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Superpowers Do Not a Superhero Make
COMIC books, god love them, have done something terrible to movies over the years. They have made film audiences think of fantasy and sf heroes—the kind with "super powers," anyway—only as creatures in funny costumes with capes and tights, or at least Academy Award-winning makeup jobs. An actor like Tobey Maguire (with the help of equally talented writers and a very gifted director) may manage to imbue his Spider-Man character with an everyman believability and a vulnerable charm. But he is nonetheless a guy in a getup—a cartoonish hero with a secondary life as a human being.
Novels are less inclined to communicate with costumes and props. They don't need to. They can delve into character and situation more deeply and create a hero who has extraordinary gifts as well as a fully integrated humanity. With more time and word-power, as well as the unfettered imagination of their reader, they can create a superhero without the cartoonish visual shortcuts.
Hollywood loves visual shortcuts, of course; which is why comic books have so often been translated into major motion pictures, while countless superlative sf and fantasy novels have been ignored for screen adaptation, or have languished for eternity in development limbo.
I was, therefore, very cautiously cheered to learn that Steven Gould's Jumper was being adapted for the screen. Gould's 1992 "Young Adult" novel is a coming-of-age tale, as you would expect, and so much more. The story's protagonist, a shy seventeen-year-old named David Rice, discovers his ability to teleport by the second page of the novel. But it is not during a science experiment or while at Wizard's school. He discovers this talent, accidentally, while desperately yearning to escape yet another savage beating by his abusive alcoholic father. Likewise, Davy's second experience in "jumping" comes after he has run away from home, when he is about to be raped by a group of truckers with a taste for sick recreation.
In both of these early cases, the fear of intense trauma allows Gould's hero to dematerialize himself from danger, only to reappear in one of the few places he associates with comfort and safety—the fiction stacks of his hometown library.
One of the things I liked about Jumper was that no real explanation was ever offered for Davy's amazing talent. Elaborate quantum physics theorems were never offered. And he wasn't born on another planet, bit by a spider, struck by lightning, or trained in the black arts. David is, it seems, merely a lonely, fallibly human, freak of nature—an identification that most young people and a good number of their elders can readily relate to (even without the swell costumes of the X-Men).
As a runaway teen without parental permission or proper identification and documentation for gainful employment, David feels that he has few options for funding food and shelter when he arrives in the Big Apple. So he decides to support a new life by making a massive, nonviolent, and completely illegal withdrawal from a major New York bank. David's ultimate cat-burglar operations, along with his sexual awakening in the company of an older woman (a college student) named Millie, are among the reasons some parents demanded that Jumper be pulled from library shelves. (But there is no doubt in my mind that librarians will always go to the mat protecting a book like Jumper and a hero like David, who so clearly values books, learning, and libraries…even more than his ill-gotten gains.)
Jumper would be a powerful teen boy fantasy if all David did was live comfortably from theft, visit nifty locales on a whim, and bed his girlfriend. But David and his creator obviously expect more than that of this extraordinary young man. While he continues to struggle with the emotional aftermath of losing his mother (who ran away) and being exposed to the emotional and physical abuse of his father during his formative years—a struggle the book repeatedly explores—David does not become a simple, self-involved hedonist.
Although he doesn't don a rubber suit or brightly colored spandex, David nonetheless becomes his own style of social avenger. Early on, he makes sure that his would-be rapist suffers for his sins. He later unnerves or humiliates a few brutal men, including a couple of controlling contemporaries who don't know how to treat women with respect. And then, after some investigation, he is reunited with his long-lost (and guilt-stricken) mother, only to have her murdered by a Middle-Eastern terrorist.
Yes, David's personal history might be a touch too aggrieved, but it certainly keeps the reader involved and sympathetic. And remember, this is a pre-9/11 story, so it is almost unnerving to read of David's subsequent adventures trying to save victims of terrorist hijackings worldwide, with an eye toward not only protecting the innocent, but also taking vengeance upon the man who killed his mother. All the while, he must also elude government agents who want to command or destroy him.
The combination of a fear and hatred of terrorism with a profound resentment and distrust toward an American government with little concern for the civil liberties of its own citizens makes the novel a very timely and compelling story, still. A tale like this would have made a rip-roaring movie. Too bad it never happened.
For after Doug Liman, director of the cynical (Swingers, Go) as well as the action-packed (The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith), his committee of producers, plus two additional screenwriters, Jim Uhls (Fight Club) and Simon Kinberg (X-Men: The Last Stand), finished reworking the adaptation David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, Blade) did of Mr. Gould's story, we are left with eviscerations, electrocution, torture, and explosions galore, but very little of the humanity and none of the heroism of the original novel's David.
Am I surprised by this fact? Not at all. Am I disappointed by it? Mightily.
In the film, David's father (despite the fact that he is played by the perennially scary Michael Rooker) is shown to be cranky, but not really vicious. This negates the need to escape abuse by either teleporting or running away. Thus, from the start, it becomes clear that neither character development nor emotionally valid motivation will have much to do with the action of the movie.
Still, there is plenty of action to be had. Some of it has to do with destroying public libraries. But none of it has to do with avenging social wrongs. Instead, after an initial bank heist by a young David (Max Thieriot), we see the full-grown David (Hayden Christensen) leading his life. And the life David leads is one of elitist self-indulgence. It's all about the Manhattan penthouse, baby—full of the latest toys and walls of pictures of David's favorite "jump sites." A picnic lunch on the head of the Sphinx is a regular event. Then there's an instantaneous jaunt to London to pick up a hot blonde at a bar. After he climbs out of her bed, there's no need for polite chat or to pretend he'll be calling again. In an instant he is off surfing the Pacific, jumping here and there in pursuit of the perfect wave.
Presumably this setup is designed to suit the fantasy tastes of the young male movie demographic Liman likes to court. Unfortunately, it does nothing to make the rest of us care about what happens to David.
In any case, it's an easy life of sybaritic pursuits until our young playboy finds a man (Samuel L. Jackson, doing his bad-ass shtick in a freaky close-cropped bleached 'do) back at his bachelor pad. For no reason that he knows of, the man seems intent on torturing and killing him. Is he the father of one of David's conquests? Evidently not. We later learn that Jackson's character, Roland, is a lead henchman in a (never really explained) quasi-religious, vigilante assassins' agency called the Paladins. This powerful and clearly well-funded group views jumpers as an "abomination," and their sole purpose in life seems to be murdering all the teleporters they can hunt down.
So what does our bright boy, who's been on his own in the big city for years, do? Of course, he goes back to his old home town and looks up the woman he claims to have loved since he was five. Nothing like waiting until an über-relentless army of killers is on your trail to look up an old flame.
And it is the portrayal of the character of Millie (in the movie, played by The O.C.'s Rachel Bilson) that is one of the most disappointing aspects of this adaptation. Mr. Gould's Millie is a smart, independent-minded college student who becomes the confidante, comforter, as well as love interest of young David. (And in a later Gould book she even discovers her own talent for jumping.) Ms. Bilson is a lovely and luscious young lass, but you feel certain that the director hired her primarily for her ability to fill out a tank top. No offense, Rachel, but I'm not the one objectifying you….this movie is.
The movie's Millie never got out of her home town, or even, it appears, out from under the shadow of the thuggish boyfriend she had when she was sixteen. She is now a barmaid who tosses down a Budweiser while she is on the job. (Tank top and Budweiser—must be another nod to the adolescent male audience!) She's happy enough to run off to Rome with the long-missing David at a moment's notice, until she realizes that her old childhood pal displays some unusual talents and has a small army of determined dudes trying to blow him, her, and everything she owns clear to kingdom come.
Millie spends much of the rest of the movie flapping her hands and yelling, when she isn't trussed up as jumper bait. It's a sad fate for Steven Gould's female hero to meet. But semi-slutty damsel in distress is about all we've come to expect from women characters in Hollywood actioners.
It's not just the role of "the girl" that's underdeveloped in Jumper. The hero (if I can use that term) is also as wooden and dull as any I've seen in a long time. This is largely the fault of a team of writers who seemed to go out of their way to make their protagonist shallow and unsympathetic. It is also partially the fault of a director who is plainly more interested in the logistics of shooting a breakneck live-action sequence in an assortment of unusual locales than he is in character development. And, yes, this is also a problem with casting. Hayden Christensen is a good-looking young man. But his only two facial expressions seem to convey petulance and boredom. (And, no, I don't think he was any better in the second Star Wars trilogy.) As I say, he's an attractive presence. Still, if I may do a bit of objectifying of my own, I fear that Mr. Christensen is better suited as a Calvin Klein underwear model than he is a lead actor in a major motion picture.
Discounting all the postcard scenery (like Rome's Colliseum), there is but one saving grace in Jumper. And that is the performance by Jamie Bell as a British-born jumper named Griffin. Griffin is first seen tsk-tsking in the background as David carelessly exposes himself as a teleporter. Griffin knows that he is on the Paladin hit list and he is happy to return the favor. He seems intent on taking out as many of the secret assassins as possible. Griffin tries to educate his clueless cohort, but for his troubles only gets drawn into David's showdown with Roland.
The role of Griffin is poorly developed, too. But Jamie Bell (who has been an underutilized but obviously gifted film actor since he played the title character in Billy Elliot) nonetheless makes the most of the part. A punkish Puck with a need for speed and a (necessarily) solitary nature, Griffin is the one character in the movie that we both like and care about. Too bad he isn't the central hero of Jumper.
Does a man with superpowers need to be a "Superhero"? Probably not. Still, as they say, to whom much is given, much is expected. When a fictional hero is endowed with extraordinary gifts, it seems a shame to squander them entirely on personal pleasures or running away from enemies. Steven Gould understands this, so as you choose where to allocate your entertainment dollars, I would advise sticking to his original novels.
In the movie Jumper, it is almost as if the filmmakers made a conscious decision to keep their protagonist from applying his talent to the greater good. Early on, we see the hedonistic penthouse David watch a news story on his wide screen TV about a natural disaster on the other side of the globe. Victims are isolated and trapped, the narrator intones, and it seems unlikely that anyone can get to them in time to save them.
Great, I thought. David is going to teleport in and use his wealth and powers to help those folks. But, no. That's actually when he pops off to London for the cool drinks and the hot babe.
Did the filmmakers mean to make the point that David was not yet ready to help others in that scene? Who knows? The moment is never developed or explained. It is simply plunked into the film, seemingly as a meaningless tableau. Similarly, when Griffin and David are feuding late in the movie, they briefly jump into the middle of a civil war battle in Chechnya. It makes no sense, of course. Why would you plop yourself into a place where you are likely to get yourself accidentally shot, when a band of assassins is already trying to kill you?
I'm assuming that the filmmakers did this simply to place David and Griffin in a place where they could set off more gunfire and whizbang explosions. After all, bloody civil strife makes for a fun location shot; at least when callous filmmakers and self-involved screen characters are involved.
At a certain point in the pointless proceedings, Roland attempts to justify why he kills jumpers. They have unnatural god-like powers, he explains, and he needs to destroy them before they go completely bad. After watching this movie, I'm on Roland's side.
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