J.J. Abrams, self-plagiarist.

J.J. Abrams, self-plagiarist.

J.J. Abrams, self-plagiarist.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 9 2006 6:40 PM

J.J. Abrams, Self-Plagiarist

How the Mission: Impossible III director recycles all his best tricks.

When Mission: Impossible III took in a paltry $48 million at the box office this weekend—less than predicted and, embarrassingly, less even than the GDP of Slovakia—Hollywood watchers began crowing that the Tom Cruise era is over. The movie is a referendum on the megastar's future, and the results are in: Americans don't want their action heroes behaving like coots.

It is also possible, though, to mine the blockbuster for predictions about the career of another Tinseltown powerhouse: the writer-producer J.J. Abrams, whose star has lately been on the rise. Abrams is best known for creating sharp TV shows. He developed the popular dormitory soap Felicity, the beloved spy drama Alias, and the hit series Lost; all three have been hailed for their snappy writing and strong ensemble casts. With M:I3, Abrams' debut as a feature director, his fans got their first chance to see how he'll do on the big screen. The prospects are discouraging.

Julia Turner Julia Turner

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast.

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Abrams, it turns out, is a Hollywood environmentalist: He recycles setups, gimmicks, and gags with abandon. M:I3 is riddled with so many elements from Alias that I kept expecting Jennifer Garner, the show's star, to rappel down a building in a Technicolor wig. Of course, every action movie rips off the action movies that came before it, and Alias itself is filled with references to spy capers past: It's no surprise that secret agents spend time in ducts and sewers, that prisoner transport is dicey, or that there's ample use of the body double and the dazzling speedboat getaway. But the parallels between Abrams' television work and his debut movie are so particular and striking that you have to wonder: Is M:I3 a protracted Alias shout-out? Or is J.J. Abrams a hack?

The similarities are hard to overlook. In both M:I3 and Alias, Abrams presents us with ass-kicking leads who are all torn up because they can't tell their loved ones what they do for a living (and, perhaps, because they're sick of yammering about their boring cover jobs—Ethan Hunt "studies traffic patterns"; Sydney Bristow "works at a bank"). Ethan isn't sure whether his government bosses are good or evil; neither is Syd. All Ethan wants is to retire; same goes for Agent Bristow.

What else do the superspies have in common? Handlers who insist on covert meetings in convenience stores. Good friends with explosives implanted in their heads. Tech-savvy chatterbox sidekicks. And a firm belief that the best way for a gorgeous lady-spy to go undercover is to look even hotter than she already is. In Alias, Jennifer Garner is forever sashaying through embassy parties in skintight gowns with plunging necklines; in M:I3, when Cruise teammate Maggie Q crashes a soiree at the Vatican, she knows that a bright-orange dress slit up to her hip flexor is the key to cocktail-hour stealth.

Then there's the Abrams flashback fixation. In M:I3, Abrams starts in the middle of the action then cuts back in time a few days. It's a fresh way to add suspense—or it would be, if Abrams hadn't already used the exact same time-bending gimmick in the Alias pilot. And the post-Super Bowl episode from Season 2. And the one where Sydney goes to North Korea in Season 3. (When you think about it, most episodes of Lost, which feature scenes from the island intercut with flashbacks, use this structure, too.) Abrams may see this device as a signature, but it's beginning to feel like a crutch.

Abrams also recycles a few visual cues. Both the show and the movie include elaborate Vatican break-ins. And spies in scuba gear using blowtorches on underwater grates. And good guys strapped to evil-looking dentists' chairs. And both Alias and M:I3 take an absolutely dismal view of Asia. Perhaps Abrams was traumatized on some collegiate backpacking trip, but his versions of Hong Kong and Shanghai inevitably consist of dingy neon alleys, dismal stairwells, and acres of peeling paint. M:I3 even has inscrutable mah-jongg players.

What makes these repetitions so disappointing is that the movie is actually good—intricately plotted, funny, and nicely paced. Abrams has always been the master of the double episode, coiling his story lines up neatly and then unspooling them with finesse. As a longtime fan who has found his television work uneven, I was hoping that he might find film to be his true calling—a venue in which he can marshal all of his good ideas at once, without having to sustain them over a season, or several. But the ideas he's mustered for this film are, for the most part, ideas he's mustered before. Perhaps Abrams is just winking at his oldest fans: At one point, the underling spy played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, sick of taking orders via walkie-talkie, grumbles, "All I ever do is copy." But, from where I'm sitting, it's pretty easy to confuse that wink with a remarkably lazy eye.