to the time when he was twenty-four, necessarily imposing a more mature tone on the adventures (thus, in the film, unlike the novel, there can be no tender scene of young David losing his virginity). Also, while it's hard to say whether Christensen is naturally untalented, or whether he has simply been disastrously schooled by George Lucas into believing that trying to act isn't important, the fact remains he never quite manages to rise to the limited demands of this material. For example, the sequence when David zips to various locations and ends up in London seducing a beautiful blonde concludes with an image of an expressionless David looking out the window at the London rain; perhaps the intent was to suggest that, for all his amazing abilities, David cannot really be happy until he finds true love or something, but all I got out of the scene was that, to this incarnation of David, flitting all over the world and indulging in the best of wine, women, and song is nothing more than a monotonous chore. (One's suspicions are also aroused by the unusual brevity of the film — 88 minutes in all; surely, the filmmakers didn't plan to make such a short movie. The most logical explanation would be that several long scenes were left on the cutting room floor because the film's leading man couldn't, or wouldn't, act well enough to make them effective.)

Further diminishing any positive aura about jumping are the film's repeated suggestions that David's power is somehow demonic or evil. This is, of course, the belief of the Paladins, as Roland tells one jumper that ‘You are an abomination. Only God should have the power to be all places at all times." David's room also features posters of Metallica — who in 1983 wrote a song about Satan entitled "Jump in the Fire" — and of Mark Twain — whose posthumously published The Mysterious Stranger (1917) featured a character named Satan with the power to magically transport his friends all over the world. David and his girlfriend Millie (Rachel Bilson) spend a lot of time at the Roman Colosseum, long regarded as a place where Christians were routinely persecuted, and when David manages to escape from Roland by teleporting an entire room to the library, he leaves behind a number of small fires. Nor does the film promise David any respite from further persecution as an emissary of evil, as the film concludes with Roland stranded in some arid wilderness but still capable of surviving to carry on his crusade, and with David's mother Mary (Diane Lane) revealed to be another Paladin, and hence another potential opponent. (Could it actually be that the filmmakers were deliberately laying the groundwork for a sequel, to be filmed in response to the overwhelming popularity of their movie? Talk about wishful thinking!)

If you are for some reason unable to leave the theatre during a showing of Jumper (trapped, for example, by a promise to write a review of the film), there are a few minor pleasures to be had. By paying attention to details normally overlooked by filmgoers when immersed in the enjoyable experience of watching a well-made film, you might notice that this well-traveled hero appropriately steals his money from the Emigrants Savings Bank, or that his dysfunctional father appropriately entertains himself by watching television's dysfunctional The Family Guy. After David teleports Millie's kitchen to the library, you might appreciate a delightfully surrealistic line — Millie asks, "What's my dishwasher doing in the library?" You could do me a favor by looking out for Tom Hulce, purportedly in the film playing a character named "Mr. Bowker," though embarrassingly, despite careful viewing, I cannot recall ever seeing him. You might compile all of the intimating, acronymous government agencies that Roland pretends to represent while tracking down his prey — I noted the NSA, CIA, and IRS — or relish what the credits reveal to be footage actually shot in the exotic locales of Tokyo, New York City, Rome, Baja California, and David's hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan — inexplicably replacing the novel's fictional Stanville, Ohio. (Alas, there was no footage shot in Egypt, so the film's seemingly impressive scenes of the Sphinx, the Pyramids, and weathered hieroglyphics were all produced by computer graphics.) Finally, one might endure the entirety of this film out of respect for the memory of the man the film is dedicated to, the late David Ritchie, a veteran set dresser who died in an accident on the set during the making of this film. It is true, as Griffin observes, that "we all have to make sacrifices," but dying so that this execrable film could live was definitely above and beyond the call of duty.

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