J.J. Abrams has had a fascinating career, which started with writing or co-writing screenplays (“Taking Care of Business,” “Regarding Henry,” “Forever Young”), evolved into executive-producing successful TV shows (“Felicity,” “Alias,” “Lost”) and ultimately transformed him into a director and producer of big-screen blockbusters. The films he's directed are steeped in an intense nostalgia for earlier decades of pop-culture entertainment, and at his best he has successfully revitalized those stories for modern audiences. At his worst, well, let’s talk about them as we rank the films of J.J. Abrams.
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6. "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" (2019)
The “Star Wars” saga ends (for now) with an emotionally inert and haphazardly edited adventure that races through important story elements, pads out multiple tedious MacGuffin hunts, and introduces groan-inducing additions to the mythology. “The Rise of Skywalker” plays like a succession of bullet points: Some of them might be interesting in a vacuum, but the film never lets its characters demonstrate the emotional depth necessary to carry the audience from one of those big moments to the next, so every scene that’s supposed to blow our minds -- which is practically all of them -- falls completely flat.
5. "Star Trek Into Darkness" (2013)
The cast is still superb in Abrams’ second “Star Trek” movie, but the poorly developed screenplay does them few favors. A terrorist has attacked Starfleet, and it’s up to the crew of the Enterprise to become weapons of war to exact their righteous revenge. Except, that’s not what they do, is it? “Into Darkness” tries to explore the idea of these idealistic heroes nearly venturing to the dark side as the result of a clumsy 9/11 allegory, but the anger feels manufactured, like a cynical attempt to make the utopian “Star Trek” franchise appeal to a new, disenfranchised generation who would normally hate it. (And the decision to waste half the film setting up the most obvious twist ever -- well, it wasted half the film, didn’t it?)
4. "Mission: Impossible III" (2006)
Abrams’ “Mission: Impossible” sequel doesn’t have the mind-boggling stunts fans have come to expect from later installments, but it does have the best story. The film finds Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) returning to active duty after one of his students is abducted, which sends him hurtling into the path of Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose bizarre, weary ruthlessness is genuinely frightening. “Mission: Impossible III” finds Hunt making genuine emotional connections which are turned against him in powerful fashion, adding invaluable weight to a production that otherwise might have played more like a big-budget TV show than a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.
3. "Super 8" (2011)
The only original film Abrams has directed is, ironically, a pastiche of iconic 1980s cinematic sci-fi–fantasy movies. “Super 8” tells the story of a group of adolescent amateur filmmakers who stumble onto a train disaster which, naturally, unleashes a mystery monster into their quiet town. Though treading on familiar territory and leading to a somewhat lukewarm conclusion, it’s got a great cast, some good drama and a real heart. “Super 8” is a warm and sincere homage to a bygone cinematic era, but it’s an era which -- thanks to throwbacks like “Super 8” -- has never actually been “bygone” long enough for this kind of loving throwback to feel completely earned.
2. "Star Trek" (2009)
Abrams was given an impossible task with his “Star Trek” reboot, but he actually pulled it off. The film successfully recasts one of the most iconic ensembles in pop culture, and also recaptures their distinctive chemistry, while telling a story that rewrites the history of the franchise without contradicting anything that came before it. The plot is about a time-traveling villain who disrupts the history of “Trek” as we know it, which leads to some impressively huge external and personal stakes for everybody. “Star Trek” is one of the best movie reboots, deftly capturing the appeal of the original series while forging a new and exciting path.
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1. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (2015)
He may have botched the landing, but his take-off was sublime. “The Force Awakens” introduced a series of new, instantly lovable characters to the “Star Wars” movies while incorporating legends of the franchise in meaningful, impactful ways. Even the plot, which looks familiar at first glance, is a thoughtful story about cyclical history; new generations fail to learn from the mistakes of the past and give rise to new waves of authoritarianism, while their forebears look on with disappointment and, in spite of it all, hope. Excitingly filmed with an air of genuine wonder, “The Force Awakens” is one of the better “Star Wars” movies.