What’s Inside The Mystery Box Of JJ Abrams’ Career?

When did JJ Abrams suddenly become the next great filmmaker?

The standard wisdom these days is that JJ Abrams is some sort of visionary; he is the heir apparent to Steven Spielberg, and he’s truly attempting to claim that throne this weekend with Super 8. There’s an almost holy aura surrounding Abrams in geekdom these days; to criticize one of his projects outs you as a hater, even though his ‘mystery box’ technique of marketing means that nobody - not the haters or the lovers - can really be sure what the hell Abrams is cooking up until the movie is released. What the Abrams lovers are basing their love for his upcoming projects on is simply HIM. That’s a pretty great position for a filmmaker to be in, to be the star of his own productions. There are two names selling Super 8, and one is Abrams (the other, of course, Spielberg, officially anointing the next in the line of succession).

But when the hell did JJ Abrams become that guy? When was it that he did something that was so good it would make us excited about him taking over an issue of Wired, or that would make us excited about him painstakingly aping the movies of thirty years ago? When did JJ Abrams ascend to that next level of filmmaking, where he is one of those guys whose every activity sets geek hearts aflutter?

My theory: Lost. Which means all of this is a Barnum-level exercise in self-promotion.

But let’s backtrack. You may think that Abrams burst onto the scene with Alias, but the truth is that he was a very successful, very rich screenwriter all through the 90s. The problem is that he was absolutely no fucking good at it. Don’t believe me? Look at his actual filmography, which contains junk like Regarding Henry, Gone Fishing and Jim Belushi’s Taking Care of Business. His peak, artistically, is being one of a cadre of writers on Armageddon. The 90s were a bad time at the movies, and they were largely a bad time because of hack writers like Abrams, who took milquetoast middle of the ground Hollywood stuff like Forever Young and found ways to make it even blander.

If you think I’m being harsh about Abrams’ output in the 90s go watch some of those films and get back to me. Also look into the huge amounts of money that Abrams was being paid to write this crap. Of course it’s possible that this was the period where Abrams was building his Fuck You bank account, getting enough cash and clout so that he could come around and make the projects that he wanted to make. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a filmmaker have a money grubbing period quite as extensive (or bad) as Abrams’ before they tried to put their own vision on film, but anything is possible.

At any rate in 1998 Abrams went where he always belonged: TV. He created the show Felicity which is, to my mind, still the best thing he’s done. This isn’t a backhanded compliment because I watched and really enjoyed most of Felicity in its initial run. Like other Abrams-connected TV series, Felicity really ran out of steam quickly, but when it was good it was pretty great.  And Felicity, I think, is the project that was most perfectly in Abrams’ wheelhouse. He is great at casting and creating likable characters and then stealing elements from other more interesting, radical things to construct his own, very unchallenging property. And so Felicity is heaping helpings of My So-Called Life and Joss Whedon, mixed in with on the nose homages to safely nerdy things like The Twilight Zone. But it all works; Felicity breaks no ground but is nice and an enjoyable teen melodrama.

Abrams followed that up by creating Alias, a show I don’t know as well as Felicity. It seems to be the genesis of his ‘mystery box’ technique, with the entire series being built around MacGuffins; the episodes I’ve seen are enjoyable, and again his penchant for good casting is on display. But like Felicity the general consensus is that the air came out of Alias fairly quickly (this certainly can’t bode well for Star Trek 2, can it?). It’s possible that my lack of extended knowledge of Alias means that I’m missing the Rosetta Stone of JJ Abrams’ career, and if so you should certainly weigh in about it in the comments.

And then we come to Lost. This, it seems to me, is the moment where it all really changed for Abrams. This is where his name became synonymous with geek properties that become inexplicably mainstream, where his ‘mystery box’ PR spin became the guiding principal of his career and where his reputation as a giant in the pop culture landscape was cemented.

The problem is that’s not really fair. Even Abrams will admit that Lost is all about Damon Lindelof, with Lindelof’s vision held together by Carlton Cuse. While the Lost pilot demonstrated that Abrams is no slouch as a director, the aura that Lost conferred upon him was really a reflection of what Lindelof and Cuse were doing.

Just compare what was happening in Lost with what was happening in Mission: Impossible III. M:I3 is, I believe, when that warm glow of Lost really began boosting Abrams, with people digging into a very thin meal and pretending it was some sort of incredible feast.

This isn’t to say that M:I3 is bad, but it’s not all that great. I think we all have enough distance now to look at it and basically shrug. Abrams brought his maddening ‘mystery box’ with him, basing the whole film on a way too front and center MacGuffin (Abrams treats his M:I3 MacGuffin like he treats lens flares in Star Trek and Super 8, like a man who has no idea what subtlety is. Ie, a TV guy). M:I3 improves on comparison with M:I2 but suffers when compared to… well, to most other action movies lately.

What’s interesting is that the film didn’t even do that well, all told. It’s the third highest grossing of the three in the franchise to date, and it didn’t even make back its budget domestically. Now, there was a Tom Cruise cloud hanging over the film’s release, so maybe that explains why Paramount decided to make Abrams their in-house wonderboy despite the decent but not great earnings.

The studio has really taken to the director, and my understanding of his production deal at Paramount is that he has a lot of leeway. They moved him directly on to one of their biggest projects, rehabilitating the moribund Star Trek franchise, which he did very well. In many ways Star Trek is the ultimate Abrams film: well cast, amiable and middle of the road direction, inept scripting and a mystery box that, once it’s open, proves to be empty.

That mystery box is, I think, the metaphor for Abrams’ entire career to date. There’s never been an Abrams property where the mystery inside the mystery box was worth a damn, but the way that box was presented sure was enticing. Super 8 is no different from all of that, to be honest; this week ‘What is the #super8secret’ has been popping up on Twitter, and there’s a site called www.super8secret.com. The problem is that there is no Super 8 secret, and I can tell you that conclusively having seen the film. That’s not a spoiler or a critique of the film - although lord knows I have critiques of the film - but simply an honest appraisal of it. Another empty mystery box. Super 8 is essentially exactly what you think it is, and holds no surprises.

I truly like Abrams’ Star Trek, and have watched it multiple times in theaters and at home on Blu. But it’s not a great film; it’s a really good film that bucked the odds. The reality is that JJ Abrams is the chosen one of Paramount, and they’ve spent a good deal of time and effort marketing him as the next big thing. That’s a smart move, and I like it when studios place their money on filmmakers rather than franchises.

JJ Abrams is a strong journeyman director. His films look good but aren’t distinctive, and his stories are subpar at best. JJ Abrams is a good enough director, but where he’s truly a visionary is at being a huckster - both for his films and for himself.