JJ Abrams is one of the most powerful people in Hollywood right now. Over his career in the movies, he’s written, directed, produced, acted and played a wicked keyboard solo on Cool Guys Don’t Look At Explosions, and through his production company Bad Robot, his name is counted among the credits of massive franchises like Cloverfield, Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, and of course Star Wars. He’s more of a household name than most filmmakers of his generation and we sometimes wish we wanted anything as much as he wants that Steven Spielberg status.
You can’t blame him when you hear about his first paid job in the film industry. Returning a bunch of Spielberg’s personal super-8 home movies that he discovered after his family moved into a house where the director used to live, he and his friend and later collaborator Matt Reeves were hired to edit and catalogue them. If this doesn’t already sound too good to be true, the two budding filmmakers were 15 years old at the time.
In between this and his feature directing debut with 2006’s Mission: Impossible III, Abrams sold and produced a number of screenplays for films that are less well known than his later franchise work. Film is a collaborative medium, and one in which screenwriters typically get screwed over in one way or another.
“I was part of the machine of screenwriters that goes from project to project, but over the years I found myself doing things that weren’t so meaningful,” Abrams told The Guardian in 2013. After a sabbatical from movies, working on mega-hit TV shows like Felicity and Lost marked “the beginning of working on things that made me feel something again.”
So, while these projects don’t necessarily all reflect on Abrams as a filmmaker, it’s still interesting to look back at some of the early works with which he is credited (as well as a couple of those on which he went uncredited) and how they were received in their day. Furthermore, we’ll see if we can chart the development of his voice before he created Slusho, rabbit’s feet and whole other galaxies within existing properties.
Taking Care Of Business (1990)
“Jimmy Dworski finally got a life… somebody else’s!”
What’s it all about? Car thief Jimmy Dworski (James Belushi) sneaks out of prison to watch his beloved Chicago Cubs play in the World Series and steals the identity of advertising executive Spencer Barnes (Charles Grodin) after happening across his personal organizer.
Background: Abrams sold his first feature film treatment to Touchstone Pictures in his senior year of college and co-wrote the screenplay with Jill Mazursky for Arthur Hiller to direct. Under the working title Filofax, it ran into a trademark dispute and was eventually renamed for the Bachman-Turner Overdrive song in the States. UK viewers might know it as Filofax, although the current DVD release sticks with Taking Care Of Business, presumably because the kids aren’t as into Filofaxes as they were at the top of the 1990s.
On paper, it’s a culture swap comedy of the kind that proliferated throughout the 1980s and shows a keen commercial instinct that didn’t necessarily make the film into a hit. The dynamic between Belushi and Grodin as comic foils and then unlikely allies works much as you’d expect. Posing as Spencer, Jimmy scandalizes business types and takes advantage of a high-flying lifestyle, while the harried ad-man gets tipped into a bin by a group of black youths he asks for directions. Trading Places, it ain’t.
Unsurprisingly, outside of that commercial instinct, there’s little here of the Abrams that we know today. At the time (although perhaps not this year), the Cubs making it to the World Series was the stuff of alternate universes, of the kind which would later figure in the creation of the Kelvin timeline in the rebooted Star Trek franchise, and in TV’s Fringe, which Abrams co-created.
How was the film received? Not well – the film only grossed $20 million in the States and received scathing negative reviews. The LA Times‘ Michael Wilmingson called it “a laughless comedy starring Belushi and Grodin, two actors who are almost always funny.” Singling out the sketchiness of the script, he elaborated: “To be fair, Mazursky and Abrams’ script might work perfectly well, rewritten. Here, it’s still an outline. The connections haven’t been filled in; nothing makes much sense.” Ouch.
Regarding Henry (1991)
“The story of a man who had everything, but found something more.”
What’s it all about? Narcissistic Manhattan lawyer Henry Turner (Harrison Ford) is shot in the head during a convenience store robbery and struggles to regain his memory and mobility in the wake of his injuries.
Background: Regarding Henry fits in with a different and evergreen sub-sub-genre, in which overworked yuppies atone with their loved ones for their shallow and capitalistic behavior after a life-changing event. In many ways, “Harrison Ford gets shot in the head” was the “Kevin Spacey gets transformed into a cat” of 1991.
The great Mike Nichols directed this one, but it’s a more syrupy melodrama than just about any other film he ever made. There’s at least something of an acting challenge for Ford to sink his teeth into, even if there’s not much room for nuance between his slicked-back shark persona and the childlike state in which he exists after his brush with death. However, the story is increasingly implausible in its portrayal of the character’s recovery.
Typical to the writer’s later affinity for “mystery box” storytelling, Henry’s retrograde amnesia allows the film to play the recovery of his memories almost as plot twists, in which the box is literally a box of Ritz crackers that he’s fixated on painting, leading to a risible twist. Abrams also made one of his fleeting appearances as an actor in this film, playing a delivery boy, which marked his first collaboration with Ford. He next directed Ford more than two decades later in The Force Awakens.
How was it received? It made twice as much money as Taking Care Of Business, but didn’t make back its $50 million budget, inflated by Ford’s movie star salary. The reviews were lukewarm too – Roger Ebert slated its “sitcom-calibre” plot twists and Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers called it a “slick tearjerker” – and it’s less well regarded than most of Nichols’ canon.
Forever Young (1992)
“Time waits for no man, but true love waits forever.”
What’s it all about? In 1939, heartbroken US Army test pilot Daniel McCormick (Mel Gibson) volunteers to take part in an experiment with suspended animation after the love of his life (Isabel Glasser) goes into a coma. When he wakes up alone 53 years later, a single mother (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her son (Elijah Wood) take him in.
Background: This one plays a little like the Captain America movie that would fall between the flash forward at the end of his first movie and Avengers, as a character study of an all-American bloke from the 1930s who suddenly wakes up in the 1990s after being frozen. There’s not a lot of time for reflection on that sort of thing in Marvel movies, which have to keep moving as they develop their characters, but this makes for an enjoyable slice of romantic science fiction and it’s the standout among these early scripts.
During the heyday of the spec script market, Abrams sold The Rest Of Daniel for $2 million, the most ever paid for a screenplay at the time. Mel Gibson turned down the opportunity to direct, but as one of the biggest movie stars in the world at the time, he lent considerable heft to the project in the starring role. Horror veteran Steve Miner, who holds the distinction of being the only filmmaker to have directed more than one entry in the Friday The 13th franchise, took the director’s chair instead and brings some pathos to a film that is a definite outlier in his CV.
It’s certainly sentimental, but that’s not always a bad thing, and it shows Abrams’ early aptitude for sci-fi in a setting that’s more low key and grounded than any of his later endeavours in the genre. If there’s a Spielbergian influence here, it’s from 1989’s Always, in which Richard Dreyfuss’ deceased fire and rescue pilot is supernaturally estranged from Holly Hunter – it’s more mawkish and meandering than this is. The third act is a little muddled, but it’s engaging enough to muster through all the same.
How was it received? The first bona fide hit to credit Abrams as a writer, grossing $127 million worldwide. The critics were still a bit sniffy about its sentimentality, but for our money, it’s the best film on this list.
Gone Fishin’ (1997)
“Even the fish are laughing!”
What’s it all about? Best friends Joe (Joe Pesci) and Gus (Danny Glover) set out on a fishing trip to the Florida Everglades before Thanksgiving, leaving a trail of destruction and an angry serial killer (Nick Brimble) in their wake.
Background: Between produced scripts, Abrams acted in Six Degrees Of Separation and produced Matt Reeves’ debut feature The Pallbearer and then re-teamed with Taking Care Of Business‘ Jill Mazursky to write this fishing buddy comedy, which plays like a middle-aged Dumb & Dumber, with an alligator and a serial killer thrown in for good measure.
John Candy and Rick Moranis were set to star when it was originally floated, before Candy passed away and Moranis retired from acting. It eventually wound up completing a Lethal Weapon hat-trick for Abrams-penned movies by reuniting Glover and Pesci. In a more pressing personnel change, director John G. Alvidsen (of Rocky and Rocky V fame) was fired two weeks into production and replaced by Christopher Cain.
The result is appropriately chaotic, if not in the way that it was probably written to be. As we said from the outset, little of this reflects on Abrams himself, given the troubled production, but we’re curious to see what kind of comedy he would make nowadays.
How was it received? Gone Fishin’ opened in the US in the same weekend as Spielberg’s mega-sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park and, predictably, it sank without a trace at the box office. This may be one of the most audacious counter-programming moves we’ve ever discovered. The Lost World went on to be the highest grossing movie of the summer, but did it have a scene where getting struck by lightning helps a character to remember a treasure map? It did not, but then it didn’t have a 4% rating on Rotten Tomatoes either.
“Earth. It was fun while it lasted.”
What’s it all about? NASA’s executive director (Billy Bob Thornton) recruits the help of the world’s foremost deep core oil driller (Bruce Willis) and his team to try and destroy an asteroid the size of Texas, which is hurtling towards Earth.
Background: Yep, that Armageddon. The development of this film infamously mirrors its own plot – in Peter Hanson and Paul Robert Herman’s book Tales From The Script, Deep Impact screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin reflected that a production president from Disney wrote down everything he said about his script at lunch and initiated Armageddon as a rival. The film was released only two months after Deep Impact, on Independence Day weekend – when else?
As such, it’s even more difficult to extricate Abrams’ contribution from the harried production than any other film we’ve covered. Rumor has it that he penned the shooting script, but he was one of eight writers hired by producer Jerry Bruckheimer to polish an original script by Robert Roy Pool, along with Tony Gilroy, Jonathan Hensleigh, Shane Salerno, Paul Attanasio, Ann Biderman, Scott Rosenberg, and Robert Towne.
Only Abrams, Hensleigh, Gilroy and Salerno were credited on the final film, but if Abrams had the last pass, we hope that lines like “Requesting permission to shake the hand of the daughter of the bravest man I ever met” were his. The film has become notorious for its bad science and is still reportedly still shown to new recruits at NASA to test how many inaccuracies they can find, which makes it the only Cinema Sins exercise endorsed by a government agency.
Of course, Abrams would later go deeper into space and cop even more flak from Trek fans for the science on display in his two Kelvin timeline movies, but why wouldn’t it be easier to train astronauts to drill than to train drillers to be astronauts? According to Ben Affleck on the DVD commentary, director Michael Bay’s only answer was “shut the fuck up.”
How was it received? It was a huge hit, and went on to become the highest grossing movie of 1998. It also held the more dubious honour of being named Roger Ebert’s worst film of 1998, and Abrams and his fellow writers were nominated for a Razzie for Worst Screenplay. Then again, Criterion released it on special edition DVD in 2012, meaning it now sits in completists’ collections next to some of the great movies of all time.
Joy Ride, aka Roadkill (2001)
“Don’t screw with people you don’t know.”
What’s it all about? While travelling from New Jersey to Colorado, brothers Lewis (Paul Walker) and Fuller (Steve Zahn) prank a truck driver who goes by the call sign of Rusty Nail (voiced by Ted Levine) by seducing him over a CB radio, with deadly consequences for their trip home.
Background: We’re only going up to Felicity, which was a watershed in Abrams’ TV career, in terms of his scripts for the big screen, but there’s just room for this low-key chiller from 2001 to squeak in before we’d be getting into his franchise work. Joy Ride was the other Paul Walker car movie of its year and it pays homage to Spielberg’s first feature Duel, in which a driver is pursued through the desert by an unseen murderous truck driver. Unlike Duel, we hear more of Rusty Nail and Levine’s vocal performance drips with malice.
There’s more evidence of a muddled production here, but it’s not up on screen. The DVD includes a 29 minute long extended ending and four alternate endings among its extras, plus deleted alternate romantic scenes of third lead Venna (Leelee Sobieski) with Lewis and Fuller that were both cut out of the movie. Happily, the final cut feels lean and pared-down, rather than choppy or incoherent, for losing these parts.
Abrams co-wrote the film with Clay Tarver (who went on to produce HBO’s Silicon Valley) and this was his most overt Spielberg homage until 2011’s Super 8, though it doesn’t share any of the more obvious tropes. Directed by John Dahl, (of The Last Seduction and Red Rock West fame) the film is efficiently scary and darkly funny, and has become a fixture of late nights on Film4, which is arguably the best time to watch it. It’s known as Roadkill in various territories outside of the US, but its original title, Squelch, would have been loads better.
How was it received? In a reversal of fortune from Armageddon, the film was well received by critics, but it was never a big box office hit. Abrams and Tarver didn’t write the two direct-to-DVD sequels, 2008’s Joy Ride 2 and 2014’s Joy Ride 3: Roadkill, (which wouldn’t have been a problem if they’d just called it Squelch!) but both are credited on those films as the creators of the characters.
Outside of his produced works, Abrams worked as a script doctor for hire, adding jokes and punching up dialogue on a number of films without credit. Those that we know about include the Jennifer Aniston vehicle Picture Perfect and the 1995 live-action Casper, which was produced by Spielberg.
It was through this work that Spielberg thought of Abrams to pen his 2005 take on The War Of The Worlds, although it ended up clashing with his work on Lost. Still, a meeting with Spielberg, Tom Cruise and producer Paula Wagner about that project in 2004 was what got him his first directing gig a couple of years later, on Mission: Impossible III.
Although M:I III would be his first foray into franchise filmmaking, there were one or two near misses around this time as well. As Abrams told The Nerdist earlier this year, he had a meeting with Amblin in which he was invited to pitch a sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which didn’t come to anything.
Most publicly, he penned a draft of Warner Bros’ long-gestating Superman movie in 2001, which was excoriated in an online review for its various augmentations to the comic book mythos. In what would have been the first part of a trilogy, Superman: Flyby saved Krypton from destruction and re-imagined Lex Luthor was a super-powered CIA agent – at a time when WB was looking for something different to the beloved Christopher Reeve version, it did what it said on the box.
But 15 years on, Abrams would likely still be in the running for the director’s chair, in the unlikely event that they decided to reboot Superman tomorrow, which testifies to his rise in popularity through reconstituting established franchise.
Thus far, Abrams could reasonably be described as a mashup artist rather than an auteur, as he can approximate pre-existing styles more seamlessly than any other director working today. But looking back at his ‘less meaningful’ works, it will be fascinating to see how he might wield his newfound power in creating original properties again, now that he’s put some space between himself and… er, space.