J.J. Abrams, Fixer

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

From our reader Jim Elliott:

With all the retroactive re-critiquing of the new Star Wars film running rampant that you addressed in your note this morning, I find myself asking, “What were y’all expecting?” This film was intended to do two things: As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, the film was our palate cleanser, rinsing our mind’s-eyes of the foul images of the prequel trilogy. And, most importantly, it was meant to awaken a worldwide taste for all things Star Wars, from Coffeemate creamers to 24-inch talking statues and everything in between. This is the inevitable result of Disney’s purchase. And it is not a bad thing, as we have seen.

Anyone who was expecting art—who thinks mass cinema still remains an art form as opposed to a medium?—was smoking dope. Disney made this very, very clear when they hired J.J. Abrams. What was Abrams’ most original work? Felicity? Abrams does three things very, very well: He collaborates, he shepherds, and he understands and harnesses the inner workings of his people (science fiction fans) like a frigging sorcerer.

Take the series that really brought Abrams to the fore: Alias.

Alias worked so well because of who Abrams was collaborating with. This is clearly apparent given the stark decline in the show’s quality once John Eisendrath left after the end of season three. The short-lived—but, I thought, thoroughly enjoyable—Undercovers was a similar partnership. By contrast, Lost was really the brainchild of Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof more than of Abrams. Which is not a dig! Abrams is a prodigy at shepherding really, really good science fiction (Fringe, Almost Human, and Person of Interest, to name a few on television, and Cloverfield on the big screen, for example).

Given that he’s a great collaborator, a brilliant producer, and has access to the ur-strings of geekery, he is best-suited to the role we see him in now: Bringing beloved properties back from the brink of death or from beyond the grave. He rescued Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible series with the third film. He is currently shepherding Westworld to television and two of the most beloved video games of the last 20 years (Half-Life and Portal) to film. Anyone, and I mean anyone who saw Star Trek should have known exactly what Disney was doing when they hired Abrams: Reviving a beloved franchise so they could sell everything to everyone across the globe (Daisy Ridley and John Boyega aren't “political correctness,” people; they’re global economics). That’s what Abrams is good at.

And he delivered.