Jumper Review: Science Fiction and the Expository Burden

FULL DISCLOSURE: Steve and I are close friends, and this is a review of the movie made from his book.


I hope Steve won’t mind if I review the movie here…

I confess, I went to see the movie with some apprehension. How well would it adhere to the books? Would the changes irritate me? I was pleasantly surprised. Though it diverges substantially from Steve’s book, some of my favorite scenes and characters from the book were there. Many of my immediate concerns melted quickly away.

Frankly, I loved all the leads. Christensen had a smoldering broodiness that worked just fine for me, leavened with a wry irony. Bilson played well opposite him, with a down-to-earth and subtly sarcastic sense of humor. She and Christensen were frankly adorable together. I loved their lovemaking scene! And Jamie Bell was on fire as Griffin. Samuel L. Jackson played the head Jumper hunter with an inexorable and chilling competence — I want to see his character explored in greater depth. Michael Rooker and Diane Lane as Davy’s parents had small but appealing roles, though they were both woefully underutilized.

The story had a great premise, played out at tremendous velocity, and it did well at the box office as a consequence. But it does have its flaws, and on reflection, I have a theory about what the systemic problem is. Bear with me; this will take some room to develop.


Science fiction and fantasy are technically difficult forms, because of the peculiar expository burden that they carry. (Incidentally, I am shamelessly stealing from Teresa Nielsen Hayden, my editor’s wife and herself an editor, who has an excellent lecture on this very subject.) Liman’s kinetic visual style is deft and spare. He doesn’t talk down to his audience — he assumes we are smart, and can figure things out. On the whole, this is a good rule to follow. And he put this technique to good use in THE BOURNE IDENTITY and MR AND MRS SMITH.

But with SFF stories, viewers have less context to rely on than they do for non-SFF stories, so they need more things spelled out more explicitly.

Teresa provides this analogy. Each new concept the writer poses is like an object they are asking their reader (or viewer) to carry. The more possibilities you open up without narrowing them back down, the more weight you are asking the audience to carry as they go along — the processing cycles your audience has to go through to get what it is you mean. Ultimately, if you don’t resolve some of their questions soon enough, they grind to a complete halt, and give up trying to understand what’s going on, ending up confused and bored. (Incidentally, this is why it is such a huge technical challenge to teach computers to understand natural language. We rely heavily on pattern matching to help us understand meaning, whereas computers process primarily sequentially. So they can get stuck in these series of infinitely nested do-loops, trying to figure out which of a massive set of combinations is both meaningful and plausible.)

Here’s just one example. The rules for jumping are subtle and complex. If you know what they are, it’s easy to see why, for instance, a Jumper can jump into a setting with lots of people there and nobody seems to notice. As Steve explains it in the book, people know that a person can’t just disappear, or appear out of nowhere. So they just assume they blinked, or their attention wandered. They fill in a plausible alternative. But if you don’t know this, the way Davy and Griffin just keep popping around can cause confusion and throw you out of the movie.

There were plenty of places where Liman expected the viewer to trust him that there are rules. Lots of people were willing to give this to him. But lots weren’t.

In short, to reach its broadest possible audience, the movie needed more connective tissue — both in terms of the emotional context, and in terms of some of the ground rules for the science fictional concept. More exposition, in other words.

Liman had clearly thought his world and his characters’ motives out well. For those of us who have read the books and the graphic novel, and understand all the backstory on the Paladins, and the rules of how jumping works and so forth, all that context was there, and everything made sense. We could just enjoy what happened. It just didn’t come through clearly enough for many who weren’t familiar with the world and the concept. (Also, moviegoers are trained not to worry too much about plotholes and so on, anyway — to just sit back and enjoy the ride. This aspect of Hollywood personally makes me a little crazy, actually. Logic matters — especially when you are doing SF, dammit!)

Many of those who didn’t get all the details of how things work in Liman’s version of the JUMPER universe won’t overwork it. They’ll be willing to give Liman the benefit of the doubt and just enjoy the story. This is partly because of the sheer brilliance of his craft, and also because he is incredibly honest as a storyteller. Reportedly, one reason he liked JUMPER so much was that the first thing that teen Davy does when he discovers his power is to go out and rob a bank. This aspect of Steve’s book was one of its great strengths. That won Liman a lot of credit with me. Also, Liman is just balls-to-the-wall as a storyteller — he hurls himself enthusiastically through the story, and pulls us along at a giddy pace.

I would not have complained if he had made David a bit more sympathetic early on — this is part of that connective-tissue issue I talked about. But David’s journey is compelling enough as it is. I like a little moral ambiguity and conflicting loyalties sprinkled into my story diet. Davy starts out desperately needing to escape a bad situation. He discovers this great power and uses it to make his life better, but becomes selfish and alienated because of this. He finds out that he can only really be happy by engaging with others. And to do that he has to take some risks. He has to start caring, and committing himself to making a difference. So he does.


Thumbnail: The movie has technical problems. But Liman is so good a visual storyteller that the movie succeeds anyway. This is a much smarter SF movie than many I’ve seen. See it before it leaves the big screen. B+


20-Feb-07: I’ve tweaked this for clarity since I put it up.

Connecting the Dots

Tonight’s bit of video whimsy is a sketch from the extremely extreme British comedy series, French & Saunders.

It’s got lots of guitarists in it, which is always a big plus for me. And it tells the bitter truth about those books that falsely purport to teach you how to play the songs you love.



F&S had a big budget, so they could pull off sketches that a lot of other shows couldn’t even consider mounting. They also have a thoroughly enjoyable one on:

The Lord of the Rings


My Verizon DSL has been dicey all week, with the phone dead since about Monday, and the Tubes always slow and frequently non-existent. I’ll try to post my usual brilliant prose later tonight, but it’s been especially bad  this evening, and it’s wearing my ass out.


Orcinus on The Clinton Rules

Dave Neiwert, as usual, nails it:

We’ve known for a couple of years that the “Clinton Rules” of journalism would be in full effect this election cycle. What’s been amusing has been watching its very practitioners — the Beltway Village Idiots — defending those rules by claiming, as they always do, they’re perfectly appropriate because the Clintons, you know, really are Awful People.

But don’t be fooled. The “Clinton Rules” really don’t just apply to the Clintons. Barack Obama and his followers will be discovering this soon enough.


(long, well documented post on how the Clinton Rules work)


So far, Obama has been largely exempt from them (the exception being, of course, the long-running “Obama is a Muslim” tale). Some of that is most likely a product of the anti-Clinton animus: as long as he’s hurting Hillary, he’ll be cut a certain amount of slack.

I’m sure a lot of Democrats have been taking the depth and breadth of the Hillary Hate into account in their decisions on who to support, and a number of them are leaning toward Obama because of it. The thinking seems to be that because of the Clinton Rules, it might be better to nominate someone else. Certainly, Obama and his campaign have encouraged that view — and it must be noted that, so far, polling data does indicate he has a real advantage.

But as Stanley Fish quite adroitly observed:

Electability (a concept invoked often) is a code word that masks the fact that the result of such reasoning is to cede the political power to the ranters. Carolyn Kay (456) makes the point when she observes that if you vote against Clinton because you fear the virulence of her most vocal enemies, “you have allowed the right-wing hatemongers to decide who our candidate will be.” Underlying this surrender of the franchise to those least qualified to exercise it is the complaint (rarely overtly stated) that the Clintons have had the bad taste to undergo the assassination of their characters in public and have thereby made us its unwilling spectators.

Moreover, the Clinton Rules are a systemic problem, not a personal one. People today forget that when he was elected in 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign was all about finding a “new vision” and a fresh, bipartisan approach to politics, “reaching across the aisle” and forging the same kind of alliances that Barack Obama likes to tout now. He entered office full of hope that he could work with conservatives and liberals alike to get things done — essentially the same kind of politics Obama is now touted by the George Wills of the Beltway for representing.

Well, we all saw how that worked out, didn’t we?

Don’t worry: If Obama is in fact the nominee, you can bet your bottom dollar that the Clinton Rules will be applied to him as well. We’ve already seen the germ of this with the “cult of Obama” nonsense, which has already morphed into the “Obama equals Hitler” meme.

I think Obama has some real strengths, and I’ll enthusiastically support him if he wins the nomination. But I think the phenomenon that Neiwert describes — that faint aura of concern about the integrity of HClinton’s character, or the hope that somehow Obama will escape the same, ongoing character assassination the Clintons have been subjected to for years — is exactly right. He won’t. It’ll be ugly. The only way through this is if we don’t drink the KoolAid, and base our choices on our own preferences and knowledge.

Read the whole thing.

World Premiere

We were behind the posters.“No pictures, no pictures!” The big burly bodyguard swung his hands threateningly at the swarm of paparazzi. They flinched back long enough for Laura and me to duck into the theater.

Okay, not really. We did walk the red carpet but it was a slightly different carpet than the one the stars walked. More of a back alley red carpet effect with a trim where everybody except the film stars and the director walked. I don’t know what the actual capacity of the Zigfeld theater is but it looked about a thousand and probably fifteen people walked down the paparazzi side while the other 985 of us went down the other side.

We picked up our tickets at the will call tent. They were in a red envelope which apparently kept us from being scanned with metal detectors and we got to keep our cell phones, unlike a lot of the other attendees.

In any case it was colder than … well, it was cold that night. With wind chill, about zero degree F. And the F was for f***ing cold. We had no trouble getting into the theater and the warmth was welcome.

The seats were actually assigned. We were in row Y so we were, I guess 25 rows from the front, but it went back from us into double letters and then there was a mezzanine behind that. We were, it turns out, very close to Stacey Maes, the only person (except my agent, Ralph Vicinanza who was one of the executive directors) I’d ever met before this night. However, it turned out we were sitting right next to Julianne Jordan, the Music Supervisor, and her sister, and shortly thereafter I was able to grab Dave Goyer as he walked by to get drinks and we had a nice little talk exchanging compliments (I like his movies and he likes my book.)

Shortly thereafter Jay Sanders, one of the three full producers, came by and sought me out which was very gratifying. It turned out that he had been behind one of the previous optionings of Jumper, about seven years ago, back when both he and Stacy were at James Camerons’s Production Company, Lightstorm. Later he introduced me to his Mom, a wonderful woman who said I had a “different” mind.

I found Ralph and the gang from the agency shortly after that and talked and then I went back to our seats and just chatted with Laura while we waited.

The “seven” o’clock screening didn’t start until eight as the principle actors and the director finally chewed off their arms and got away from the press. There was a round of aplause from the audience as they came in and the lights went out, even as some of them were still standing in the aisles shaking hands and hugging.

What is cool about a premiere is that you have all these crew members and stars in the audience so when the credits are coming up (and they don’t come up for quite a while into the film) you get bursts of applause and cheering. Theater wide for the big stars but little sections as you get to more specialized sections. We cheered for our seatmates when Musical Supervisor came up and they returned the favor (as did Stacy) when we finally got to, “Based on the novel by Steven Gould.”

That’s a weird feeling. I’d seen it on the posters but it felt really different out there all by itself, not squeezed in at the end of a line on the poster.

It’s weird watching something like this for the first time. I knew so much about all the different versions of the story–my own books, all five of the scripts I’d read, various conversations I’d had with Stacy that most of my time was sorting and comparing through what was and wasn’t in there. It wasn’t until I saw it a second time (at a sneak preview in Albuquerque two days later) that I could relax and appreciate it.

After, we found Beth Meacham, my editor (who’d had to dash desperately from the airport having been seriously delayed in Dallas Good thing the movie started so late.) As we worked our way up toward the front I met and introduced myself to Doug Liman, talked briefly about why we’d never met before (me living in Albuquerque).

Beth, Laura, and I ducked back into the Warwick (where we were staying that night) and Laura changed into jeans (but kept the glittery top stuff) cause it was so cold, and then we cabbed down to the reception held at La Stradas, a club down on Broadway and 21st.

I got to meet a few more people there and had a nice talk with Simon Kinberg, the man responsible for Mr & Mrs. Smith. I felt too shy to go talk to any of the actors though I regret that now. I would have especially liked to talk to Jamie Bell briefly. It was painfully loud. A DJ was playing music and there were a lot of people there but not so much as the club probably usually held. As a result there were the usual sound-damping bodies and a lot of exposed hard floors and walls. In parts of the club it was physically painful and so after one last talk and hugs with Stacy we took Beth to her hotel and had a nice chat in a much quieter bar.

Next morning we had a really nice breakfast (meaning just a little diner, really) but with Ralph and Beth and Laura and me. Great conversation and speculation and dissection of the movie, then a cab to Penn station, a train out to Islip, a shuttle to the airport, and home again.

Nearly didn’t make it. Heavy snows at Islip and Midway but fortunately our connection had to wait for our plane because it was carrying the crew for the next leg.

I’ve now seen the movie three times. Monday, for the premiere, Wednesday, at the sneak, and Thursday night for our own Albuquerque version of the premiere.

Like Brad, I can’t really predict how it will do. Reviews have been mixed tending to negative but I’m not sure how deserved they are. You will have to make up your own mind. As I write this I’m flying to Corpus Christi. I’m doing another two showings, one for the Corpus Christi film society with a question and answer session after and then an evening party followed by a showing with my Mom and Dad and siblings and my parents’ friends.

After that, I may be willing to wait for the DVD.

Having Arrived (Sorta)

I found out about the Salon essay on Jumper from Austin writer Chris Nakashima-Brown (one of the bloggers over at No Fear of the Future). He writes:

Nothing like a knee-jerk political interpretation to kick one’s adaptation off in style — if people are writing essays about the politics of your plotlines, surely you know you’ve arrived at a point of definitive cultural relevance. And as for the substance of the review, I suspect I could scribe the exact opposite take (say, the jumpers as Marxist antiheroes) without even seeing the movie…

“Though dazzled by its ultra-modern wizardry and the high gloss of its production values, one can also feel the globalist double standard roiling underneath the adolescent-kid fantasy plot. “Jumper” tells us that Americans fantasize about getting rich by stealing and going everywhere they want without restrictions; that they are materialistic, disrespect foreign antiquities, and remain blind to their own and to world history, not to mention current conflicts (the jumpers spend a moment in Chechnya — you bet they’re not off to Iraq); and that they perhaps feel only mildly guilty about any of that. OK — who wants to wait here for the world’s response to that message?”

Salon Review

Wow. Controversy.

They should probably read the books. (They call the source material a “pulp novel series.”) Pulps. How old do they think I am?

The LOLCats Bible

More nauseating cute kitty goodness. For all I know, this one is stale news, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it.

Many props to John H. for the link.

Click the pic to read the Old Testament translated into LOLCat.

It maded me cough up hairball.






Little Thailand

Thai Home Cooking

I would like to give you the impression that my culinary life is one amazing adventure after another. The truth is that much of the time I eat pretty boring food. But when I do have a food experience that I think could conceivably give the impression that I am living the high food life, I like to blog it. For a Chowhound, the ultimate food experience is the unexpected, the hole in the wall that turns out to be great, the different.

Once in awhile it happens just like that.

Many months ago, Bob and I read an article about a restaurant called Little Thailand. The legend is that Dick was in Vietnam back in the day and married a Thai girl. He brought her back to the states. It didn’t work out. But somehow along the way he ended up marrying another Thai girl and building a restaurant/bar called Little Thailand. She cooks Thai and he makes the steaks and Hungarian Goulash and the hot sauce.

A framed review on the wall calls Little Thailand ‘a trailer park temple to authentic Thai food’ and that’s probably as good a description as any. The restaurant is in the front of a low ceilinged building out past the airport. We drove into the Texas dark, out into country where Austin has not yet become cool and found it under the Garfield water tower as promised. It’s the kind of place that has handwritten signs stuck on the wall that say things like “Killer Thai Bloody Mary’s Awesome and Lip Smacking.” Bob orders one.

It is the spiciest-hot Bloody Mary either of us have ever tasted. It is the first time I have ever had a drink that required a glass of water to go with it. Continue reading