"The theory was that if it had required the threat of death
to goad Jaunte into teleporting himself in the first place,
they’d damn well threaten him with death again."
Alfred Bester’s seminal science
-fiction novel, Tiger! Tiger!
There are several science fiction ideas that have gone through so many iterations that they have become almost humdrum standards in the whole genre's repertoire, the "My Way"s of the Karaoke bars if you will. The two big 'human changes on the genetic level' are telepathy and teleportation. These are words that need no attached idiot guide so well versed are we in their meanings. Both seem mired in wish-fulfilment rather than any intellectual musing on where our species is going next. It's my humble opinion that the latter ability became universally famous due to budgetary constraints on a young TV exec in the mid-60s. Gene Roddenberry could not afford what would be the expensive and primitive special effect of his Starship Enterprise simply landing on an alien planet week after week. The cheaper solution? Beam the buggers down! Cost effective and science-fictiony all in one.
For teleportation's true literary origins you have to go back another decade. Yes, leaping or jumping instantaneously from one place to the next may have been featured in stories written before 1955 but Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! is the classic that really put teleportation on the sf cultural map. While we're here, Bester also wrote the classic on telepathy too, two years earlier in The Demolished Man (and no, Stallone's macho movie had nothing to do with that brilliant, iconoclastic and all-too epic novel). In the prologue of Bester's Tiger! Tiger!, the first person to exhibit teleportation ability is named Jaunte and logically, a verb is born. To its credit, ITV's ultra-lame but almost fondly remembered TV series The Tomorrow People used the word as a verb, a rare nod to a bona fide classic of literature, science fiction or not.
Jumper is based on a 1992 young adult's novel by Steven Gould. It's a book that got noticed by its presentation of child abuse, not a subject traditionally associated with young people's literature even though it should be. A beating from a nasty father is the spur that gets its hero Davy 'jumping' in the first place. In the movie, his dad's still an asshole, (Michael Rooker who after Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, will never be any casting threat to Hugh Grant) but the inciting incident is a bully throwing an Eiffel Tower snow-globe on to thin ice, a gift Davy gives to his prospective girlfriend. Davy falls under the ice, is presumed drowned, lost to his community but ends up teleporting into the safest place he knows (explained in the book but not the movie) – the Ann Arbour library. That's why I quoted from Bester's classic novel. There's nothing like certain death to activate a dormant ability to be elsewhere. After a few disbelieving "WTF?"s he figures out what he can do and proceeds to rob a bank simply because he could (leaving IOUs at the scene as a way to salve an adolescent conscience which is kind of correct if seen from a certain point of view). I mean, we are dealing with an ability that so few people possess – how does a young teleporter live amongst non-teleporters? Very well, seems to be the conclusion.
Now, director Doug Liman, best known as the man at the helm of the Bourne franchise, is obviously talented (dip your finger in the venom that exists on the IMDB notice boards if you want a second opinion) and the effects are top notch. The jumping scenes have that little bit extra that teleportation as realised in the 21st century would demand. I mean you can't just shout "Cut!", get the actor to step out of shot and then start shooting again with the actor in another place. Well, you can if the camera is locked off. Take a look at Luke Skywalker's first activation of his father's lightsaber in Star Wars. That's how they did that effect – watch everyone just jump an inch or so from where they were when the camera was turned off. But now, the camera is forever moving so kudos to all those hundreds of technicians that made the effects so seamless. But there's not so much kudos for the story, which at best is suited as an extremely expensive and adolescent friendly (as all American mainstream moving pictures must now be, alas) TV pilot. "Is that it?" seems to be my cinematic wail these days.
No spoilers, just the plot; Davy finds out he can teleport. He robs a bank, sets himself up as Mr. Rich Kid in swanky apartment with a hideaway room full of foreign currency. He misses his almost girlfriend and goes back to tempt her with international travel. He takes her to Rome (the long way) and meets fellow Jumper Griffin who tells him there is a war between Jumpers and a fanatical religious group (à la the Spanish Inquisition) starting with 'P' which I didn't get (Palladins?). It's a war that's been going on for a long time with a knife to gut you waiting at the end of an electricity net. Charming. Teaming up with Griffin, our boy Davey fights Roland (another grave and gravitas-full turn from Samuel L. Jackson as an implacable assassin) and er... that's it. The plot is paper thin with an even thinner sub-plot involving Davy's mother, played by one of the more gorgeous and 'real' American actresses around today, Diane Lane. But the whole thing feels like the start of something not a fully-fledged movie on its own. Considering its subject matter, it's curious the movie doesn't have any real wings.
I know the movie had a troubled history and it troubles me to believe that very well paid (bright?) men and women spent so, so much time on this trifling confection (both leads were re-cast, one after shooting had started and there were several accidents behind the scenes, one fatal). I don't know if a more profound film on this subject could have been made given its youthful slant (that's a euphemism for the profundity of surface tension) but if the subject intrigues you, I would urge you to read Tiger! Tiger! (aka in the US as The Stars My Destination).
A final word about the cast – how about 'Huh?' It's not such a leap of logic to suggest that some people, myself included, imbue actors with the smarts and wisdom of the characters they play. This is an absurd prejudice and a no-evidence based judgement but I still find it useful. Do you think exceptionally stupid people can pull off playing smart? So what is this superb thespianic line up doing in this wafer thin envelope of a movie? The afore mentioned Samuel L., Diane Lane and Michael Rooker, heavyweights all. Jamie Bell is excellent as Griffin. Did these people read the script and just think "Cool!" or is a Hollywood pay cheque enough to get them to jaunt their way through this soufflé of an action picture? You're wondering why I haven't singled out Vader himself, Jumper's lead, Hayden Christensen. Uh.. Well, I figured I couldn't blame Lucas for every facet of his performances in Clones and Sith and in some scenes I felt he played the arrogance rather, well, arrogantly well. But again, he offers no real depth as an actor. I suppose means he's perfectly suited to wear this jumper. I'll be curious if there are enough youngsters to justify what must be a well mooted part two... Part one is hardly 'one' at all…