This Friday, the "J.J. Abrams, Blockbuster Filmmaker" experiment faces its toughest test yet. "Super 8," his third feature, will be the first not tied to a franchise or any major stars: Except for producer Steven Spielberg, there are no really big names at all. His first two movies made a little under $800 million worldwide, but if "Super 8" is a monster hit then Abrams will be a brand name all on his own. It all started with his first film, 2006's "Mission: Impossible III," which he wasn't even supposed to direct.
The third installment in the "Mission: Impossible" series, "III" had to follow in the footsteps of two very commercially successful movies from two very distinctive directors: Brian De Palma and John Woo. Initially, the third film was going to have yet another visually distinctive director at the helm, David Fincher. When he dropped out, Paramount turned to an up-and-comer, Joe Carnahan, who had directed the strong crime drama "Narc." But after 15 months working on the project, Carnahan also walked away. (Seriously, 15 months. That still breaks our heart.)
Less than a week later, rumors started swirling that "M:I" star Tom Cruise wanted Abrams to direct the film. Abrams had never directed a film before. He had done a few episodes of "Lost," "Alias" and "Felicity" (shows he created or co-created), but was this really the guy who was going to take over one of Paramount's biggest franchises? Apparently so: Cruise had never watched "Alias," but after meeting Abrams he sat down and watched the first two seasons and decided he wanted him for the film right then and there.
It turned out to be a shrewd move. While it lacked the auteur trademarks of the first two films, "Mission: Impossible III" ended up being the best of the series -- probably because Abrams didn't have any baggage to bring to the movie. No ridiculous slow-motion sequences, no maddeningly elaborate Steadicam shots, no horrifically confusing plots: "Mission: Impossible III" was lean, mean, and funny, enjoying the sheer visceral rush of letting Cruise do his big, muscular stunts without the forced pomposity of the earlier movies. "Mission: Impossible III" was still a big-budget summer movie, but critics took note of the fact that the film actually had the sleekness and charm of a mid-range thriller. While the earlier films lumbered, "III" seemed to operate under the mantra, "Hey, who said blockbusters can't be a blast?"
And then the movie hit theaters. Opening to "only" $47.8 million its opening weekend in early May, the movie immediately became a referendum on "Is Tom Cruise over?" It had been just about a year since Cruise's infamous couch-gate appearance on "Oprah Winfrey," and with "III" not living up to commercial expectations, the blood was in the water for critics to start cutting in to the once seemingly invincible star. The movie ended up making the least of the three "M:I" films and put the franchise in jeopardy. (Paramount is hoping and praying this December's "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" can restart the series at long last.)
You'd think that would have hurt Abrams' feature career, but three years later he came back with another big Paramount franchise, "Star Trek." He gave the brand new life.
Which brings us to "Super 8." He worked wonders with "M:I" and "Star Trek," but in both cases the property he was filming was bigger than he was. "Super 8" is the first time his name has appeared in big, bold letters in the advertising. When Abrams directed "Mission: Impossible III," most felt like Cruise was throwing the newbie a bone. Five years later, Abrams' star is rapidly ascending, while Cruise's continues to sputter. Sometimes, Hollywood is really, really weird.