Tuesday, November 28, 2023

How J.J. Abrams Swaps Stories For Feelings

“Maybe there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge,” so said J.J. Abrams during his 2007 TED Talk. It was a speech that revealed a great deal about Abrams, perhaps, if only, in retrospect. The topic of his talk was “The Mystery Box.” The guy who helped created Lost and Alias? The very same dude who directed the titillating Mission Impossible III? What could he reveal about storytelling and filmmaking? It was, almost, too much to bear.

Abrams started with a joke. He wanted to discuss the structure of polypeptides and played an earnest man. He was serious. Then the crowd laughed, a chorus of chuckles you could mistake for a How I Met Your Mother-quality laugh track. Abrams moved on. He knew what the audience was there for and so did the audience. He didn’t need to explain it. You got the joke.

I get a lot of people asking me, ‘What the hell’s that island?’

“I get a lot of people in terms of Lost, asking me, ‘What the hell’s that island?’” he said. Remember this was 2007. “It’s usually followed by, ‘No, seriously: What the hell’s that island?’”

Crowd produces another laugh track. Abrams moves on again. Next beat.

He’s an artist who works from desired effect backward. Abrams isn’t like Steven Spielberg, who receives a (mostly) unfair criticism as a pleaser, or George Lucas, whose perfectionist tendencies, and detailed world-building includes your interpretations of his world.

Abrams instead would like the attention of the class. He’s a showman on a stage, but that stage happens to be the audience’s immediate reactions. He wants your curiosity. He wants your intensity. He wants your wonder. He is very adept at capturing all those reactions because of his approach to storytelling. As he revealed in that TED Talk, “What are stories but mystery boxes?”

And when Abrams makes comments of that nature, all your questions that his work consistently generates, all that feeling of Needing to Know What It Means, collapses into just one query. Does Abrams even know what a story is?


Have you watched a J.J. Abrams movie lately? Watched is the wrong term. Have you re-watched a J.J. Abrams movie lately? The only one I can re-watch is Mission Impossible III and even then, if I forget to stop the film in its third act, I’m downright despondent at the end. The possible joy of watching that movie has little to do with its director, J.J. Abrams. It’s about the actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman as the villain and Tom Cruise, the hero.

Goodness, the way that film opens, Cruise strapped powerless to a chair, looking like a deranged, caged hedgehog, as Hoffman callously rips his heart out, then takes a bite before tossing it aside, the taste not up to standard. Hoffman persists as the best villain the Mission Impossible franchise because he so thoroughly undermines every “heroic” expectation we have of not only Cruise’s character Ethan Hunt, but Cruise himself. Hoffman’s character challenges Cruise’s, defeating him at every turn, because they’re playing different games; Cruise is in a game of chess while Hoffman plays fuck you. It’s the last time Cruise acted in a film with another Great Actor; probably because Hoffman worked him so.

A movie that finesses some complex subversion turns into disappointingly thin, weak sauce when Cruise needs to win, to be the hero. Nothing’s wrong with that happening. I mean, he is the hero. A similar plot envelops The Dark Knight, a classic. The Joker exploits every single flaw Batman has, jackhammering insanity into his cowl, until Batman’s forced to change. He becomes a better, deeper hero because of The Joker, accepting himself as The Dark Knight.

Cruise sort of just ‘wakes up,’ as if he were an amnesiac who suddenly remembers he can win, so he does.

That’s not what happens here. Cruise sort of just “wakes up,” as if he were an amnesiac who suddenly remembers he can win, so he does. Nothing really changes. And it’s like Hoffman forgets all of Cruise’s weaknesses, and starts playing chess with Cruise, a Grandmaster. The characters that started the film are not the same ones who end it, but there’s no reason, no explanation why.

Here’s the thing: This happens all the time in J.J. Abrams movies. No through-line ever exists for his characters. He wants them to experience pain, so they do, then just move on, like it never happened. No emotional resonance, no evolution of the character.

Think of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a movie I’ve refused to re-watch because I know it will disappoint me. The Big Scene, The Big Moment the movie builds to, that it knows you want, is the confrontation between Han Solo and Kylo Ren. A father and son with a shattered relationship. Han trying to reach out, mend his mistakes, because the weight of the galaxy is at stake, but also because a dad loves his son. But Kylo kills him. I don’t know if you got that: a son murders his father, Han freakin’ Solo, one of the most beloved characters in all of film, and do you remember how you felt?

It was something like sadness, but not really sadness. It’s like having average sex with someone you don’t love; you know it’s supposed to make you happy, so you convince yourself it does, but your heart never buys it. Maybe in the moment your faking it works, but later on, you realize how hollow that emotion was. And that’s how it always feels watching a J.J. Abrams movies and why they’re so atrocious to re-watch: His movies are good-enough one-night stands. Sometimes they’re a little better than good. But everyone who ever has knows the truth about a one-night stand: You never go back. There’s nothing really there. There never was in the first place. It’s usually better to pretend otherwise.


News broke recently that Meryl Streep was starring in a show called The Nix. Huge news. The upper echelon of the highest tier of acting talent in the world, one of our biggest and best movie stars was headded to television. What does this mean for movies? If Streep would do TV, does that mean TV had finally won?

I’m not really interested in answering that question. Nor am I interested in qualifying if movies are dead (for the thousandth time). My main concern is simple: I’m worried J.J. Abrams will be the show’s creator.

Abrams is a successful show creator. Very successful. Does that make him a good one?

The trick of TV—and I know I’m not breaking new ground here—is encasing characters in prolonged stasis without seeming like that’s what you’re doing. What people consider TV’s golden age is a bunch of creators realizing they didn’t have to do that. Shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire, and even going back to a show like Oz. But the main tract of most TV, even in our #peakTV era, remains the same: making characters remain mostly the same, changing as necessary to keep things interesting.

Our good friend Abrams is really good at that. Add his patented “Mystery Box” technique, putting a strangle hold to your curiosity, and it’s little wonder why he breeds so many successful projects.

The best thing Abrams ever helped create was Lost. He produced other great programs, but with Lost, he was directly involved in the process. After it was picked up, Abrams pretty infamously left to direct Mission Impossible III, and the show fell in the lap of then-rookie showrunner Damon Lindlelof. Carlton Cruse was also brought on as showrunner, and the pair produced much of the show’s greater mythology and narrative. Dissecting the eventual divisive reception of Lost is fairly straightforward: a) those who needed their questions answered and b) those who realized the show’s characters were far more compelling than the greater mystery.

Years later, that initial aesthetic Abrams helped created for Lost, those grand questions—what’s the Smoke Monster? Who are The Others? What the hell’s that island?—barely register as memorable. A younger family member recently binged the show and kept asking me questions along that nature, and I could barely remember the answers, let alone the questions. What I recalled was “Not Penny’s boat” and Jin and Sun Kwon’s love and Desmond’s catchphrase “See you in another life, brotha.” The mystery always fades away. I wish Abrams realized that.

He’s made tons of money and studios trust him more than possibly anyone in Hollywood.

But probably not. He’s made tons of money, produced basically whatever he wants, and studios trust him more than possibly anyone in Hollywood. Why should he?

Here’s the IMDb description for his newest show The Nix: “A son investigates his estranged mother’s secretive past in order to clear her name.” More alluring mystery boxes. More big wonder. But for a guy who loves asking such big, compelling questions, you wished he’d eventually deliver a decent answer.


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