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The Philosophy of J.J. Abrams

The Philosophy of J.J. Abrams

Patricia Brace
Robert Arp
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 380
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  • Book Info
    The Philosophy of J.J. Abrams
    Book Description:

    American auteur Jeffrey Jacob "J. J." Abrams's genius for creating densely plotted scripts has won him broad commercial and critical success in TV shows such as Felicity (1998--2002), Emmy-nominated Alias (2001--2006), Emmy and Golden Globe-winning Lost (2004--2010), and the critically acclaimed Fringe (2008--2013). In addition, his direction in films such as Cloverfield (2008), Super 8 (2011), and the new Mission Impossible and Star Trek films has left fans eagerly awaiting his revival of the Star Wars franchise. As a writer, director, producer, and composer, Abrams seamlessly combines geek appeal with blockbuster intuition, leaving a distinctive stamp on all of his work and establishing him as one of Tinsel Town's most influential visionaries.

    In The Philosophy of J.J. Abrams, editors Patricia L. Brace and Robert Arp assemble the first collection of essays to highlight the philosophical insights of the Hollywood giant's successful career. The filmmaker addresses a diverse range of themes in his onscreen pursuits, including such issues as personal identity in an increasingly impersonal digitized world, the morality of terrorism, bioethics, friendship, family obligation, and free will.

    Utilizing Abrams's scope of work as a touchstone, this comprehensive volume is a guide for fans as well as students of film, media, and culture. The Philosophy of J.J. Abrams is a significant contribution to popular culture scholarship, drawing attention to the mind behind some of the most provocative television and movie plots of our day.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4534-1
    Subjects: Philosophy, Performing Arts, Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)
    Patricia Brace and Robert Arp

    American auteur Jeffrey Jacob “J. J.” Abrams has a knack for creating the kind of twisty, densely plotted TV series and films that keep us on the edge of our seats and begging for more. His particular genius seems to be in the way he combines geek appeal and broader commercial and critical successes in TV shows likeFelicity, Emmy-nominatedAlias, Emmy- and Golden Globe–winningLost, the critically acclaimedFringe, and films such as the Godzilla-inspiredCloverfield, the reboot of theStar Trekfranchise, and his Spielbergian ode to the late 1970s,Super 8. As writer, director, producer, and...

  4. Scene 1: Identity Issues

    • “Grey Matters”: Personal Identity in the Fringe Universe(s)
      (pp. 13-32)
      A. P. Taylor and Justin Donhauser

      J. J. Abrams’sotherhit sci-fi series,Fringe, presents the viewer with a central philosophical puzzle: in theFringeuniverse “there’s more than one of everything.” That includes people. In the mythology of the show, duplicate characters from two alternate universes square off in a showdown. In each universe there are copies of the main characters; they look, speak, and think much the same as their doubles. How would a friend or loved one know whether you had been replaced by a physically identical doppelganger? What is it that makes you,you?That is, what makes you the same person...

    • Person of Interest: The Machine, Gilles Deleuze, and a Thousand Plateaus of Identity
      (pp. 33-46)
      Franklin Allaire

      “You are being watched. The government has a secret system, a machine that spies on you every hour of every day.” This prologue, spoken by Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) sets the tone for fans of the J. J. Abrams–produced seriesPerson of Interest(POI). For the uninitiated, this hit television drama is built on the premise that a machine, created by Finch after 9/11 to detect acts of terrorism, uses our own electronic footprints to see everything. This includes violent crimes happening to ordinary people. People like you. The government, however, considered these crimes to be irrelevant and wouldn’t...

    • Are J. J. Abrams’s “Leading Ladies” Really Feminist Role Models?
      (pp. 47-58)
      Cynthia Jones

      Felicity Porter ofFelicity, Sydney Bristow ofAlias, and Olivia Dunham ofFringeare rather unique female characters, especially when considered in comparison to the women seen in previous decades on American television. Until recently, even seemingly strong female leads often occupied and were defined by very traditional and stereotypical female roles, such as homemakers, wives, girlfriends, or mothers. One of the central goals of numerous current and historical feminist theorists is to achieve the freedom for women to choose their own roles and not have them chosen for them by a patriarchal system. Such role models are more important...

  5. Scene 2: Memento Mori

    • The End Is Nigh: Armageddon and the Meaning of Life Found through Death
      (pp. 61-70)
      Ashley Barkman

      Nearly every influential philosophy or religion speculates on death, since life’s meaning often hinges on one’s perception of the afterlife. Arguably the four most influential philosophies spanning the East and West—Hinduism, Buddhism, Platonism, and Christianity—reveal that death is valuable as a means to grasp at a higher reality, to recognize that the real world is not this transient, material world of constant flux and decay. Facing imminent death awakens us to the weighty things of true worth. J. J. Abrams explores this theme inArmageddon. People live ordinary, mundane (we could almost say illusionary) lives until the threat...

    • The Fear of Bones: On the Dread of Space and Death
      (pp. 71-88)
      Jerry S. Piven and Jeffrey E. Stephenson

      In J. J. Abrams’s masterful revisioning ofStar Trek, an unobtrusive, seemingly inconsequential dialogue between James T. Kirk and Dr. Leonard McCoy reveals some of the most profound, existential, driving emotions of the quest to explore space, as well as the passion we viewers have for the show and films. Actually, while this dialogue seems to have been more of an homage interpolated to pleaseStar Trekfans who have known and loved the cantankerous, irascible, incredulous, irritable ejaculations of Dr. McCoy, the content of his unexpected tirade has interesting parallels with arguably one of the most frightening existential explorations...

    • Do We All Need to Get Shot in the Head? Regarding Henry, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Ethical Transformation
      (pp. 89-98)
      Adam Barkman

      Regarding Henry, J. J. Abrams’s first solo attempt at writing a screenplay, is one of the most underrated films of the nineties. Not only does it feature Harrison Ford at his best (which already makes it worth the price of admission), but also—more importantly—it has a clear, powerful storyline concerning one of the most important philosophical topics of all: ethical transformation. Consequently, what I’d like to do in this chapter is to examine ethical transformation—especially the ethical transformation of Henry Turner,Regarding Henry’s protagonist—vis-à-vis philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff’s theory of justice. Ultimately my goal is to answer...

  6. Scene 3: Moral Matters

    • Fringe and “If Science Can Do It, Then Science Ought to Do It”
      (pp. 101-116)
      Phil Smolenski and Charlene Elsby

      This chapter will focus on the broadening range of what is ethically significant when we take into account advancements in science. OnFringe, we encounter scientific and technological advancements that range from the plausible to the impossible, at least as we gaze upon it from within our current context. The particular examples we see on the show do resemble our own advancements to the extent that they present ethical dilemmas where technology is concerned, for while our technologies might be different, the constant development of new technology broadens the range of ethically significant action in both the real and fictional...

    • An Inconsistent Triad? Competing Ethics in Star Trek into Darkness
      (pp. 117-130)
      Jason T. Eberl

      While surveying the planet Nibiru, the crew of the U.S.S.Enterprisediscover that the primitive native population is threatened with extinction by the imminent eruption of a massive volcano. Our spacefaring heroes, under the command of the young and impetuous Captain James T. Kirk, decide they could save the natives by detonating a cold fusion device within the heart of the volcano. They construct a plan to accomplish their Good Samaritan mission while at the same time disguising their presence in keeping with Starfleet’s Prime Directive: “No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said...

    • The Monster and the Mensch
      (pp. 131-148)
      Randall E. Auxier

      Why save the best bits? J. J. Abrams’s filmSuper 8reaches its climax when the young hero, Joe Lamb, and heroine, Alice Dainard, are being chased through the subterranean nest of an escaped alien being—a being something like a giant spider. We have had the grand moment set up for well over an hour with various characters indicating that the “monster” is empathic and it communicates by touch. We have also been prepared to assume that Joe really understands monsters. He spends his free time building models of them, and when it is time for Alice to play...

  7. Scene 4: Friends and Family

    • Abrams, Aristotle, and Alternate Worlds: Finding Friendship in the Final Frontier
      (pp. 151-162)
      Joseph J. Foy

      In 2009 J. J. Abrams successfully engaged in a reboot of theStar Trekfranchise, freeing him from the canonical constraints of the classic original series and allowing him to re-create the iconic figures of Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock. However, rather than radically departing from the well-known narrative, Abrams instead reaffirmed the importance of the friendship that defined Kirk and Spock and provided insight into the significance of community in the final frontier.

      In this chapter I will explore the philosophies of Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) on friendship and virtue that underlie Abrams’sStar Trek.¹ Using an...

    • Heroic Love and Its Inversion in the Parent-Child Relationship in Abrams’s Star Trek
      (pp. 163-172)
      Charles Taliaferro and Emilie Judge-Becker

      In philosophy there is a tradition according to which there are three precepts of justice (preacepta juris): live in a morally right way, do no harm to others, and render to each what is her or his own.¹ One of the more vexing and interesting questions that remains quite unsettled in twenty-first-century philosophy concerns the duties (if any) that are owed between parents and children. We believe that the 2009 filmStar Trek(directed by J. J. Abrams and written by Roberta Orci and Alex Kurtzman) speaks to the question of what is owed in a loving, heroic parent-child relationship,...

    • You Can’t Choose Your Family: Impartial Morality and Personal Obligations in Alias
      (pp. 173-186)
      Brendan Shea

      J. J. Abrams’sAliastells the story of a spy named Sydney Bristow. Like many fictional spies, Sydney is a quick-thinking expert in disguise and physical combat who regularly risks life and limb in order to protect the innocent. Also, unlike some of her more cold-blooded fictional counterparts, Sydney tries to be honest and kindhearted and to treat others as they deserve to be treated. So, whereas a character like James Bond strives to avoid the emotional entanglements that come with close personal relationships, Sydney works hard to maintain close relationships with family and friends. She strives, in other words,...

  8. Scene 5: Metaphysically Speaking

    • Is Abrams’s Star Trek a Star Trek Film?
      (pp. 189-204)
      Daniel Whiting

      Is J. J. Abrams’s rebootStar Trek(2009) aStar Trekfilm? To ask this is, in part, to ask what category of filmStar Trekbelongs to. Questions about categories or kinds are as old as philosophy itself. What kinds of things are there? How do these kinds of things relate to one another? What determines what things belong to these categories? These are all questions asked in the branch of Western philosophy known as metaphysics.¹ WhetherStar Trekis aStar Trekfilm—whether it belongs to that series or category—is not simply a question one can...

    • Determinism, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility in Alias
      (pp. 205-220)
      Vishal Garg

      The medium of motion picture serves a wide variety of purposes in contemporary society. We might watch a movie as a diversion or turn on the TV to relax at the end of a long day. Nightly news, documentaries, and historical and biographical shows help us gain information about the world around us. Television and movies can be used as a bonding mechanism; one of the things we have in common with people all over the world is that many of us have seen the same TV shows and movies, and we can use such common interests to start conversations....

    • Finding Directions by Indirection: The Island as a Blank Slate
      (pp. 221-234)
      Elly Vintiadis and Spyros D. Petrounakos

      What is striking aboutLostis the extent to which it challenges what we take for granted. This in itself may be of no philosophical importance. But through its explicit use of philosophers’ names and themes of philosophical importance like free will vs. determinism, faith vs. reason, time, causation and so on,Lostwould make any philosophically inclined viewer try to find philosophical connections. Such was the case with us, as we found ourselves attracted initially to the centrality of the character of John Locke. Having made the connection with the epistemology of the philosopher John Locke, we gradually realized...

  9. Scene 6: Your Logic Is Flawless

    • You Can’t Change the Past: The Philosophy of Time Travel in Star Trek and Lost
      (pp. 237-254)
      Andrew Fyfe

      The stories of J. J. Abrams’sLost(2004–2010) andStar Trek(2009) take us back in time. What makes these time-travel narratives stand out is how they abide by the logical prohibition against changing the past and display an understanding of the logical problems involved in doing so. However,LostandStar Trekdiffer in how they handle this prohibition. While the characters ofLosttravel into their own past but are unable to change anything, the characters ofStar Trekare able to change things but do not travel into their own past. In neither case do the...

    • Rabbit’s Feet, Hatches, and Monsters: Mysteries vs. Questions in J. J. Abrams’s Stories
      (pp. 255-268)
      Paul DiRado

      Mission: Impossible IIIbegins, strangely enough, at what seems to be the end. Ethan Hunt is tied up and held captive by an unnamed bad guy. This bad guy tells Ethan that unless he gives up the location of the mysterious-sounding Rabbit’s Foot, a tied-up and gagged woman (with whom the audience is led to believe Ethan has a romantic relationship) will be killed. When Ethan either can’t or won’t reveal this information to the bad guy, the woman is shot, and the film cuts back several weeks earlier, to a party being held by Ethan and the murdered woman....

  10. Scene 7: Considering Cloverfield

    • Monsters of the World, Unite! Cloverfield, Capital, and Ecological Crisis
      (pp. 271-292)
      Jeff Ewing

      In the last decade the “monster movie” has been revived as an important subgenre of science fiction and horror films. Part of this rebirth has been J. J. Abrams’sCloverfield.Cloverfieldand its viral backstory tell the story of a creature awakened by accident by Japanese industry in its pursuit of a profitable “secret ingredient.” Indeed, the careless operations of business, oriented toward profit in the process of “innovation,” had extremely negative consequences due to the impact on the environment. Karl Marx, in his extensive critique of capitalism, articulates a number of features of capitalism, class society, and the relation...

    • Cloverfield, Super 8, and the Morality of Terrorism
      (pp. 293-312)
      Robert Arp and Patricia Brace

      The trope of invasion by otherworldly or mutated others has often been used in the science fiction film genre as a metaphor for terrorism and conquest. From the Communist-threat, mind-control originalInvasion of the Body Snatchers(1956) andWar of the Worlds(1953), to nuclear-bomb-test fears inGodzilla(1954/56 U.S. release) andThem(1954), to the nuclear war instigated by cybernetic beings in theTerminatorfilms and television series (1984–2009), these sorts of monster movies have played on our fears of losing control of our minds, bodies, and cities. In the post-9/11 era the fear of “the other” invading...

  11. Scene 8: Talkin’ ’Bout a Revolution

    • A Place for Revolutions in Revolution? Marxism, Feminism, and the Monroe Republic
      (pp. 315-338)
      Jeff Ewing

      In J. J. Abrams’sRevolution, the world is a dark place. More particularly,Revolutiontakes place fifteen years after electricity all over the planet was suddenly disabled, and with it, all technology that uses it. In what once was the United States of America, the U.S. government has collapsed (divided into six new nations), and territories are now controlled by warlords, militias, and rebel gangs. The story is set in the area now called the Monroe Republic, controlled by Sebastian Monroe and the Monroe Militia, and follows the attempt of Charlie Matheson, her uncle Miles, and their friends as they...

    • A Light in the Darkness: Ethical Reflections on Revolution
      (pp. 339-358)
      Michael Versteeg and Adam Barkman

      Electricity is the source upon which our modern technologized society is dependent. Many technologies that we take for granted every day, such as cellphones and computers, rely on this source of power. But what would happen if one day everything just shut off? How would human beings survive in a world without electricity? Such a world is realized in J. J. Abrams’sRevolution.

      Approximately fifteen years after a global blackout, modern civilization as we know it ceases to exist, and the former United States births five new political entities, one of which is known as the Monroe Republic. The story...

  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 359-360)
  13. List of Contributors
    (pp. 361-364)
  14. Index
    (pp. 365-368)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 369-372)