Pop Culture

J.J. Abrams: the Goldilocks of filmmakers

J.J. Abrams' “Mission: Impossible III” isn't quite a series-reinventing film like Christopher Nolan's “Batman Begins.” It stays true to the fundamental core of the previous two films by blowing a lot of stuff up while trying to surprise the audience with twists and turns. But the third film easily improves upon the first two explosive-heavy, story-thin movies, mostly because Abrams brought to it his distinct brand of dramatic storytelling.

His talent led producers to give the creator of “Felicity” and “Lost” $150 million to direct an installment of a summer blockbuster franchise that was his very first feature film. That investment was quite a risk, and it almost paid off.

In his work, Abrams establishes separate universes and then interweaves them with duplicity and mystery. Typically, the two worlds involve work and family lives and the complicated relationships that develop when those two collide. “Alias,” for example, began as the story of a graduate student working undercover as double agent inside a CIA agency while dealing with her untrustworthy spy parents. The combination of breezy action sequences and deeply emotional dramatic tension was, for a while, quite compelling.

“M:I3” definitely follows this formula, introducing us to Ethan Hunt's fiancée and their domestic life, which, in true Abrams form, complicates Hunt's work with IMF. As a result, the third film is not, as Abrams told this month's Wired, “one of those movies that feel as if eight really bitchin' action sequences were conceived and shoved into some kind of story to tie them together.”

It is, however, almost the reverse: A J.J. Abrams series that feels as if eight really bitchin' months have been shoved into two hours. And herein is The J.J. Abrams Problem.

Abrams’ juggling actAbrams' television shows are conceptually brilliant and executed almost flawlessly; to broadcast television, he brings an HBO aesthetic and a higher level of intelligence. However, his series have tragically suffered (if not collapsed) under their own weight as the initial conceit devolves into absurdity.

That's because broadcast television industry doesn't allow for clean storytelling. It demands ratings-drawing action and, assuming the show is a hit, the ability to continue that story indefinitely. Not knowing when a story will end makes crafting a coherent, plausible narrative extremely difficult. Because of this setup, Abrams' beginnings work extremely well, but his middles don't, and it's often difficult for fans to stick around until the end.

He admits as much. In Wired, Abrams says TV is “painfully endless. It was a relief to work on a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and not have to juggle 12 hours in your head.”

For fans “Alias” and “Lost” who felt lost after the story started treading water, this seemed to be an excellent sign of hope for what he'd bring to the movie.

In film, a writer/director has a definite but flexible period of time in which to tell a complete story. In this picture, Abrams has found a medium that allows him to develop a fully formed vision and then execute it.

Early in the film, there's a scene at Ethan and fiancée Julia's house, a set that feels like it was lifted right out of an Abrams' TV show (and not just because of the cameo by Abrams' childhood friend Greg Grunberg, pilot of Oceanic flight 815, onetime CIA agent, and friend of Felicity). The moments the film spends in their home work hard to establish Ethan's normal life, as do flashbacks of him training IMF agent Lindsey Ferris (played by Felicity herself, Keri Russell).

And the first scene of the film alone has more dramatic tension and weight than either of the first two films because Abrams infuses it with multiple layers of consequence, just as he does in his TV work.

Looking for the perfect fitIn “Mission: Impossible III,” there isn't enough time, however, to let the audience develop an attachment to the characters — especially not one on the level of episodic television. The same is true of the mystery: although the film ultimately makes it clear that the mystery matters less than the relationships, there's still not enough development in the characters involved to truly draw the audience in.

The villain is the one Abrams device that works here, because Abrams' villains are multilayered people who hide nearly everything from the audience but are played by their actors in a way that suggests we should know what we're dealing with. Much of the credit for this in “M:I3” goes to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, as usual, allows himself to be completely absorbed into his character, unlike the lead male actor in this film.

Thus, while it's a competent film with a decent arc, “Mission: Impossible III” is nowhere near the best episodes of “Alias,” “Lost,”  or even “Felicity,” which used previously established relationships and plot points to build to climaxes that surprise and satisfy audiences. It's hard to get to know characters in an hour or two, especially not in the same way as when those characters are developed week after week after week for 12 or 22 hours, so Abrams couldn't have produced “Alias: The Movie” if that's what he'd wanted to do.

If television is too open-ended and films are too restrictive for his talents, then what can he do? Abrams apparently has nowhere to go, having yet to find a medium that works perfectly for his strengths.

Because of its economic generosity and constraints, film ultimately seems like the better medium for Abrams, at least until the day when television executives care more about storytelling and the artistry of programming than the advertising dollars it can draw.

Instead of one-off projects like “Mission: Impossible III,” which are too limiting for his talents, Abrams needs to write and film multi-part films, like nine-hour, three-part “Lord of the Rings”-style epics. There he'll find the time to develop his characters but the boundaries to keep the story from spiraling out of control. That's the J.J. Abrams that both his television fans and moviegoers deserve.

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