Abrams making a name for himself, but it's not Steven Spielberg just yet


Admit it, you've heard it too: "J.J. is the next Spielberg." Certainly, the two talents have shaped our pop culture sensibilities and made audiences — and studios and networks — very happy with their cinematic exuberance and its corresponding rewards.

This past weekend, J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" hauled in an estimated $76.5 million in domestic grosses and another $35.5 million in foreign.

Moreover, Spielberg and Abrams are consummate showmen who know how to deliver mainstream entertainment with the right mix of adventure, interesting characters and eye- popping spectacle. They also share the ability to inspire those around them with their creative energy, childlike enthusiasm for their craft and endless streams of ideas for multiple media.

Both also have enjoyed studio benefactors that nurture their work and provide stability in a notoriously shaky business.

But whatever their similarities in filmmaking style and creative taste, Abrams is not — as yet — in the same class as Spielberg, and he is self-deprecating enough to pooh-pooh the idea outright. Consider these differences:

Spielberg is 62 years old, Abrams 42. The former is primarily a director, an unmatched visual stylist whose work has run the breadth of thematic and genre possibility — 1993 alone included the $920 million worldwide grosser "Jurassic Park" and the seven-Oscar-winning "Schindler's List." (In case anyone wondered, Spielberg also recently put together about $800 million in financing to keep DreamWorks at full operational capacity.) Abrams is best known as a writer whose work has impacted the small screen more than the big one.

Spielberg was 28 when he directed "The Sugarland Express," his first theatrical feature. By the time he turned 42 in 1988, he already had "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "E.T. The Extra- Terrestrial," "The Color Purple" and "Empire of the Sun" under his belt — films that grossed more than $2 billion worldwide and inspired a generation of filmmakers.

Abrams co-wrote and directed 2006's "Mission: Impossible III" in 2006, which grossed $395 million worldwide, the biggest such debut for a live-action director. "Star Trek" is only Abrams' second feature directing effort, and while he has shown a confident hand with a studio's franchise material, it remains to be seen whether he can continue to break ground in the feature realm.

Unlike Spielberg, whose directing elegance was present early, Abrams is still honing his style and finding his voice. So far, he has relied on tweaking genre conventions or pre-existing properties, rather than developing original material. "Mission: Impossible III" and "Star Trek" are from TV shows, and "Cloverfield," which he produced, took the monster-movie trope and merely shifted its perspective.

On the other hand, while Spielberg has scripted or originated stories for such films as "The Goonies" and "Poltergeist," Abrams has laid a solid screenwriting foundation for his move into directing. Back when he was Jeffrey Abrams, his screenplay credits included "Taking Care of Business," "Regarding Henry," "Forever Young" and "Gone Fishin'. " He also worked on the scripts for "Armageddon," "Joy Ride" and a few others that haven't been produced. (His company, Bad Robot, has held on to a few just in case.)

Abrams has ditched such sappy material for the cooler, edgier terrain of mystery and sci-fi as exemplified by "The Twilight Zone" (another reference point he shares with Spielberg, who directed a segment in the 1983 film anthology that came out when Abrams was 17).

It's in television that Abrams, arguably more than Spielberg, has nudged the medium forward, with "Felicity," then "Alias" and finally the mindscrew of "Lost." His direction of the Emmy-winning two-hour "Lost" pilot had the scope and impact of a big feature.

Spielberg's TV work has been more sporadic: He co-created, wrote and executive produced the fantasy series "Amazing Stories" in 1985 and directed random episodes here and there, including early work for Rod Serling. He also helmed the 1971 ABC thriller "Duel."

Whatever his achievements on the TV front, Abrams still has plenty of milestones to meet to match Spielberg — in terms of the breadth of subject matter, deftness of storytelling, depth of emotion conjured by his filmmaking and the sheer heft of his presence.

So, while the "J.J. is Spielberg" bumper sticker is understandable, it doesn't really tell us what to expect from the younger talent. Just as Spielberg admired and drew lessons from his progenitors but then cut his own path, so too Abrams must continue to break new ground. Simply put, J.J. Abrams is the first J.J. Abrams.

Borys Kit contributed to this column.

Jay A. Fernandez can be reached at jay.fernandez@THR.com.