Directors’ Trademarks: J.J. Abrams

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Directors’ trademarks is a series of articles that examines the “signatures” that filmmakers leave behind in their work. For this iteration, we are examining the works of J.J. Abrams as director.

J.J. Abrams is a multi-talented filmmaker who first made a name for himself in television. His knack for making compelling and action-packed shows on the small screen led to a successful career on the big screen. He owns his own production company, Bad Robot, which has helmed many successful blockbusters and television series. And more than just a director/producer, Abrams’ experience in film/television extends to screenwriting, composing, and acting. He is a true jack-of-all-trades.

Despite being very talented and having an immense passion for film, Abrams’ struggled to make a mark on the industry. He produced a few films with big-name stars in the 90’s but never really found commercial success there. He collaborated with Michael Bay on Armageddon before deciding to try his luck at television. In television, Abrams found his stride. He has been involved in the television series Felicity, Alias, and Lost.

His work on Lost is what really grabbed people’s attentions and increased his popularity. His major motion picture directing debut was Mission Impossible III, where he was given the task to revive the franchise. Reviving franchises has become something that Abrams is known for thanks to the experience and knowledge he gained as a writer and producer. Next he got a chance to revive the Star Trek franchise with a total reboot. This followed with the opportunity to bring Star Wars to a new generation with the sequel trilogy.

So the question posed is, if you are watching an Abrams film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Abrams’ trademarks as director, in no particular order.

Lens Flares!

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The most obvious visual trademark of J.J. Abrams is the lens flare. Traditionally, a lens flare in a film was seen as a mistake. For Abrams, he utilized the lens flare to add…well…flair to his films. Today, the lens flare can be seen in many different films. It is a popular stylistic touch to add a “sheen” to the visuals of a film. Abrams was not the first director to make significant use of the lens flare, but he did use them more frequently than they had been utilized in the past.

Abrams’ use of the lens flare can be traced back to his inspirations. His biggest inspiration is Steven Spielberg, who not only makes liberal use of them in his own films, but is considered to be the originator of the trend in mainstream Hollywood. Go all the way back to 1978’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and you will see lots of lens flares, especially in the final eponymous rendezvous. In that sequence Spielberg contrasts the lights of the alien ship with the darkness of the night. Lens flares first began being utilized in film to provide a sort of realism for natural light sources, and that is exactly what Spielberg was trying to accomplish here.

Fast forward to the 90’s and you will see another important influence on Abrams’ use of lens flares – Michael Bay. Unlike Spielberg, Bay began purposefully adding lens flares in unnatural lit areas of the film. With the advent of CGI he would actually add them into the film in post-production. The reason was to give his films more flash and sheen. More so than just evoke a realism from the way we see light in the real world, it was to make his action movies look more sleek and polished.

Abrams’ use of lens flares is a combination of both approaches. Abrams’ films tend to be heavy in special effects, and so the use of lens flares can make those effects feel more realistic. But at the same time he is not afraid to add them in other places, even obscuring his picture, to give it a unique look. He has said that his use of lens flares is to give the film a futuristic quality, and that intent certainly goes along with his fascination of science fiction.

In Media Res  

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Abrams doesn’t like to start at the beginning and end at the end. As a creator of television shows, Abrams made a name for himself by making an engaging and interesting product. To accomplish this, he often made changes to the typical narrative structure in ways we would not expect. This kept his audience on their toes, and gave them extra incentive to pay attention. Alias is a good example. In this show, the plots are not exactly episodic. Narrative arcs would end in the middle of an episode rather than the end. This allowed Abrams to create gripping cliffhangers because the episode would end in the middle of the action.

This also meant that the beginnings of many of the episodes contained a carry-over of the previous episode’s entertaining action. Abrams utilized a similar approach when he crossed over to film. None of his films have a traditional introduction or exposition. Instead, he throws his audience into the middle of a narrative arc. The characters and their motivations are unclear, and yet the scene serves as an important moment in the grand scheme of the narrative.

While this does create some confusion and puts more strain on the dialogue to help build characters, it grabs the attention of the audience. Not only is it more fun to start a film off in stride, but it eliminates what could be a slow build to an exciting pay-off. Audiences also have to keep track of the minor details in the characters’ actions and dialogue because it helps to fill in some of the plot holes that were not otherwise force fed to the audience (no pun intended).

A great example is the opening of Star Trek. Before we even meet James Kirk and Co., we see his father heroically battling an unknown foe. We know nothing about the conflict, and Kirk’s father – yet that conflict, and the lack of a father figure it creates in Kirk, is what drives the rest of the film. In The Force Awakens, the film opens with Poe’s search for Luke Skywalker. We don’t know who Poe is and we don’t know why Skywalker is missing. Poe is captured by the First Order, which brings up even more questions about who he is working for and what has changed since the last film.

The Importance of Parents

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Abrams lost his mother to cancer in 2012. Like his father, his mother was a television producer and together they both had a huge influence on J.J.’s eventual career choice. The loss of his mother was a huge emotional blow, which is reflected in his later films. In fact, Abrams’ decision to become involved in Star Wars may have been inspired by his mother’s passing. He initially turned down the opportunity because he revered the films so much. However, after his mother’s death he reconsidered. He has said that he wanted to make a new Star Wars film that would be entertaining for girls and mothers, and perhaps that decision was in honor of his mother.

The death of a parent or parental figure is an important part of all of Abrams’ films, including those that he directed before the death of his own mother. The first scene after the credits in Mission Impossible III, mentions the death of a major character’s parents. The first scene of Star Trek is Kirk’s father’s last hurrah. Spock loses his mother during the course of the same film, and Super 8 opens with the death of the main character’s mother. In Abrams’ Star Wars films, Kylo Ren/Ben looses both of his parents. In each case he looses his parents as they try to make an effort to reach out to him and express their love for him. The circumstances of those losses play a huge role in the narrative of the trilogy.

In Star Trek Into Darkness, Kirk looses his father figure Captain Pike when Khan attacks Star Fleet. This motivates Kirk for revenge, and makes him reluctant to team up with Khan later on. You’ll also see a common theme of children following in the footsteps of their parents in Abrams’ films, just like he did. Kirk becomes a Star Fleet office just like his own father and Pike. In The Rise of Skywalker, Ben redeems himself after coming to an understanding with his father, and eventually sacrifices himself to help Rey, much in the same way his mother and uncle did.

Abrams uses the word “Kelvin” in many of his films. “Kelvin” is a reference to Abrams’ grandfather, Harry Kelvin. Mr. Kelvin owned an electronics store, and taught young J.J. about the internal workings of many appliances which started Abram’s interest in technology and would lead him to film. Mr. Kelvin even gave Abrams his first Super 8 camera, which he utilized to make films when he was growing up. To honor his grandfather’s contribution to his film career, Abrams mentions him in his films. Besides the starship in the opening sequence of Star Trek being named the U.S.S. Kelvin, there is a letter in Mission: Impossible III addressed to a Harry Kelvin, and in The Force Awakens it is revealed in the credits that one of the pilots is named Niv Lek, which is Kelvin backwards.

Intentionally Crashing Vehicles

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Abrams films tend to have a lot of destruction in them. So its no surprise that there are a fair number of vehicle crashes. But what is surprising is how often those crashes are on purpose by the people controlling them. In most of Abrams’ films there is an example of a character destroying their vehicle intentionally for a purpose that is beneficial to them. Its almost a matter of self-sacrifice.

In Super 8, the science teacher intentionally crashes his truck into a train to try and derail it because the train was carrying a top secret cargo that turned out to be extraterrestrial technology. In Star Trek there is a lot of sacrificial destruction, starting with the opening scene when Kirk’s father crashes the U.S.S. Kelvin in an attempt to stop the antagonist’s ship. Later, a younger Kirk drives his stepfather’s car over a cliff in defiance, and at the end of the film Spock crashes the ambassador’s ship into the antagonist’s ship to destroy it. In Star Trek Into Darkness Khan attempts to crash the U.S.S. Defiant into Star Fleet headquarters.

Although there are no similar sequences in The Force Awakens, the original intro sequence of the film was supposed to have one. The sequence would show two smaller cruisers intentionally towing a damaged star destroyer to crash land on Jakku. That sequence was cancelled. In The Rise of Skywalker, Kylo Ren essentially sacrifices his fighter in an attempt to kill Rey, and Lando’s fleet of ships is full of normal people just coming together to fight the First Order, which represents plenty of sacrifice.

Homage to What Has Been Done Before

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Above all, Abrams borrows film-related tricks and items that have influenced him and puts them in his movies. Super 8 is comprised of many Spielberg-like camera movements and techniques, including filming off of a glass reflection and zooming in on the reaction faces of characters. The plot of children finding a extraterrestrial is reminiscent of E.T. and the arrival in a small town with a military presence echoes Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Close Encounters also provided Abrams with visual inspiration, as referenced above).

Mission Impossible III looked to echo the tone and pace of the original film, rather than the sequel. It has several nods to the two previous films, including Ethan stopping his suspended fall moments before hitting the ground after jumping off the wall of the Vatican, the use of masks and voice chips to change identities, and the betrayal by a senior officer.

Star Trek is full of homages to both the original TV series and the film franchise, including the casting of Leonard Nemoy to reprise his role as Spock, and the use of Christopher Pike, a character from the original series. Star Trek Into Darkness not only brings back the villain from the second Star Trek film, but echoes its plot including the famous climax.

Most importantly, however, are Abram’s connections to Star Wars. There’s R2D2 floating in a pile of space junk seen in Star Trek, and the TIE fighter and poster that can be seen in the main character’s room in Super 8. Of course his Star Wars films have plenty of connections to the past as well. Not only does he bring back many of the actors from the original films to reprise their roles, but The Force Awakens echoes the plot of A New Hope much in the same way that Star Trek Into Darkness did with Wrath of Khan

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