Quick query. Is J.J. Abrams the new Spielberg? Think about it. Or is it now more apt to equate the visionary Hollywood power-player with that of George Lucas? Perhaps J.J. can be considered a 21st century hybrid of the two. After-all, few filmmakers these days can wield the same kind of producorial power and still remain an uncompromised artistic output the way Abrams has. Of course, when you literally take the STAR WARS reins away from one, echo the Amblin style and sentiment of the other (SUPER 8), the comparisons seems even more accurately warranted. But here's the thing. Abrams is a writer at heart. That's where he made his bones, where he cut his teeth. And believe it or not, it's in Abrams' long litany of writing credits where he's toiled most within the horror/sci-fi/thriller genre. LOST is the obvious one, which he created and directed the pilot episodes for, but don't front on other series like ALIAS, FRINGE, ALMOST HUMAN, and most recently WESTWORLD and 11.22.63. And hell, that's just on the small screen!
So, with 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE currently ravaging the box-office, what better time to take a much closer peek at the career so far of one J.J. Abrams, the wunderkind extraordinaire? A lot to get to friends...let's Dissect!
Critically, culturally, financially...you'd be a bit foolish to call anything but STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS as Abrams' most successful film to date. Yet, since we don't cover STAR WARS around here - and STAR TREK by proxy - we'll opt to cite another amorous ode to the Spielbergian tableau in SUPER 8 as the man's most accomplished. Remember the ad campaign? Recall the enigmatic hype, the mystery, the utter secrecy studded by one illegible teaser after another. It was almost as effective as that as CLOVERFIELD, with the one major difference being Abrams actually directed SUPER 8. And not just directed, but clearly constructed it in a way that was nostalgically redolent of what Spielberg was laying down in the early 80s Amblin films, E.T., GREMLINS, THE GOONIES etc. So much so that Abrams opted to set SUPER 8 in 1979. In a way, the flick functions quite well as a straight up monster movie, but does so even better as a heartfelt love letter to filmmaking itself...nascent 8mm filmmaking as a wide-eyed adolescent.
Part of the reason SUPER 8 works so well is the wise casting of the youngsters. Elle Fanning in particular is a bona fide movie star (as she's since proven), but the rapport developed between the other relatively unknown young actors is really a sight to behold. These feel like real kids, real friends who bicker and bitch, but also aid and abet with each other in order to discover the major mystery that comes barreling into their quaint little Ohio town. There's an undoubted authenticity. Of course, the visuals Abrams uses reinforces the action to give us both a poignant coming of age tale as a well as a visceral monster movie. Sure it takes a little while to get there, and once it does, the mystery tends to fizzle a tad (a la CLOVERFIELD), but for the target aimed at...for the desire to make a movie that captures what it was like to be a 12 year old film fanatic in the early 80s...SUPER 8 succeeds far more than most. In terms of the technical, it's a nod to the past and a glimpse at the future!
The less said about Abrams writing the Joe Pesci/Danny Glover buddy-comedy GONE FISHIN' the better. Sheesh! Then again, ARMAGEDDON too sticks out like a stale dingleberry in Abrams' butt-load of credits. That's right y'all, as a fresh faced kid trying to make his way, Abrams indeed scripted the epic Michael Bay disaster-flick ARMAGEDDON. No joke. Now, it can be argued that screenplay isn't the main problem the film suffers from. After-all, it did attract a gargantuan A-list cast including Billy Bob, Bruce Willis and the rest, but come on, the more time that has passed, the more ridiculous the entire story seems. A huge squad of cosmonauts sent to blast an asteroid headed for Earth? Shite sounds like a f*cking Ed Wood picture. The real question is, how much of Abrams' original script carried over to the finished product? I mean, with 4 other writers credited on the film, my guess is there was a lot that was lost in translation. Still, there's no denying what a massive success the film was globally, and that it catapulted JJ's name into a bankable commodity for studios to place trust in. Three short years later, ALIAS was born. The rest is history...
The JJ Abrams brand is rife with identifiable markers. For instance, the dude can't get enough of placing pregnant women in deep peril. He's done so on all his major TV shows, ALIAS, LOST and FRINGE. He also favors the number 47, for whatever reason. We know he tends to keep a shroud of secrecy around his projects, likely as a marketing ploy, and that his admiration for Spielberg and Lucas manifests in visual cues, lens flares, huge vehicle collisions, etc. We also know that J.J. favors the music of Michael Giacchino, and that mysterious boxes with unknown contents tend to show up in the bulk of his writing.
But speaking of writing, that's exactly what I think Abrams' ought to be more trademarked for. Hear us out. For all the visual flare and mighty authority to get a film green-lit, Abrams has far more writing credits than ones in any other department. Not only has the man created iconic TV shows like ALIAS, LOST and FRINGE, the dude broke stories for each, penning episodes that tally up into the hundreds. Look, it's easy to cast a power-player like Abrams as a grand wizard of Hollywood decision making, a guy who sits back and calls the shots, but make no mistake, Abrams is a writer at heart. Hell, fresh out of college it was scripts for wildly disparate flicks like TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS, REGARDING HENRY, GONE FISHIN', FOREVER YOUNG, ARMAGEDDON, and of course, our favorite, JOY RIDE...that really gave JJ his start.
It's easy to overlook movies that aren't actually directed by Abrams himself. JOY RIDE is one such flick, which is an absolute gas, but so too is the original CLOVERFIELD. Both flicks employ trademark Abrams stylings, but in slightly different ways. Let's break it down a bit...
JOYRIDE is truly a lot of fun. Helmed by underrated director John Dahl (RED ROCK WEST, ROUNDERS), the film does a great job of establishing likeable characters in the late Paul Walker and always amusing Steve Zahn. The two play brothers tasked with traveling across country to pick up Leelee Sobieski's character, who enjoys a burgeoning relationship with Walker's. Along the way however, a thrilling cat and mouse game ensues between the brothers and a sinister truck driver who constantly they tease through the CB radio. Thanks to Abrams, the movie is fraught with great tension and suspense, particularly in the back-half when the truck driver orchestrates confrontation. It's at once a road movie, a buddy comedy, a chase-thriller and a psychological horror flick...all tethered by brotherhood and the emotional core therein. I liked the movie when I first saw, but actually love it after repeat viewings. JOY RIDE is early Abrams at his best!
And if JOY RIDE is exemplary writing, CLOVERFIELD is an undoubted masterwork in marketing. Abrams deserves credit for both. I mean, without either writing or directing it, somehow CLOVERFIELD has become synonymous with J.J. Abrams, even more so than Drew Goddard and Matt Reeves. Same goes with 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, which not only seemingly came out of nowhere (in typical JJ fashion), but also feels like a must-see Abrams event-film despite the fact he merely produced it. As for the film itself, its narrative enigma perfectly mirrored its marketing mystery, and even among the shaky-cam, docu-style shooting aesthetic, all the way up until the ultimate reveal of the Earth-invading monsters, the movie follows that very sense of mystery and intrigue in total lockstep with the way the movie was sold to the public. So often we get the intrigue leading up, only to be let down by the final product. Not the case with CLOVERFIELD, which somehow feels like a J.J. Abrams film without the man either writing or directing it. Like the best of magicians, the sleight of hand is undetectable!
No surprise to learn J.J. has a handful of joints ready to puff out. We all know that 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE has destroyed the box-office to the tune of $25 million on opening weekend, but 2016 is poised to be a big year for Abrams on both the big and small screen alike. MI-6 is on the brink, which he'll produce, as is the next STAR TREK installment (STAR TREK BEYOND). There's also a big-screen videogame adaptation of PORTAL that has been announced, details beyond that are scant however. So instead, the real excitement for J.J. will likely come from a pair of projects that we couldn't be more excited for. What do you all know about WESTWORLD and HALF LIFE?
Seriously, WESTWORLD is an HBO series we've been tracking for years now, and couldn't be more pumped to see how it all plays out. Based on the 1973 film of the same name, the series will no doubt explore the ever growing deleterious nature of man melding into machine, what constitutes autonomy, sense of self, and how past mistakes are bound to repeat in the future. The cast couldn't be more accomplished, lead by Ed Harris and Sir Anthony Hopkins. The 10-episode run has yet to lock an official release, but with Abrams on board to oversee the quality, no wait is too long. This show is gonna kick some serious ass!
So too is HALF LIFE, it sure sounds like. Currently very early on in development:
The Half-Life series begins in the 2000s, at the fictional Black Mesa Research Facility in New Mexico. Gordon Freeman, a recently employed theoretical physicist, is involved in an experiment analyzing an unknown crystalline artifact; however, when the anti-mass spectrometer beam contacts the crystal, it creates a resonance cascade that opens a dimensional rift between Black Mesa and another world called Xen, causing monsters to swarm Black Mesa and kill many of the facility's personnel. Attempts by the Black Mesa personnel to close the rift are unsuccessful, leading to a Marine Recon unit being sent in to silence the facility, including any survivors from the science team. Freeman fights through the facility to meet with several other scientists, who decide to travel to the alien dimension to stop the aliens. On Xen, Freeman eliminates the alien "leader" and is confronted by the G-Man, who offers Freeman employment before putting him into stasis. Back in Black Mesa, a second alien.
While nothing is yet solidified in terms of production, word is Abrams may opt to turn the material into a feature film rather than a TV series. Either avenue, it sounds like not only a story worth telling, but one that perfectly suits the Bad Robot sensibility. Real shite, HALF LIFE could so iconic as to live in perpetuity!
It's no overstatement to claim the world of TV and film would be drastically different without the fingerprint of J.J. Abrams. Over the last decade and a half, Abrams has become one of the loudest and most influential authorial voices in the game...bar none. What he's done to revitalize television programming with ALIAS, LOST, FRINGE, not to mention reinvigorate iconic properties like STAR TREK and STAR WARS...well, it's impact is nothing short of seismic. Through his Bad Robot production banner, J.J. is constantly changing the face of cinema and long-form storytelling in a way we've not seen since perhaps the halcyon days of Spielberg and Lucas. That's some high praise indeed. Ever since bursting onto the scene with the big, dumb Michael Bay movie ARMAGEDDON, Abrams has grown as an filmmaking artist and power-producer, one willing to take on much loftier, more cerebral material. ALIAS, LOST and FRINGE constitute such on the TV side of the ledger, while JOY RIDE, CLOVERFIELD, SUPER 8, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE and others stand out on the cinematic side. And that's not even mentioning the operatic space adventures of STAR TREK and STAR WARS. Hell, it's an Abrams universe and we're just living in it. Could be a lot worse though, right?