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The Philosophy of J.J. Abrams

edited by Patricia Brace and Robert Arp

Publication Year: 2014

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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: The Philosophy of Popular Culture

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-viii

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Patricia Brace and Robert Arp

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pp. 1-12

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 like Felicity, Emmy-nominated Alias, Emmy- and Golden Globe–winning Lost, the critically acclaimed Fringe, and films such as the Godzilla-inspired Cloverfield, the reboot of the Star Trek franchise, and his Spielbergian ode to the late 1970s, Super 8...

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"Grey Matters": Personal Identity in the Fringe Universe(s)

A. P. Taylor and Justin Donhauser

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pp. 13-32

J. J. Abrams’s other hit sci-fi series, Fringe, presents the viewer with a central philosophical puzzle: in the Fringe universe “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? ...

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Person of Interest: The Machine, Gilles Deleuze, and a Thousand Plateaus of Identity

Franklin Allaire

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pp. 33-46

“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 series Person 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...

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Are J. J. Abram's "Leading Ladies" Really Feminist Role Models?

Cynthia Jones

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pp. 47-60

Felicity Porter of Felicity, Sydney Bristow of Alias, and Olivia Dunham of Fringe are 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...

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The End Is Nigh: Armageddon and the Meaning of Life Found through Death

Ashley Barkman

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pp. 61-70

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...

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The Fear of Bones: On the Dread of Space and Death

Jerry S. Piven and Jeffrey E. Stephenson

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pp. 71-88

In J. J. Abrams’s masterful revisioning of Star 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...

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Do We All Need to Get Shot in the Head?: Regarding Henry, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Ethical Transformation

Adam Barkman

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pp. 89-100

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...

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Fringe and "If Science Can Do It, Then Science Ought to Do It"

Phil Smolenski and Charlene Elsby

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pp. 101-116

This chapter will focus on the broadening range of what is ethically significant when we take into account advancements in science. On Fringe, 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...

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An Inconsistent Triad?: Competing Ethics in Star Trek into Darkness

Jason T. Eberl

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pp. 117-130

While surveying the planet Nibiru, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise discover 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...

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The Monster and the Mensch

Randall E. Auxier

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pp. 131-150

Why save the best bits? J. J. Abrams’s film Super 8 reaches 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...

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Abrams, Aristotle, and Alternate Worlds: Finding Friendship in the Final Frontier

Joseph J. Foy

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pp. 151-162

In 2009 J. J. Abrams successfully engaged in a reboot of the Star Trek franchise, 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...

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Heroic Love and Its Inversion in the Parent-Child Relationship in Abrams's Star Trek

Charles Taliaferro and Emilie Judge-Becker

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pp. 163-172

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...

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You Can't Choose Your Family: Impartial Morality and Personal Obligations in Alias

Brendan Shea

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pp. 173-188

J. J. Abrams’s Alias tells 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...

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Is Abrams's Star Trek a Star Trek Film?

Daniel Whiting

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pp. 189-204

Is J. J. Abrams’s reboot Star Trek (2009) a Star Trek film? To ask this is, in part, to ask what category of film Star Trek belongs 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?...

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Determinism, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility in Alias

Vishal Garg

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pp. 205-220

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...

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Finding Directions by Indirection: The Island as a Blank Slate

Elly Vintiadis and Spyros D. Petrounakos

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pp. 221-236

What is striking about Lost is 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, Lost would make any philosophically inclined viewer try to find philosophical connections...

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You Can't Change the Past: The Philosophy of Time Travel in Star Trek and Lost

Andrew Fyfe

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pp. 237-254

The stories of J. J. Abrams’s Lost (2004–2010) and Star 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, Lost and Star Trek differ in how they handle this prohibition...

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Rabbit's Feet, Hatches, and Monsters: Mysteries vs. Questions in J. J. Abrams’s Stories

Paul DiRado

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pp. 255-270

Mission: Impossible III begins, 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...

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Monsters of the World, Unite!: Cloverfield, Capital, and Ecological Crisis

Jeff Ewing

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pp. 271-292

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’s Cloverfield. Cloverfield and its viral backstory tell the story of a creature awakened by accident by Japanese industry in its pursuit of a profitable “secret ingredient.”...

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Cloverfield, Super 8, and the Morality of Terrorism

Robert Arp and Patricia Brace

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pp. 293-314

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 original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and War of the Worlds (1953), to nuclear-bomb-test fears in Godzilla (1954/56 U.S. release) and Them (1954), to the nuclear war instigated by cybernetic beings in the Terminator films 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 us, intent on both physical and psychological terror and conquest, has been given new impetus...

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A Place for Revolutions in Revolution?: Marxism, Feminism, and the Monroe Republic

Jeff Ewing

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pp. 315-338

In J. J. Abrams’s Revolution, the world is a dark place. More particularly, Revolution takes 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.

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A Light in the Darkness: Ethical Reflections on Revolution

Michael Versteeg and Adam Barkman

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pp. 339-358

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’s Revolution.


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pp. 359-360


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pp. 361-364


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pp. 365-368

Series Page

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813145341
E-ISBN-10: 0813145341
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813145303

Page Count: 380
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: The Philosophy of Popular Culture