Monthly Archives: February 2008


David Rice is a high-school nobody, until he accidentally discovers that he can jump – teleport himself to places he has been before. He runs away from his broken home, robs a few banks, and sets himself up with a cushy lifestyle. But then he discovers that he is not alone in his abilities, and that a shadowy organisation of Paladins has been hunting jumpers for hundreds of years. And they have David right in their sights.

Because I haven’t read the Steven Gould book the film is based on, I’m just going to take it on its own merits. First of all, the film is a traditional wish-fulfilment fantasy: ordinary boy discovers he has a secret ability, and discovers that because of this secret, dark powers are ranged against him. Adventures ensue, during which he gains mastery of his ability, and uses it to defeat his enemies.

Executed well, this is a great, classic plot, and Jumper does a very good job with it. Hayden Christensen (who plays David) often comes across as bland and monotone, in a handsome way, but in this serves the film well: it emphasizes David’s essential ordinariness, apart from his ability to jump. He doesn’t know kung-fu. He doesn’t dress up in a costume and fight evil. He uses his powers to make his life lush and easy, not to better mankind. So when he first encounters the bad guys (Samuel L. Jackson & co.), he is totally outmatched.

This is where the other jumper, Griffin, comes in. Griffin (played brilliantly by Jamie Bell) is a fast-talking, bitter, and somewhat unhinged young man who has been running from the Paladins, and fighting back, all his life. He is the archetypal mentor in the story, with the twist that he sees David as more of a threat than a student. He doesn’t want David upsetting all his plans and jeopardising his carefully hidden base. He is by far the more interesting of the two, but the needs of the plot dictates that he is relegated to the role of edgy, antagonistic ally. (At least they decided not to make him “wise-cracking”, too.) Still, because he doesn’t die (ah, damn it, spoiler), the door is open for him to play a more important part in the sequel.

Which brings me to OMG HOW BLATENTLY OPEN-ENDED CAN A FILM GET?? Fully the last fifteen minutes are spent carefully not resolving plot lines and setting up the pieces for Jumper 2. Which, given its box office so far, is a near certainty. Really, you could even see it as a pilot for a TV series than a stand-alone film.

But still…I liked it. It reminded me a lot of The Bourne Identity, also directed by Doug Liman. Just like Jason Bourne, David Rice has to rely on his own abilities instead of the gadgets and resources of some powerful agency. Both characters are hunted outcasts, gradually fighting their way inwards to the core of a conspiracy. (Even the soundtrack for Jumper has overtones of Bourne – the main theme sounds an awful lot like Moby’s Extreme Ways.) This is what it comes down to for me: it’s a good hero story. I’m just a sucker for those.

John Sandford – Dark Of The Moon

Virgil Flowers, an interesting but minor character from Sandford’s Prey, investigates a series of murders in rural Minnesota. I’m inclined to like Sandford’s books, but this isn’t one of his best. Flowers comes across as implausibly heroic, and the small town inhabitants seems too eager to trust and accept him. The plot is entertaining enough, but it all felt a bit glib.

Ken Macleod – The Execution Channel

WARNING: I generally try to avoid spoilers, but it’s hard to discuss this book without talking about the ending. I try to be vague about details, though.

In hindsight, this is a very odd book. However, it’s not at all odd while you’re reading it. In fact, for most of its length, it races along like a present-day spy thriller. It starts with a nuclear explosion at RAF Leuchars, and then rolls on with a series of explosions at major UK industrial installations.

Were they terror attacks? Opening shots in a global conflict? Peace campaigner Roisin Travis is covertly taking photos of the RAF base when she sees a strange device being unloaded. Just then, she gets a text from her brother Alec, who is serving in the military in Kurdistan, warning her to leave immediately. She manages to escape the blast, and goes on the run, fearful that the security services will think she had something to do with it. Her father, James Travis, appears to be a standard software contractor, but is actually a covert agent for the French government. He, too, receives an alert message, and goes on the run.

At this point, the chase is on, against a backdrop of global fear and escalating international tension. The UK security services stage a hunt for Roisin and James. An American agency goes to work spreading disinformation about the incidents, while conspiracy web site owner Mark Dark tries to filter out the “real” truth about the device that Roisin saw.

The book covers a lot of the same themes as Charles Stross does in Halting State: the surveillance society, intelligence operations in a highly networked world, and a fundamental uncertainty about who your actual enemy is. Along the way, there are only small hints that give away that the story is science fiction. Although you could easily read it as being set in present-day Britain, it takes place in a slightly altered timeline–one where Al Gore won the 2000 presidential election, but where the 9/11 attacks still happened, and the world still went up in the flames of war. Also, there are nuggets of cosmological speculation that you probably wouldn’t see in a mainstream thriller, as well as the suggestion that some of the conspiracy theories about flying saucers and death rays might actually be real.

But you don’t get the full science-fictional pay-off until right at the very end. Like, in the last eight pages. And this is what makes the book so odd. It ends with an enormous revelation…and a political joke. It’s almost like one of Asimov’s short stories that ends with a terrible pun. All of the hard-boiled personal tension and international brinkmanship, is rendered nearly obsolete when MacLeod zooms out and shows you the bigger picture.

That’s not to say that the ending is bad; it’s just unexpected. When I finally closed the cover (after staying up to 2am to finish it), part of me went “aargh” and wanted to throw the book down in disgust at the sharp left turn, while another part went “wow” and marvelled at the sense of wonder the ending provokes. And now, a week or so later, I still have mixed feelings. But I think that the power of surprise will ensure that The Execution Channel will stick with me for longer than if it had had a conventional linear climax.

Charlie Brooker – Dawn Of The Dumb

The two-and-a-half star rating deserves some explanation: I think Charlie Brooker is great, and many of the pieces in Dawn Of The Dumb (a collection of his TV criticism and columns for The Guardian from 2004-2007) and hysterically funny, but at book length, his vitriolic style becomes grating. If you enjoy cutting put-downs and cynical rants, you’re in the right place–just take it in small doses.

Christopher Fowler – Ten Second Staircase

This is the fourth book in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series, but the first one I have read. I picked it up in the book shop because it looked interesting, non-standard, and a little bit quirky. Arthur Bryant and John May are detectives in London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU), a division that was set up during the second World War to deal with sensitive cases that had the potential to capture the public’s imagination and damage morale, thus harming the war effort. Bryant and May have been part of the Unit since its beginning, and are still there in the present day, well past their retirement age, but too dedicated (or set in their ways) to step back from the job.

I had expected the book to be on the funny side of quirky, but it isn’t. Although it has many amusing moments, it’s a serious police mystery where the characters–and the crime–just happen to be somewhat off the wall. A figure dressed as an eighteenth-century highwayman is killing minor celebrities in impossible circumstances, and then vanishing into thin air. The case seems somehow connected to a series of killings the Unit had failed to solve many years ago, and which May is reluctant to revisit, because his own daughter eventually became a victim. Bryant, meanwhile, is keen to use every unorthodox investigative technique at his disposal to get to the bottom of both cases.

Overall it’s a carefully paced, thoughtful thriller, full of London details and well-drawn, engaging characters, with a satisfying kick at the end. I will definitely be picking up the rest of this series.

Charles Stross – Halting State

Near-future thriller about a bank robbery in a virtual world that has much wider implications in the real world. It’s set in Edinburgh in an independent Scotland, and is full to the brim with speculation about ubiquitous networking, surveillance, and MMO games. Fun, with loads of in-jokes about tech and Edinburgh, but it gets a bit muddled towards the end.


It’s rare to see a calm, measured tone and approach taken in a serial killer film. Zodiac is based on Robert Graysmith’s book about the Zodiac killer who killed several people in California in the late 1960s and 70s, and then taunted the police and newspapers by sending them strange coded messages.

What you don’t get are tense chase scenes where the killer manages to escape pursuit by fleeing across the rooftops, or a nail-biting climax where the killer is in the house! but the hero doesn’t realize it. What you do get is a thoughtful, almost documentary-like examination of the journalists (Robert Downey, Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Graysmith himself) and police detectives (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) as they struggle to piece together the evidence and come up with a theory strong enough to put a stop to the murders.

At about 2.5 hours, it’s not a short thrill-flick, but Greysmith’s obsession to keep the investigation going translates into a plot that never sags, and stays fascinating to the end.