When it comes to modern blockbusters, J.J. Abrams has quickly become one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood. Whether’s it’s Star Wars, Star Trek or Mission: Impossible, the showrunner and producer-turned-premiere-director is behind some of the hottest franchises today. That’s no small feat. He makes major movies. With Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker storming into cinemas in a few months, it’s a great opportunity for us to take a look back at the prolific filmmaker’s past five movies and rank them from best to worst. It’s a tall order, though, since all five of his films were big hits.
At least in this writer’s humble opinion, I’d like to point out none of J.J. Abrams’ movies thus far have been bad, necessarily. While they are not all equally good, there is something to value in each film — no matter what each movie’s biggest critics have said. Abrams is a seasoned, distinctive filmmaker who liberally incorporates his love and passion for both popular franchises and retro films into every movie he makes, while also giving them his signature blend of sharp visuals, rousing action and dynamic character beats — as well as, of course, lots of lens flares. He’s one of Hollywood’s heavy hitters for a reason. Let’s take a look.
5. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Let’s get it out of the way. Star Trek Into Darkness has no shortage of issues. While I’ve been more supportive of the movie than most on this site, I would be hard-pressed to argue that it’s flawless. J.J. Abrams’ rousing, yet generally clunky and imitative sequel, which can most certainly be seen as either a well-meaning homage and/or a blatant rip-off of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (a movie which still remains the franchise’s finest hour), isn’t without its pressing shortcomings. Its attempts to pay tribute to past installments ring hollow, and its flimsy script favors the sort of over-the-top action sequences that Spock would call “illogical.” Still, as a goofy, high-energy summer blockbuster, it’s a consistently enjoyable romp.
J.J. Abrams’ signature lens is clearly seen throughout, and even his weaker movies know how to keep the momentum moving in frequently fun ways. Into Darkness is easily among his most criticized movies to date. Despite its many shortcomings, though, if you looking at it as dumb, silly entertainment, you can certainly do worse. Clearly, Abrams knows how to make an entertaining spectacle— even when saddled with this script.
4. Mission: Impossible III (2006)
After being severely stalled by the lackluster Mission: Impossible II back in 2000, Mission: Impossible III was the movie that not only turned the big screen TV adaptation into one of the most dependable action franchises in Hollywood, but it firmly announced J.J. Abrams as a major filmmaker. The return of Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise, to the big screen is a massively entertaining, constantly invigorating piece of blockbuster entertainment.
While it’s not quite as confident and consistent as J.J. Abrams’ following four movies, Mission: Impossible III made it quickly apparent that Abrams had a big, bold vision for blockbusters, and this is the triumphant return-to-form that the franchise needed to excel, and the calling card that the assured TV show-runner needed to propel himself into the major leagues at the helm of Hollywood’s biggest new films throughout the early 21st century. Notably, Mission: Impossible III doesn’t quite match the same death-defying stunts and exhilarating espionage seen in the following hit sequels.
This sequel is also more noticeably choppy in the action department compared to other J.J. Abrams blockbusters, lacking the visual precision the director would later hone. Yet, it’s an extremely entertaining sequel, bringing fresh life to a series previous thought dormant, and it’s greatly boosted by an incredible supporting performance from the late, great Oscar winner, Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a villainous role.
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Nine years after his feature directorial debut, J.J. Abrams finally made the movie that his whole filmmaking career was building up to: a brand new Star Wars saga. Specifically, J.J. Abrams was at the helm of the long-awaited Star Wars sequel, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which still remains one of the highest-grossing movies of all-time. It took him four whole films before the rising filmmaker was given the keys to this daunting cinematic vehicle. By many high standards, Abrams delivered. Though it wasn’t a perfect sequel, it did wonders to get the bad taste of the prequels out of many people’s mouths.
While there are many debates online about the derivative nature of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with some seeing it as detrimental and other folks believing that it’s befitting to the poetic rhyming scheme of the series, J.J. Abrams did make some stark choices as both a director and screenwriter, allowing his story to serve as the launching pad through which a new generation of space fantasy lovers could see themselves through characters like Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), to name a few. The sequel also gave us a chance to reconnect with the characters we knew and loved before, providing veterans actors like Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and the late, great Carrie Fisher to return to their most iconic roles.
Overall, Star Wars: The Force Awakens doesn’t quite match the same heights as the original Star Wars movie it’s clearly emulating, but it is filled with heart and charm all the same, along with a few exciting, engaging action sequences and some emotional character moments. It also planted the seeds for the franchise to grow in gripping new ways. Hopefully, it’ll be tied up dutifully with J.J. Abrams’ latest movie, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
2. Super 8 (2011)
In many respects, Super 8 is not only J.J. Abrams’ most personal film, but also his love letter to filmmaking and the spark through which young eyes find themselves enamored with the craft of moviemaking, as well as collaborating with your friends and learning to see the world around you with a creative new exciting lens. It also shows how our connections to fantastical worlds allow us to process the difficult human emotions we are sometimes forced to face at all-too-young ages. In several ways, Super 8 is the most beautiful, sincere and emotional film the writer/director has made to date.
While Super 8 borrows a little too much from its Spielbergian influences to be wholly original, resulting in a film that unfortunately never fully allows itself to be it own singular vision, J.J. Abrams’ third film remains the one-and-only time the developing director has allowed himself to make a movie outside of tentpole franchises and pre-established series. Even though Super 8 copies E.T.‘s homework a bit, this movie remains the director’s most emotionally open and honest film, bolstered nicely by the warm chemistry of its young ensemble and filled with a firm, loving sense of time and place well rooted into Abrams’ upbringing. It was also notably made before its brand of nostalgia became as burdensome as it can be today.
Filled with passion and heart, and easily the most individual film that J.J. Abrams has made to date, Super 8 is an undervalued success for the director, remaining his purest effort to date — and one film that didn’t fully need to rely on super spies, space travel and galaxies far, far away to reach its well-rooted source of emotional catharsis, something that’s sometimes absent from his other films.
1. Star Trek (2009)
For many folks, Star Trek (2009) was the blockbuster that firmly announced J.J. Abrams as a filmmaker to watch. Understandably so, too. This spry, rejuvenated new take on the long-established Gene Roddenberry property was certainly not your dad’s Star Trek, and it was better for that reason. In an effort to bring the decades-spanning legacy of Star Trek to a newer, younger audience, Star Trek (2009) was the much-needed face-lift the franchise needed. It benefited enormously from a lively, talented ensemble, a fresh, distinctive vision and some full-throttle energy.
Although J.J. Abrams has openly stated that he didn’t grow up a Star Trek fan, his desire to shake the cobwebs off the series, while still keeping true to a few key facets of the franchise, could’ve easily been an unmitigated disaster. Thankfully, Abrams provided the bold new sense of identity that this film series needed in order to thrive in the new century, resulting in a more action-friendly but nevertheless deeply inspired and entertaining production.
The result was a surprisingly roaring success. While J.J. Abrams couldn’t quite replicate the formula with the sequel, the filmmaker did push Star Trek into hyper-drive, allowing it to expand and grow in a new century. At the very least, however, Star Trek gave the director his calling card to make Star Wars: The Force Awakens into his own, which always seemed to be his objective with the franchise. Weirdly, though, Star Trek (2009) still remains his greatest blockbuster success, creating an immensely likable and enjoyable spin on the familiar space odyssey.
Where do you stand on J.J. Abrams’ first five films? Let us know your own personal favorites and rankings in the comment section below.
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