Although he’s now known as the director of the highest grossing film of all time, J.J. Abrams has been a fixture in Hollywood for over two decades. As a writer, television producer, and film director, Abrams has done much to shape modern storytelling. As a proponent of the “Mystery Box” style of filmmaking, Abrams uses fanciful conceits to hook viewers into a film or TV show with no intention of providing expected resolution to these mysteries. Instead, he reorients viewers’ focus and surprises them with depth of character and emotional catharsis. The Mystery Box style of storytelling is imperfect, but it can produce marvels. While he’s mostly known for his high concepts and mysteries with delayed answers, Abrams is actually one of the best directors at conveying character through action. His defining principle is momentum, narratively and visually. Just as his story races forward from plot point to plot point, never slowing down to focus on exposition or belabour motivation, his camera is always roaming, mirroring the energy of the events onscreen. He’s a modern director: shaped by the cinema of the past, but defined by the technologies of the future.
Jeffrey Jacob Abrams was born in New York City in 1966 and soon moved to Los Angeles, where he grew up and currently resides. His parents, Gerald and Carol Abrams, were television producers, affording Abrams advice and contacts as he grew up and began to show an interest in filmmaking. However, Abrams credits his grandfather, Harry Kelvin, as his major inspiration in storytelling. His grandfather bought him a Super 8 camera when he was growing up and constantly encouraged him to discover how things worked and to investigate new perspectives on life. After graduating high school, Abrams wanted to go to film school, but instead heeded his father’s advice and studied liberal arts at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York.
In his final year of undergrad, Abrams co-wrote a film treatment with his friend, Jill Mazursky. He sold the treatment to Touchstone Pictures and ended up with his first writing credit, for the James Belushi starring Taking Care of Business (1990). Having experienced success from his first screenplay, Abrams moved forward in the industry by writing for various Hollywood productions. Abrams penned the screenplays for Regarding Henry (1991), Forever Young (1992), Gone Fishin’ (1997), and Armageddon (1998). Although he found success as a Hollywood screenwriter, Abrams would make a name for himself with his contributions to television.
In 1998, Abrams created the popular school drama, Felicity (1998-2002). The show follows Keri Russell’s titular student through her four years of college in New York City away from her family in California. Despite never topping the ratings, the show lasted four years and developed a passionate fanbase. Inspired by the show’s success, Abrams continued to develop numerous television series in the years to follow. He founded the production company Bad Robot with his producing partner Bryan Burk. Through Bad Robot, J.J. Abrams created Alias (2001-2006), which follows Jennifer Garner’s undercover spy as she infiltrates a worldwide criminal organization, and Fringe (2008-2013), a procedural drama exploring paranormal disturbances and fringe science such as parallel universes. Abrams also lent his producing clout to shows like Person of Interest (2011-present) and Revolution (2012-2014).
Although he never oversaw the day-to-day production of the series over its six season run, Abrams’ greatest contribution to television remains Lost (2004-2010). He co-created Lost with Damon Lindelof (Jeffrey Lieber is also credited as co-creator due to his initial draft for the show, to which the eventual show bears little to no resemblance). He also co-wrote and directed the pilot episode. The Lost pilot might remain Abrams’ greatest directing achievement. It’s a masterful introduction to the series, enticing viewers and establishing depth of character with every shot. It hooks the viewer with its high concept of individuals trapped on a mysterious, deserted island after a plane crash, inducing the viewer to ask dozens of questions about mysteries the show barely even hints at. More importantly, the pilot episode introduces a large cast of characters of seeming clichés and expertly subverts expectations surrounding each one. And that’s not even to mention the technical filmmaking, which is marvelous. Abrams’ camera is kinetic, but coherent. His pace is furious, building the plot rapidly without overwhelming the viewer. He adds more characters, more problems, more mysteries every scene, but instead of crowding the episode, he adds depth to the world and to the thematic range of the show. Abrams’ pilot for Lost exhibits the kind of filmmaking that was rare for network television, even in the mid-2000s.
Abrams would demonstrate similar directorial talent in his feature film debut, Mission: Impossible III (2006). Although overshadowed by its immensely popular sequels (which Abrams also produced), the third Mission: Impossible film remains a fascinating action vehicle for its star. While functioning as little more than a human dynamo throughout the series, Ethan Hunt becomes someone resembling a real human being in this third entry. The film probes the psychology of this superspy by exploring his relationship with his fiancée, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), and exploring the difficulties of work-life balance. The filmmaking is conventional—Abrams is mimicking the fast cutting and shaking camera popularized by the Bourne films in the mid-2000s—but the particularity of the character detail isn’t for this sort of action thriller. It’s no surprise then that M:I III has the best villain of the series in Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Not only is Hoffman typically excellent, exhibiting pragmatic menace, but Abrams gives him the breathing space necessary to grow the dimensions of his character. Mission: Impossible III might no longer be the best in the series, but at the time of its release, it sure seemed like it was.
In 2009 Abrams pulled off his first of two successful reboots of a popular sci-fi property. Star Trek (2009) returned to the world of Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking television series by following the early exploits of Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto). Using a complicated plot involving black holes and time travel, the film is both a reboot of the original series and a chronological sequel to the previous ten Star Trek films.
Even more than in M:I III, Star Trek displays Abrams’ visual dynamism. His camera is less shaky. He’s less aping someone else’s style (which he has always been good at) and is more developing his own style, which favours perpendicular dolly moves and tiling steadicam shots. Most infamous of these is his predilection for lens flares, with which Abrams liberally peppers the film throughout. Still, for all its eccentricities, Star Trek is a wonderful blockbuster. It might sideline the focus on science and diplomacy that defined much of Roddenberry’s original series, but it captures the appeal of the original characters, distilling their essential traits and allowing new actors to riff on their famous personas. The entire new cast is well chosen, but Pine is particularly fantastic, projecting the cockiness of a young William Shatner without ever stooping to caricature. Star Trek might exhibit some wobbly story logic when viewed in retrospect, but Abrams never allows you to realize the jumps in logic during the film’s running time. His directorial momentum overrides any hiccups, pushing us into the next action sequence and revealing the particular charms of the characters in the midst of crisis.
If Star Trek shows Abrams’ ability to reinvigorate pre-existing pop-culture properties, Super 8 shows his ability to ape the filmmaking style of his mentors. Meant as a homage to 1980s young adult adventure films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and The Goonies, Super 8 follows a group of young aspiring filmmakers who find themselves in the middle of a crisis when an alien monster escapes after a train crash near their small Ohio town. Abrams spends an admirable amount of time developing the characters before even getting to the train crash, and then even more time before showing the monster on screen. Abrams is trying to make a film like Jaws or E.T., shooting like Spielberg with the focus on crisp movement and delaying payoff with the central monster, masking it off-screen or only showing glimpses here or there. Super 8 ultimately shows more digital seams than Abrams would probably like, but it’s a heartfelt facsimile of the films that inspired it. More importantly, it’s a genuinely moving portrait of childhood grief and the difficult process of family healing. It also again showcases Abrams’ undeniable talent for casting. Although it stars a cast of unknowns (save for Elle Fanning), Super 8’s cast of young actors is one of the best in recent memory.
In 2013 Abrams returned to the Star Trek universe with Star Trek Into Darkness. While the film is infamous for its marketing subterfuge, which constantly lied about the identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan, the film as it remains is an exciting adventure that again highlights the charms of its excellent cast. It runs 132-minutes long, but feels half that length because of Abrams’ pacing. It might not be Abrams’ best film, but it still stands above most blockbusters of its sort.
Other filmmakers in Hollywood clearly took notice of J.J. Abrams’ talent for sci-fi filmmaking. After George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, new Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy chose Abrams to direct the first in a new trilogy of Star Wars films. Although he initially turned down the opportunity as he was daunted by the pressure and expectation that would come with it, Abrams eventually agreed to direct the seventh entry in the Star Wars canon. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) picks up 30 years after Return of the Jedi (1983). Instead of the galaxy being in the state of perpetual bliss implied by the ending of Jedi, events have started to repeat themselves, with a new sinister organization, the First Order, rising from the ashes of the Empire to conquer the galaxy. The film’s plot mirrors the events of A New Hope (1977), with a young nobody (Daisy Ridley) living on a desert planet being swept up into a rebellion against this evil threat and learning to channel the Force flowing within her in a bid to defeat it. While this sounds very much like a remake of A New Hope, the film’s plot doesn’t play as a sloppy re-hashing. Instead, The Force Awakens instead makes the repetition its thematic focus.
Abrams explores nostalgia for the original trilogy of Star Wars films, both within the film and without. He also wisely understands that Star Wars is the dominant mythology of our times and that it’s focus on repetition (narratively and thematically) plays a key role in that mythology. And again, his talent for character shines. In Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, Abrams discovers two massively-talented future stars and gives them a vehicle to display their talent and charisma. While beloved characters from the original trilogy like Han Solo (Harrison Ford) appear in The Force Awakens, they don’t start showing up until the end of the first hour and never upstage the new characters. Star Wars: The Force Awakens manages the nifty trick of satisfying fans of the original films while also being about something more than empty nostalgia.
J.J. Abrams might never surpass the masters he emulates like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. But he also isn’t striving to. Abrams is a filmmaker interested in the history of popular storytelling and uses today’s vast array of filmmaking tools to further techniques from the past. He also has an uncanny ability to see a film from the viewer’s perspective. He knows how to make a film play like gangbusters—and he punctuates his stories with the sort of action, drama, and humour that makes them feel specific and justified. He aims primarily to please, but he’s no milquetoast filmmaker. He’s an innovative director with a keen eye for character and a knack for visual momentum. If every young filmmaker trying to be the next Steven Spielberg had the talent of J.J. Abrams, the world of cinema would be a better place.