I recently caught the movie Jumper on cable (2008) — a bit of Hollywood fluff. One of those movies you tell people to wait for it to come out on DVD. Then out of curiosity, I picked up the novel used as the basis for the movie screenplay, Jumper by Steven Gould. Actually, the word “basis” might be a bit extreme. The screenplay uses the concept of a teenager who discovers he has the ability to teleport. After that, the novel and the screenplay part ways.
Now I bring Jumper up because of something Steven Gould says in the Acknowledgements. He says, “Teleportation is, I hope, a classic trope of science fiction and not a cliche.” He goes on to acknowledge previous works, from Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination to Star Trek. He hopes he has created a new twist on the trope and not gone down a familiar, worn out path.
I’ll tell you up front that the novel Jumper does indeed take a classic trope and did something new with it. Gould’s protagonist, discovers his ability, then uses that ability to escape an abusive home, survive on the street and find a mother who left him as a child. He’s a teen with a tangle of motivations, his moral grounding not solidified, leading him to take questionable actions. When the government learns of his existence, the NSA pursues him as a potential enemy or a potential weapon — possibly both. The story centers around how this teen confronts the brokenness of his family life. A reader will be asking throughout the story, “Will he strike out or find a way to heal the wounds?” Gould succeeds in using teleportation as a device to move a more complex and interesting story forward.
The movie, while building on the idea of a teenager, David, who teleports, skips quickly to a storyline involving an antagonist, Roland, with quasi-religious leanings about eradicating jumpers from the face of the planet because “only God should have the power to be everywhere.” Clearly the screenplay was written before Lady Gaga, who I believe does have the power to be everywhere, rose from obscurity. In the screenplay, the protagonists uses his teleportation powers to flee from and attack Roland and his minions. A familiar battle of good versus evil ensues. Definitely cliche with an ending that could be seen from the beginning.
The takeaway? If you’re going to use a classic trope, whatever the genre, find a way to place the trope in a unique perspective embedded in rich storytelling using complex characters. Simple stories and stereotypes often condemn a classic trope to the realm of cliche.