Friday, 15 February 2008

Might As Well Jump?

*Warning - Jumper spoilers!*

Released with no press screenings and a flurry of newspaper ads and billboards, Jumper was rushed into cinemas in these often cinematically dead weeks of February a day earlier than usual, possibly in a cynical effort to make its weekend gross a little bigger. Pity for Fox (something not often said) that this year February sees the UK release of Cloverfield Monster Movie and National Treasure: Bag of Cakes for the casual cinema-goer and There Will Be DRAAAAIIIINAGE! and The Diving Fly and the Butterbell for more committed filmbuffs. With those powerhouse movies filling London screens, what chance does Jumper have? I recall seeing the trailer a while back and thinking it looked amazing, and then watched as the consensus turned against it for no reason that I could discern other than residual bitterness over Darth Vader: The Whiny Teenage Years.

Well, I'm not going to be told what to think by a bunch of bitter talkbackers who still blame the shittiness of the "first" three episodes of Star Wars on Hayden Christensen (here playing Jumper David), and want to see this fail just because he's in it. It's by Doug Liman! The script was written by David "Blade trilogy" Goyer! And Jim "Fight Club" Uhls! Oh, and Simon "X-Men: The Last Stand, xXx: State Of The Union" Kinberg. ::sigh:: And it's got Samuel L. (for Lovable) Jackson as a white-haired bad guy called Roland like some nod to Childe Roland! And Rachel Bilson as Millie, hopefully matching her adorableness with some audible dialogue for once! Oh, and Teddy Dunn as a jock idiot. And Jamie Bell as crazy Jumper Griffin. ::supersigh::

::Quick synopsis::

David is a loser kid, until he finds out he can teleport. He teleports a lot and leaves his old life behind, though bad re-editing means it's unclear whether people think he's alive or dead. He steals money from bank vaults and leaves IOUs because he's not all bad, but when he regrettably gets older and the likeable Max Thieriot is replaced by a particularly smug Anakin Skywalker, he is found by Roland, played by Mace Windu (moving up from killing motherfucking snakes on motherfucking planes to killing teleporting teenagers). He's the top psycho of the mysterious Paladins, who hunt and murder Jumpers because something something. David escapes, and finds his childhood sweetheart, played by the lovely Summer Roberts, and selfishly gets her involved with him, and makes a bunch of really bad choices that get her hunted by the Paladins as well (ETA: Capone agrees with me on that one). This thankfully damages his smugness chip, bringing his penitence and fear circuits into play. He also comes across another Jumper called Griffin, who is really obnoxious and has terrible facial hair. I mean seriously bad. Ratty, even. It will annoy you. They reluctantly team up to kill Roland, but after lots of objects and vehicles and places get teleported around the globe in thrilling style, Diane Lane turns up as the most pointless and least effective deus ex machina ever and brings about an unconvincing happy ending that probably sets up a sequel that will never be made, or is just a really rushed reshoot that means nothing and was imposed by an oblivious and narrative averse bunch of blank-brained moneymen from 20th Century Fucks.

The End!

It's the first time in a long time that I've seen a movie before reading any press reviews, and it does not bode well for my career as a pop culture blogger that I'm not sure what to think of it. I definitely enjoyed much of it, and think the bad reviews are mean-spirited and missing the mark quite widely (and are possibly biased as this is a mere genre picture and not worthy of critical attention), but it's a mess, and some of the performances are horrible (you can guess who the culprits are), and it's obviously been reshot to the point of incoherence.

Whether that's by Liman is debatable. He is notorious for reshooting his own movies in order to get them right, and his jitteriness was apparent early on when he recast the role of David, taking Tom Sturridge off the film and handing it over to Christensen. From that link I also notice the script featured him looking for the killers of his mother. I've not read Steven Gould's original novel, so I don't know if that was from that, but it certainly isn't in the finished film either. In a series of scenes that hint very strongly at some last minute tinkering, David's mother (played by Diane Lane) is alive and well and apparently leading the Paladins (or at least heavily involved). Her scenes look shoe-horned in, and late references to her (especially during the Egypt lair fight scene) come out of nowhere.

The final scene, in which David finds her house and she tells him he's getting a head start is especially bad. As a happy ending it makes no sense (he seems remarkably chipper even though he's still being hunted by murderous killers), and as I said earlier, might be seen as a lead-in to a sequel. I know Liman intended for the story to continue, but I really hope he had nothing to do with the stupidity of this final conversation, which answers no questions and leaves everyone's fates uncertain. People got mad at the end of Matrix Reloaded and Pirates of the Caribbean 2 because they were left up in the air, but at least the next installments were being made. Jumper ends with pretty much no resolution, and we probably won't ever get any. That's not cool to leave us hanging like that, filmmaking dudes. Look at how pissed off everyone was about Doc Savage and Buckaroo Banzai not getting the sequels we were promised. (Here is a visual representation of the cognitive dissonance I felt upon walking out of the very lovely Apollo West End, the nicest cinema in London.)

Even worse is the casting, though some of this is a purely personal thing. I really don't like Christensen or Dunn, who was so bland on Veronica Mars. Even worse is the appearance of Jamie Bell, whose presence grated in King Kong and yet is even worse here. Perhaps I only think that because of this interview with the Times, during which he bitched about working with Peter Jackson, and then uncharitably complained about being in Jumper.

Bell seems remarkably frank about the cold reality of his ascent. He says that, fundamentally, he’s drawn to playing losers and oddballs in esoteric, low-budget movies, and finds blockbusters painfully limiting. His role, for instance, as a cabin boy in Peter Jackson’s King Kong was: “Not really acting, but just saying lines.” Even worse, the time he spent on Jumper was “soul-sucking. It just destroys you. It’s terrible. I didn’t learn anything about myself on that movie, about my technique or anything."

Shame you didn't learn how to be a likable and charismatic presence onscreen. I suggest you do more stage work. Very educational. Still, at least he registers. Christensen is that most amazing of things; a pure void, like the Lack from Jonatham Lethem's superb novel, As She Climbed Across The Table. There is nothing going on in his eyes, which apparently worked well for him in Shattered Glass. Here, it helps in his portrayal of someone who has no personality (according to Canyon, who has seen the movie and says Christensen is great, that's pretty much what he was like in Glass), as he has spent much of his life avoiding contact with anyone (or anything; I like the moment when one getaway fails because he's forgotten how to open doors). That's great, but how much of that is intentional, and how much of that is down to his shortcomings as an actor? I need more proof of his talent; Jumper does not provide this evidence. Plus, it makes it hard to care for him in later scenes, and Millie is so poorly sketched that you shouldn't care for her either. There is almost no suspense at all, or at least there wouldn't be if the vicious nature of the Paladins didn't raise the stakes so high.

Luckily, Rachel Bilson, while still not exactly a master of enunciation, is wonderfully charming, and her pointless damsel in distress character works simply because you don't want anything bad to happen to her. There are some really weak scenes carried just by her performance, so thank God for her. Also wonderful is Jackson, who, I'm sorry, can do no wrong, so please don't try to debate this. He's pure misguided evil in this. That the Paladins would seek to kill these miraculous individuals instead of harnessing their powers for good genuinely made me furious. Man, considering I'm in two minds about this movie, the Paladins sure pissed me off. Oh, and as I said before, Diane Lane was in it too. As Canyon pointed out when I told her about the movie yesterday, she keeps getting wasted in these shitty movies. She's right. She's grafted in at the last minute and gets nothing to do. It's a terrible waste of a compelling actress.

Other choices smack of cowardice. The opening of the film packs in a lot of event that could probably turn up later, which means you get a hectic opening followed by a really long and boring section as David finds Millie and takes her to Rome (by plane) and slowly seduces her. The first few scenes also feature lots of expositional voiceovers that disappear later in the movie, and are especially frustrating as a cold open with young David's discovery of his powers would work perfectly fine without Christensen's affectless voice straining to sound lively over the top of it. It especially exasperating as so much of the movie is left for the viewer to figure out, so perhaps some Fox suit didn't notice that some scenes of the movie asked something of the audience, and so didn't feel the need to jump in and fiddle with it.

In addition to that regrettable move, some shots from the trailer are missing, and a late action scene in Griffin's Egyptian lair not only replicates some shots of a flamethrower, but is edited so badly as to render the proceedings meaningless. Considering Liman has never had this problem before, it suggests someone else tampered with it.

That said, the action scenes are as frenetic as possible, but are clearly edited (for the most part). Once the powers of the Jumpers are shown often enough, you are able to deduce what their limitations are, as well as the side-effects, and taking that knowledge into the fight scenes, they become quite easy to follow even though they move at a million miles an hour. They're incredibly exhilarating, and like nothing else you have seen before. People flash through the frame in ways you've never imagined, randomly flashing back and forth, blurred by teleport disturbances. When the film concentrates on the mechanics of teleporting it is breathtaking. Plus, if you get annoyed by superhero movies where the powered characters never use their metahuman talents, you will LOVE Jumper. They're teleporting constantly, even when it's not necessary. It never gets boring, either.

Some of the effects are shaky, though when the film is moving at a clip you don't have time to notice. When people are matted into shots of scenery they look awful, like they've been added using MS Paint. That's right! Not even Photoshop-level quality! The teleport effects themselves, though, are wonderful and exciting. Jumpers affect their environment when they teleport, leaving behind Jumpscars that glitter in the air for a few seconds. When jumping to places they know about or are in view, they disturb the air a little, but when teleporting at random they shatter walls and floors, bursting air outwards and blowing things around. It's a violent visual, and deeply thrilling.

I'm a big sci-fi nerd, so I got off on the world that was invented, with such attention paid to working out the way teleporting works. Jumpers like to have Jumpsites memorised so they can zoom from place to place without trouble, and when they can't picture it in their minds eye will look at locations either in their line of sight or in photos. Also great are the scary weapons of the Paladins; tasers, electrified nets, grapples that restrict the Jumpers' teleport range. None of that is explained; they just appear in the movie and are shown working. Aaaah! Show, don't tell! I love ye!

Perhaps the most curious thing about the movie is how far Liman and Kinberg have taken that philosophy of excising exposition where possible (and where left alone by the studio). In an interview conducted during the making of the movie, they discussed some of their intentions of the movie, some of which give a hint as to what was changed during reshoots, and whether they were their choices or those of Fox.

“Comic-book movies like Spider-Man have a pretty specific formula,” Liman says. “Somebody’s determined to destroy the world, and the hero has to stop them. At some point the villain grabs the love interest of the hero, and there’s your third act. We don’t have that. In our movie the main conflict is never explained.”

[Side Note: The third act of the movie features Millie captured by Roland, prompting David to rescue her from the murderous Paladins and Griffin, who plans to blow the Paladins up without caring if she gets hurt in the process. So that didn't work. Reshoot?]

Kinberg adds, “We’re deconstructing a genre that usually presents this black-and-white universe of good guys who have the superpowers, and bad guys who are trying to kill them. In Jumper, as soon as you start to feel comfortable with that moral paradigm, we unravel it.”

He partially succeeds. Both David and Griffin are deeply unlikeable, and it should be hard to root for them. David is a selfish pompous thief, and Griffin is transparently psychotic, which is a fantastic and original way to approach these characters. If you had the ability to be anywhere in the blink of an eye, who would be able to resist the temptation to abuse that power? And if someone tried to stop you doing it, you'd respond pretty damn negatively. Seriously, many kudos to all involved for making their "heroes" so prickly and, in Griffin's case, homicidal.

Sadly, the Paladins are so obviously vile that you end up rooting for the Jumpers anyway. The first time you see Roland and his Paladins take down a Jumper, I had a bizarre, visceral response to their cruelty and violence as they trapped, tortured, and killed a terrified young boy who seemed to not have even done anything wrong by that point. There is no way you can have an ambiguous reaction to it. They're utterly badass bad guys and they are never presented with a morally grey palette.

Even worse, even though Liman had intended to leave the goal of the Paladins as a mystery, Oni Press released a graphic novel by Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weird and Brian Hurt which explains the history of the Paladins. Such a choice would annoy purists like John Patterson, as I have moaned about in earlier posts, though I enjoy such extra-curricular projects. However, Oni Press screwed up by only releasing the damn thing yesterday in the US and today in the UK. So I didn't get to read it before. Good for Liman and Kinberg's plan to keep things loose, I guess, but useless as a promotional tool.

If you didn't know about the existence of that book, fear not. A clumsy bit of dialogue from Bell (which seems to have been very poorly looped in) explains that they are religious fundamentalists who have been hunting down Jumpers since the Middle Ages as they are, in their eyes, an affront to the supremacy of God. If you're an athiest, that's another pretty hefty strike against the moral ambiguity. Anyway, they had even greater ambitions.

Both filmmakers studied semiotics at Brown, and they enjoy layering their popcorn movies with subtexts. “We respond to genre films that are actually metaphors for something else,” Kinberg says. “Instead of making a literal movie about ordinary people with a bad marriage, suddenly they have guns in their hands and you have Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Jumper is about somebody who’s running away from his problems and his past. By giving him this superpower we basically just explode that onto a larger stage.”

I can see that, and it works very well. However:

Liman says he wanted Jumper to reflect the “ambiguity of conflicts in the Middle East. Our minds were occupied with that when we were working on the script. If I were Iraqi, I don’t know if I’d think of the Americans as liberators or as occupiers. I don’t really know why the Sunnis and Shiites are fighting.”

Kinberg chimes in: “Your average person on a Friday night probably will not be thinking Middle East when they watch Jumper at the multiplex, but then, no one thought Iran Contra when they saw Bourne Identity.”

Liman completes his friend’s thought: “Hopefully Jumper will feel honest and relevant and people won’t even know why. It will just be: ‘Oh, this movie’s sort of cool and it feels real.’ ”

I guess they were hoping for some kind of "Bring your own metaphor" approach, which would, if this had any realistic chance of being a success, mean that viewers could debate the significance of this fantasy world enough to keep it in viewers' minds long after seeing it. Unfortunately, it also leaves the movie thematically blank. I accept the approach can bring dividends, and as a fan of Lost who is willing to think a million possibly contradictory things about what it means I can't exactly criticise the movie for this. However, does it deserve to be picked apart in this way? Is it so thematically loose that there is no point trying to assign meaning to it? Here are a few of the thoughts I had while watching it:

  • The Paladins are the American Army occupying Iraq and trying to bring Western values to the country by force, and the Jumpers are the Iraqi citizens forced to fight to maintain their own way of life.
  • The Paladins are the murderous "insurgents" trying to repel the forces of modernity represented by the Jumpers, aka the American Army.
  • The Paladins are religious fundamentalists resisting the forces of reason and science, and the Jumpers represent atheism, as they have effectively "killed" God just by existing.
  • The Paladins are religious fundamentalists resisting youth culture and its corrupting ways, and the Jumpers are cool kids who just wanna drink Red Bull and have fun, yeah? Yeah!
  • The Paladins are strict parental figures who want their kids to settle down and get solid jobs, and the Jumpers are the late teens who want to go travelling in their gap year and then study something other than engineering.
  • The Paladins are shareholders in the London Transport PPP and are protecting their profit margin, and Jumpers are fare-dodgers.
  • The Paladins think Family Guy is the best animated show on TV, the Jumpers love South Park.
  • The Paladins want to flouridate water supplies, the Jumpers think that's just crazy.
  • The Paladins are pro-bangs, the Jumpers think an exposed forehead is much more attractive.
  • The Paladins think people should up their iron intake using vitamins made by GlaxoSmithKline, the Jumpers think people should eat more broccoli.
You could make it anything you want, which is often the case with thematically rich material, but Jumper is so devoid of hints as to what it wants to be that it is a big empty space on the screen, and what makes it worse is that the tinkering makes even that possible jug of lemonade go wrong. I could just accept the movie as blank entertainment, but the people involved are too smart to make something empty, even though Liman has called this the last part of his sell-out trilogy (I may not have liked Mr. And Mrs. Smith but I appreciate that it was trying to say something about relationships even though those ideas were submerged under a lot of nonsense). I'd love to know more about what Liman, Kinberg, Uhls and Goyer were trying for, and how much of their work got screwed with by Fox, because right now it's very hard to judge their level of success, but I doubt there'll be a director's cut boxset coming out any time soon. Ugh, wishing for something like that is the kind of thing that can turn into an obsession. I need to keep an eye on that.

So, I greatly enjoyed it on an emotional, "OMG so cool!" level, was frustrated by the failure to reach its intellectual aspirations, and annoyed deeply by the studio interference (if indeed that's what it was. Remember this is the studio that screwed Mike Judge so badly over the satirical classic Idiocracy). Perhaps my critical judgement was altered by recently withstanding the incredible emotional one-two punch of the aforementioned Diving Bell and Blood, both of which are absolutely phenomenal. Even though Jumper had a lot to like (and some visual sequences that will scorch your corneas off), it pales compared to those.

Maybe that's unfair of me, but we're talking some serious filmic genius in those, and though I really like Doug Liman's work and look forward to all of his films, this is hampered so badly by interference that it would only ever win out on a nerdy "I love teleportation movies!" level. I guess for now the best cinematic representation of cool teleporting remains Bryan Singer's kickass opening to X-Men 2, with Nightcrawler bamfing the shit out of some Secret Service chaps. Ignore the rock music added to this, and revel in the coolness.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

"Perhaps I only think that because of this interview with the Times, during which he bitched about working with Peter Jackson, and then uncharitably complained about being in Jumper.

Bell seems remarkably frank about the cold reality of his ascent. He says that, fundamentally, he’s drawn to playing losers and oddballs in esoteric, low-budget movies, and finds blockbusters painfully limiting. His role, for instance, as a cabin boy in Peter Jackson’s King Kong was: “Not really acting, but just saying lines.” Even worse, the time he spent on Jumper was “soul-sucking. It just destroys you. It’s terrible. I didn’t learn anything about myself on that movie, about my technique or anything."

Shame you didn't learn how to be a likable and charismatic presence onscreen. I suggest you do more stage work. "

you do realize that there are more interviews with him? you should read those too before opening your all-too-big mouth
not meant to be insulting ^^ just saying that everyone can have a bad day and interviews don't (always) mean anything/something
I would be cautious about judging people on what they said in interviews and such stuff