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J.J. Abrams, superstar?

'Super 8' puts writer-director in the spotlight

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / June 5, 2011

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“Super 8,’’ which opens Friday, may or may not turn out to be the biggest movie of the summer. That’s for the accountants to decide. The impressive thing is that it’s even a contender for the title.

Unlike all the other candidates — the fourth “Pirates’’ movie, “The Hangover Part II,’’ “Cars 2,’’ “Green Lantern,’’ the latest “Transformers,’’ the final “Harry Potter,’’ “Captain America,’’ “The Smurfs’’ (just kidding) — “Super 8’’ doesn’t have a single big name in it. The closest thing it has to a star is Elle Fanning — Elle, not even Dakota. As if that were not enough of a box-office handicap, “Super 8’’ is not part of a franchise, nor does it come presold from the good folks at Marvel or DC.

What “Super 8’’ does have going for it is the triple-threat talent behind it: director, writer, producer J.J. Abrams. Abrams is well on his way to becoming that rarest of Hollywood phenoms, a behind-the-camera superstar. Think of him as Judd Apatow without the laughs — or fewer of them, anyway, and mostly just to relieve the tension.

Frank Capra, who won two best picture and three best director Oscars in the 1930s, called his autobiography “The Name Above the Title.’’ If Abrams ever writes his bio, he could call it “The Name That Supports the Title.’’ The Abrams brand has been building for more than a decade, first on TV, courtesy of distinctive, innovative series like “Alias,’’ “Lost,’’ and “Fringe’’; then on the big screen, with “Mission: Impossible III’’ (2006), which he directed and co-wrote; “Cloverfield’’ (2008), which he produced; and “Star Trek’’ (2009), which he directed and produced.

“Super 8’’ is set in a working-class Ohio town in 1979. A group of middle-schoolers are making a zombie movie on a Super 8 camera. They sneak out one night to shoot some exteriors at the local train station. When something completely unexpected happens, not to mention extremely scary and very, very loud, the kids become enmeshed in a situation of possibly intergalactic proportions. What that something is . . . well, ask yourself this: What’s the US Air Force doing in charge of a train?

Abrams has clearly made “Super 8’’ as an homage to Steven Spielberg, who’s one of the film’s producers. In fact, the film could just as accurately have the title “Super E.T.’’ (does that qualify as a spoiler?), right down to Fanning and Joel Courtney, the other juvenile lead, looking uncannily like slightly older versions of Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas in Spielberg’s film.

Spielberg’s greatest strength has always been a childlike sense of wonder. It’s there not just in “E.T.’’ and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’’ but even “Schindler’s List’’ (think of the survivors leaving their stones on Schindler’s grave). Of course, that’s also been his greatest weakness (think of the soft-focus piety of “Amistad’’ or the gruesomely forced happy ending of “Minority Report’’).

Abrams’s greatest strength has been a childlike sense of glee: glee at keeping the camera moving, at keeping the story moving, at knowing all this stuff the audience doesn’t. Even better: glee at getting to be the one who decides when to reveal that stuff to the audience. Is that a great weakness, too? For Abrams as entertainer, no. For Abrams as artist? Well, it didn’t stop Alfred Hitchcock — but Abrams has yet to make his “Notorious,’’ let alone “Vertigo.’’

Spielberg is an evangelist preaching belief in highly secular dogmas (the malevolence of giant sharks, the plausibility of contemporary dinosaurs, the imperviousness of Harrison Ford to mortality). Abrams, in contrast, is both less ambitious and cannier. He’s a croupier who deals out surprises instead of cards, and usually gets away with slipping the viewer a winning hand.

All successful narratives are a contest between surprise and inevitability. With Abrams, you can count on the ratio of surprise to inevitability being extremely high. Maybe a better way of putting this is to say that inevitability often comes disguised as surprise. The great addition made to narrative by ’70s Hollywood filmmaking was the paranoid thriller. Much of Abrams’s work qualifies under that heading. More important, Abrams has long understood that “plot,’’ as a noun, can signify two things: conspiracy, as well as narrative. His special genius has been to braid those two meanings together. The paranoid vision has no rival when it comes to creating inevitability — however surprising that inevitability might seem to the non-paranoid. Even paranoids have enemies, the old saying goes. And when they do, Abrams knows, it makes for great plot devices.

Those plot devices can take place in the context of a desert island or an espionage organization or, yes, an Ohio town. It doesn’t much matter to Abrams. For him, storytelling has a dynamic that transcends any imperative of genre or setting.

It also transcends medium. A lot of directors have worked in both TV and film, Spielberg being a notable case in point. What makes Abrams stand out is that he seems not to make any real distinction between the two. He doesn’t just go back and forth between TV and movies. He mixes them. Two of the three films he has directed are based on television series. Conversely, the first half hour of “Super 8’’ has such a density of plot, character, and milieu it feels like a mini-series waiting to happen.

For directors, TV is usually thought of as a steppingstone to film. Or when a film director does TV work, it is invariably presented as an exceptional case (“The project was so good,’’ “I had this unexpected opening on my calendar’’). The only difference Abrams sees is that one offers a bigger screen, and the other offers greater duration for developing a story. That’s about it.

In a world where filmed stories can be seen in so many ways — in a theater, on a flat-screen TV, on an iPhone — such an open attitude toward medium makes Abrams seem forward-thinking and up to the minute. Yet part of what makes him such an interesting figure is how at the same time he can look like a throwback.

“There are a lot of filmmakers I’d love to work with, who have a real sense of how to tell a story,’’ Spielberg told The New York Times Magazine last month. “But J.J. has a giddy sense of the whole art form.’’ The word that stands out is “giddy,’’ and it’s certainly accurate. But the one that matters is “whole.’’ The Cahiers du Cinema critics of the ’50s hailed the film director as auteur. Abrams hearkens back to a pre-auteur world, the Studio Era ideal of the production executive — Irving Thalberg, Darryl F. Zanuck, Hal B. Wallis — as almighty overseer of the final product.

In that Times Magazine article, Damon Lindelof, who helped create “Lost,’’ talked about the experience of visiting Abrams’s production company, Bad Robot. “Whenever I’m in that building,’’ Lindelof said, “I have the sense that there are at least 30 different projects being worked on at that moment.’’

An argument can be made that the single most devilishly creative thing Abrams has done — and this is a man seriously into devilishness — was the marketing of “Cloverfield.’’ The movie itself is a perfectly fine, no-stars, sci-fi/horror hybrid (with, yes, a paranoid-thriller element). In other words, a modern-day equivalent of the old-fashioned B picture. Yet its Web-based viral promotion made it into an event: a movie that mattered as much for what it might be as for what it was. Making movies is one thing. Inspiring people’s dreams about them can be that much harder. Perhaps Abrams should add to his writer-director-producer resume, “character from ‘Inception,’ ’’ too.

“Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads,’’ marvels Cecilia Brady in “The Last Tycoon.’’ That was 70 years ago. Watching Abrams add to his body of work — and he is not yet 45 — you wonder if now there might not be a sixth.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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