J.J. Abrams Is The Most Overrated Director of Our Time

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The director of Super 8 and co-creator of Lost loves mystery boxes with nothing inside them.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Super 8. It's one of the few big summer movies that's neither a sequel nor a comic-book adaptation, and its initial advertising campaign was low-key and intriguing. But Super 8's latest trailers make the Steven Spielberg-produced film look like a fan-made mashup of Close Encounters, E.T., and The Goonies. That just makes it all the more obvious that director J.J. Abrams is no Steven Spielberg.

Abrams isn't completely talentless; it's more like his reputation as a brilliant creator is inflated all out of proportion to his modest achievements. Only Joss Whedon is more ardently revered as a guru of geek culture. But when you examine Abrams' body of work, it's hard to fathom exactly how he attained this aura of creative genius. Like so much of his work, Abrams' popularity is a mystery without a satisfying answer.

It's certainly not based on the screenplays he wrote early in his career as "Jeffrey Abrams." You'd change your name too if your credits included sentimental dramas like Regarding Henry and Forever Young, and laughless comedies like Taking Care of Business and Gone Fishin'. If you don't remember those movies, well, yeah. One you probably do remember is Armageddon, the Michael Bay asteroid movie. Abrams wrote the script, and it's pretty surprising that any self-respecting geek could take him seriously after that profitable but inane film.

Abrams' television work represents an improvement over the Jeffrey years, but he mainly demonstrates a knack for getting as many plates spinning as possible before leaving the help to clean up the broken pieces. Abrams-produced shows like Alias, Lost, and Fringe have all followed a similar pattern. They start with high-concept hooks and tantalizing hints of a complex underlying mythology, but then give way to convoluted storytelling and increasingly muddled attempts to explaining the inexplicable. (When in doubt, time travel and alternate universes are always handy plot devices.) It's a neat trick, really: Abrams will always get credit for directing the Lost pilot everyone loved, but he was gone by the time the widely reviled finale — which tried and failed to tie up the threads he left dangling — aired last year.

That leaves us with his career as a film director, which so far consists of one sequel to a movie based on an old television series (Mission: Impossible III) and one reboot of a movie franchise based on an old television series (Star Trek) — not exactly evidence of a boundless imagination at work. Abrams' approach to both films is to bounce from one action set piece to the next so frenetically that audiences don't notice the gaping plot holes in his undernourished scripts.

In the case of Star Trek, this mostly works, thanks to an engaging cast and our fondness for the long-established characters — and while Abrams resorts to time travel and alternate universes yet again, it's forgivable in this case, since those are tried-and-true elements of the series. M:I III, on the other hand, is a joyless ride weighed down by a turgid romance between Tom Cruise and Michelle Monaghan and an over-reliance on those ridiculous look-alike masks. Characteristically, Abrams revels in plot twists and narrative double-crosses, leaving the characters underdeveloped.

So while I'm hoping for the best from Super 8, I'm worried that a gushing homage to the golden age of Spielberg will bring out the worst in Abrams. Spielberg and Abrams both understand the power of mystery; they love leaving big reveals to the imagination. But the difference is that at his peak, Spielberg cared enough about craft to put together tight narratives. His stories made sense, so you didn't feel let down by the questions he refused to answer. With Abrams, you just feel like he's cheating.