The Mystery MacGuffin
J.J. Abrams loves mysteries. Long-running mysteries. Multifaceted mysteries. Mysteries of publicity. Mysteries inside of mysteries. He gave a whole speech once about mysteries. See? It all started with Rambaldi, the Renaissance scientist whose curious inventions powered Alias. From beyond the grave, Rambaldi kept on dropping helpful artifacts onto the Alias plot. (Call him Tupac ex Machina.) Mystery powered Abrams’ most famous creation — the TV show Lost. Before departing for the big screen, Abrams co-created the series with Damon Lindelof and directed the pilot; in fact, the series premiere of Lost could be his masterpiece. What is that monster? Why is there a polar bear on a tropical island? Who are these people? Where are we? All four of Abrams’ films are structured as mysteries. (What is that mysterious ship in the cloud? Why are the dogs running away? Who is John Harrison?) Because Abrams is so secretive, and because he was an early adopter of the Internet-as-publicity-scavenger-hunt, the films develop their own meta-mysteries. Nothing in the Abrams-produced Cloverfield is as interesting as the months-long hunt to figure out exactly what Cloverfield was. And because so little was known about Star Trek Into Darkness, the pre-release buzz for the movie focused on one simple question: Is it Khan?
J.J. Abrams loves mysteries. He does not, however, necessarily like solving mysteries. The MacGuffin at the center of his first film, Mission: Impossible 3, is called the ”Rabbit’s Foot.” Everyone wants it. People kill for it. What is it? A virus? A Rambaldi sphere? Red matter? (Spoiler Alert: We never find out.) It’s important to note that, in that TED talk, Abrams specifically says that he has never opened his mystery box. It’s interesting to note that Abrams launched three different series rooted around mystery MacGuffins — Alias, Lost, and Fringe — and then eventually (or quickly) departed all three, leaving collaborators behind to tease out the answers with varying degrees of success. (On Alias, they failed; on Lost, they succeeded until they failed; on Fringe, they completely changed course and succeeded, then completely changed course and failed.) For Abrams, the destination is never as interesting as the journey, and the answer is never as interesting as the question. This is why his movies are so exciting, and also why his endings aren’t very good.
A Team on a Mission, With Occasional Smooches
Abrams’ film- and TVography is dotted with lovable work families who spend all their time together. They’re coworkers and friends and inevitably lovers. In Alias, Mission: Impossible 3, and the short-lived dramedy Undercovers, the lead characters were spies. In Star Trek, they’re the Enterprise crew. It’s even there in Super 8, a film which was set up as an explicit homage to the early work of Steven Spielberg. But it’s telling that, in Spielberg’s movies, the kids are just kids; in Super 8, they’re a film crew. Inevitably, there must be some sexual tension — and so, in Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek, Spock and Uhura are a couple, like Sydney Bristow and Vaughn before them (and Peter and Olivia after them). (Intriguingly, Abrams directed an episode of The Office — probably the defining work-family portrait of our age — that was heavy on the intra-workplace romantic drama.)
Documentary Style, Fantastical Locations
After Felicity, Abrams has worked almost exclusively in fantastical genres featuring spies, monsters, spaceships, and explosions. But the filmmaker prefers to shoot his movies in an aesthetic that — once upon a time, at least — owed more to documentaries. His Lost pilot established the visual grammar for that show with shaky cameras and close-ups. Mission: Impossible 3 ramped that up — coming out two years after The Bourne Supremacy, M:I 3 is an overlooked tipping point for the whole shaky-cam takeover of the action genre. This particular style may have reached its apex in Abrams’ Star Trek duet, wherein wholly digital sequences are ”filmed” with fake-shakes, fake-zooms…and, of course, copious lens flares. The ”J.J. Abrams Loves Lens Flares” meme is a bit unfair; Abrams’ icon, Steven Spielberg, was a fan.
More to the point, it underscores just how purposeful Abrams’ style is. In many ways, the filmmaker is the polar opposite of Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, whose fantastical films are shot like epic tapestries. Abrams shoots events that are as big as anything in Lord of the Rings or Pacific Rim, but he purposefully keeps the camera’s eye on the human level. Although he didn’t direct Cloverfield, it’s a perfect expression of his aesthetic: A monster movie, possibly the most over-the-top genre ever, is filmed with the same camera you use to film your kids’ birthday parties.
Intelligence + Emotion = Smart popcorn
The essential appeal of the science fiction and fantasy genres used to veer toward the fantastical. Classics like Lord of the Rings or the original Star Trek transported its audience to faraway universes populated by imaginative creatures. By and large, the characters — although memorable — weren’t particularly deep. In the past few decades, though, there’s been a trend toward bringing added dimensionality towards genre characters. It’s there in Game of Thrones, it’s there in Whedonography, and it’s all over the work of J.J. Abrams. Just look at his Star Trek, which gives Uhura more plot in a single movie than she had in decades of Trek history. Or look at Mission: Impossible 3, which took protagonist Ethan Hunt — previously a Bondian spy with a new love interest in every movie — and turned him into a married man.
Abrams’ focus on character sometimes comes at the expense of the narrative structure: Both Star Trek movies have clear-cut character arcs and almost incoherent plotlines, rife with bizarre inconsistencies and logical leaps that would be ridiculous if the movie didn’t race right past them. Weirdly, the most profound personal statement ever made about Abrams’ aesthetic came from the movie Morning Glory, which he produced. In Morning Glory, Harrison Ford plays a Dan Rather-y old newsman who wants to focus on hard news; Rachel McAdams plays the hot shot somewhat Abrams-y young news producer who tries to convince him that he needs to blend intelligent serious stories with lovable human interest stories and a segment about how to cook the perfect frittata. In this metaphor, Harrison Ford is the original Star Trek, J.J. Abrams is Rachel McAdams, and the Star Trek reboot is frittata. But the frittata is so yummy!
Women Who Kick Ass
Like fellow geek lord Joss Whedon, Abrams rose to prominence with a series of projects that featured strong-willed action heroines. Alias was basically pitched as ”Felicity becomes a spy.” In Mission: Impossible 3, Abrams actually made Felicity a spy: Years before she went Soviet in The Americans, Keri Russell enlivened the spy threequel with a small but pivotal role as an MI6 badass. Abrams’ four films have been more male-centric, but give him credit for pushing Uhura to the front of the Star Trek cast — so much so that McCoy, classically the third member of the Trek power trio, has become a supporting character.
Women Who Kick Ass and Also Strip Down At Least Once
There’s a tricky duality side to Abrams’ female characters: They are all strong, thoughtful, three-dimensional characters who nevertheless will strip down for at least one trailer-ready scene. This is particularly noticeable in the Star Trek movies, where first Zoë Saldana and now Alice Eve spend an entire scene (albeit it less than 15 seconds of screen time) in their underwear. These are such obvious trailer moments — both featured prominently in both films’ advertising. Usually, there’s a self-conscious attempt to make a joke out of it: The TV series Undercovers coined the unmemorable term ”sexpionage,” which basically meant star Gugu Mbatha-Raw semi-seduced a guy using her feminine wiles and, more to the point, her underwear. (This scene was repeated almost identically, this time with Paula Patton, in the Abrams-produced Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.)
There’s nothing particularly leering about these scenes. Abrams ain’t Michael Bay. Beside his for-the-trailer scenes, Abrams’ vision of sexuality on film is actually very PG, rife with weepy dudes and stalwart girlfriends. Really, you get the sense that the underwear scenes are just a national extension of his hucksterist sensibility — when Alias aired an episode right after the Super Bowl, it began with star Jennifer Garner doing two separate lingerie struts — one in black, the other in red. (She may as well have been holding a sign saying, ”Look, America! This show has boobs!”) But, for all the Lost pilot’s incredibly thought-provoking thrills, the signature Abrams move in the whole two-hour event might be the moment in the second hour when — in the wreckage of a devastating plane crash, just yards away from piles of dead bodies, mere hours after what amounts to probably the worst tragedy in any of the characters’ lives — Shannon puts on a skimpy bikini and starts working on her tan.
In the original Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise were professionals at work. Professionals? Heck, you got the sense that they were the greatest starship crew in the universe. Compare that to the crew we meet in the new Star Trek. Kirk is a hot shot distrusted by his superiors. Pretty much all the crew members get promoted midway through the movie, mostly because their direct superiors die or can’t speak Romulan. And Kirk and Spock hate each other. If the original Star Trek expressed a mid-century optimism about human interaction, the new Star Trek expresses our modern interpersonal mess, with everyone struggling with everyone else. The cast of Lost exemplifies this, too — the show is stocked with characters who are outwardly confident but inwardly troubled, struggling with their past and not entirely sure they can connect to the new people in their lives. Of course, all of these people are hilariously attractive and are actually incredibly successful: Jack is a crusading Doctor, Kirk can never make a bad decision. The typical Abrams protagonist is a superhero who feels like an everyman but is still unquestionably a superhero; the closest thing to an actual everyman in Abrams’ work is probably Hurley, who — it should be noted — was a millionaire.
Untrustworthy Authority Figures
You can’t trust the government. You definitely can’t trust people who operate at high levels of the government. Mission: Impossible 3‘s Musgraves, Alias‘s CIA-agent-gone-rogue Sloane, Super 8‘s Colonel Nelec…all men with shadowy motivations, who might as well be twirling their mustaches.
Character Development Is a Series of Twists
Abrams’ obsession with mysteries is all-encompassing. His movies aren’t about characters solving mysteries; in his work, characters quite literally are the mysteries, with key information about them slowly revealed. In both of his Star Treks, the villainous figures are introduced with no explanation and take confusing, often inexplicable actions; we only gradually come to understand who they are. Frequently, the revelation of key information forces us to radically rethink our understanding of the characters: This was especially true on Alias, with its double and triple agents, and the occasional revelation that a central character had been lying about his or her life for the entire run of the show.
But here again, the place to look is the Lost pilot. The two-hour premiere introduced a host of stock character types — Noble Hero, Spunky Heroine, Quirky Sidekick. Then the flashbacks radically altered our view of them: Quirky Sidekick Charlie was a heroin addict; Spunky Heroine Kate had been in handcuffs before the plane crashed. The Lost pilot created the whole narrative style of the show — as the character arcs moved forward on the Island, the flashbacks peeled off more layers of the characters and consistently complicated our understanding of the cast.
Villains Who Make No Sense
There’s an unfortunate flip side to that onion-peeling narrative style: Very often, the villains in Abrams’ work have motivations so complicated that they wind up being confusing, if not outright nonsensical. In the first Star Trek, Nero is variously presented as a grieving family man, a vengeful warlord, and a sniggering mustache twirler. The villainous John Harrison in Into Darkness has a similar problem: His motivations veer madly from personal vengeance to genocidal megalomania. The final twist of Super 8 is constructed as a weepy moment of raw humanism — the alien has a soul! — but in the context of the alien’s frankly monstrous actions throughout the movie, it feels off-key. Abrams is great at providing his heroic characters with added dimensionality, but his antagonists often feel all-over-the-place — they fit into whatever villainous act the movie requires of them, but the collective acts don’t make much sense. That tendency is already on display in Joy Ride, the underrated thriller Abrams cowrote with Clay Tarver. Malevolent trucker Rusty Nail would basically need to have supernatural powers and the ability to time travel for the movie to make any sense. But hey, it’s fun.
In Medias Res
You want to make your movie more exciting? Why not start at the craziest and most intense moment possible? Abrams’ Star Trek presents the birth of Captain Kirk as a massive space battle with kamikaze conclusion, while Mission: Impossible 3 and the Lost pilot both start at the crazy point and then flash back to fill in the blanks. (Super 8, with its quiet funeral prologue, is the subtle exception.)
Gigantic Alien Insect Reptile Things With a Gross Array of Limbs
Because humanoid aliens are so last century.