The New Spielberg: Can JJ Abrams Conquer Hollywood?
Remember the scene in Manhattan when Woody Allen is accused of thinking he’s God? He replies, “Well, I’ve got to model myself on someone.”
JJ Abrams might say the same about Steven Spielberg. Watching his latest film, Super 8, it’s impossible not to see it as an act of homage to a favourite director. The focus on a kids’-eye-view, the suburban late 70s setting, the careful shot compositions, backlighting, and the relatively slow tempo of the first act, all these bring to mind Spielberg’s early hits, especially Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and ET: The Extra Terrestrial – as well as many of the movies Spielberg produced in the early 80s, like Gremlins, Explorers and The Goonies.
The allusions make sense. Super 8 is the story of a movie-mad 12-year-old kid and his best friend who are shooting a Super 8 zombie flick when they witness a terrifying crash. At the time they don’t quite register the full import of what has happened, but as the town is transformed into a military zone – and people keep disappearing – they realize they have lucked into A-class production design on the cheap.
All they have to do is set up their camera with the military personnel in the background and they’ll have their own epic and change from $10.
These kids don’t name-check Spielberg specifically (ET hasn’t been made yet) but they’re kindred souls even if they don’t know it.
If it takes a certain arrogance to compare yourself to Spielberg, certainly the most successful moviemaker of his generation and arguably of all time, Abrams does seem like the current heir apparent. For a start, Spielberg is a producer on Super 8, and his company Amblin made the film in partnership with Abrams’ Bad Robot.
Then there’s the tantalizing titbit that when Abrams and his buddy Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) were 15, back in the early 80s, they won a national Super-8 filmmaking competition and were rewarded with an unexpected phone call from Spielberg’s assistant, Kathleen Kennedy, who asked if they would be interested in restoring her boss’s old Super 8 movies from when he was their age. (Of course they agreed.)
That was nearly 30 years ago, and Spielberg has remained at the top, or very near it, ever since. Abrams took a little longer than the boy wonder who made Duel at 25 and Jaws at 29 – but not much. It was only researching this article that I realized I reviewed his first produced screenplay, a feeble Trading Places style comedy with Jim Belushi and Charles Grodin that was called Filofax back in 1990 (he was 24 and credited as Jeffrey Abrams then).
I also reviewed (and trashed) his second screenplay, Regarding Henry, in 1991. That was the one where Harrison Ford played a nasty lawyer who finds peace and happiness after he suffers permanent brain damage in a shooting incident.
Things improved with Forever Young, Armageddon and John Dahl’s Joy Ride (2000), but it was on TV that Abrams had his first big success, as the showrunner on Felicity, a hit show with Keri Russell that lasted four seasons, 1998 to 2002.
He really hit his stride with the Jennifer Garner vehicle Alias in 2001, directing a few episodes himself that caught the eye of Tom Cruise, then looking for someone to step into the shoes vacated by Brian De Palma and John Woo on Mission:Impossible III (released in 2006).
And of course there was Lost (2004), probably the most hotly debated show of the new millennium, and a pop cultural phenomenon that few movies could compete with.
By the time he came on board to relaunch Star Trek (2009) and with Reeeves’ Cloverfield also hitting big that year, Abrams was a genuine powerbroker, someone who seemed to understand movies and TV equally well, and who has his finger on the audience pulse.
To that extent, those Spielberg comparisons have some justification. Abrams is more of a writer than Spielberg ever was, and he’s less of a visual stylist, but even so they share a knack for popular storytelling that’s smart without being too cerebral, emotionally open without being cheap or shallow.
And they’re both sharp careerists. From the evidence we can see already that Matt Reeves (Let Me In; Cloverfield) is a more gifted director. But Abrams has sought control, he insisted on producer credits almost from the start. Consequently he’s a player, with sequels to Mission: Impossible, Cloverfield and Star Trek all coming up (plus several TV shows), while Reeves remains essentially a hired hand.
Of course it will be a long time before Bad Robot can seriously be compared with Amblin, let alone Dreamworks, studio Spielberg co-founded with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, but Abrams is in the game in a more serious way than most of his peers – people like Aaron Sorkin, or Christopher Nolan, or David Fincher… people who, we might say, are more interested in making their own movies than making deals.
And that’s what sets Abrams apart from most of the previous filmmakers who have been touted as “the new Spielberg” over the years. Journalists and industry watchers have been at it for decades, as much in hope as expectation. Everyone from Lewis Teague (remember Alligator?), Steve Lisberger (the original Tron), Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), Kerry Conran (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), Joe Johnston (who’s back with Captain America this summer after the disastrous Wolfman), M Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) and even M Bay have suffered the weight of this impossible comparison. Some have delivered hits, others never did, but only the very unSpielberg-ian and not at all prolific James Cameron can really compete for bragging rites.
Can Abrams pick up that mantle? With the industry in such turmoil at this point of transition, Hollywood desperately needs a new standard bearer. JJ just might fit the bill.
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