Influenced by the Past: The Work of J.J Abrams and Quentin Tarantino

Last week Brad asked me if I was interested in writing an article examining the work of two top Hollywood directors, J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) and Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds). Both filmmakers often wear their influences on their sleeves to the point some have accused both men of being derivative at times and, in Quentin's case, some have gone as far as to call him a plagiarist.

At the time Brad brought the idea to me I had not yet seen Abrams' new flick, Super 8, but that was remedied last Saturday, a day that quickly turned into more than just research and a movie.

As I dutifully waited in line, who should walk up and get in line right behind me? Why none other than Mr. Tarantino himself. I glanced back to make sure I wasn't hallucinating, and then waited in line like any good Angeleno. We don't like to bug our celebrities in LA, it's considered gauche and in bad taste. Still, I couldn't help but mention to him the piece I was about to soon be working on.

"Well, happy comparing," he said in that unmistakable voice of his and then he leaned in and said, "As you can observe, we're fans of one another." It was then that I remembered Tarantino had a recurring role on Abrams' hit TV show "Alias" back in 2002 and 2004.

In some ways the mutual admiration society makes a lot of sense. For one thing, Abrams and Tarantino have a mutual love for strong, butt kicking women as evidenced in the aforementioned "Alias" TV show in Abrams' case and Jackie Brown and Kill Bill 1 and 2 in Tarantino's.

Both filmmakers also have an obvious love for the films and TV shows of their youths. In many ways, their combined films, up to this point, have been either remakes, sequels, reboots or homages to the movies and television they grew up watching. Tarantino's taste may be a bit more esoteric but that may well come from his time as a video jockey in the South Bay as much as anything else. J.J., on the other hand, is the consummate Hollywood insider. Yet, only one of them has been accused of plagiarism and stealing and that would be Tarantino.

The first time it happened was in the early '90s when several cinephiles started pointing out the similarities between Ringo Lam's City on Fire and Tarantino's first film Reservoir Dogs. A major article on the subject was featured in Empire Magazine over in the UK where Tarantino's freshmen film was a major hit. The mag would later name it "The Greatest Independent Film Ever Made".

On a side note, it should be interesting to hear Lam discuss Tarantino's work himself and the influence Asian cinema has had on his work in the French documentary "Tarantino: The Disciple Of Hong Kong," which you can watch the trailer for embedded to the right. The doc played in France only eleven days ago.

Beyond Reservoir Dogs, plagiarism charges have dogged Tarantino so continuously that when he was roasted at the Friar's Club last December, comedian Sara Silverman told the crowd, "Tarantino is a Japanese word meaning film plagiarism." Ouch.

I have always felt this take on Tarantino's work was oddly misplaced because in my mind he is one of the only truly original voices to come along in cinema in the last 20 years. When you see a Tarantino film you know it is a Tarantino film, unlike the many pretenders who tried to ape the director's personal style in the late nineties. There is a decided difference between those dreaded "Tarantino rip-off" films like Suicide Kings or 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag and Tarantino masterpieces like Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown.

Abrams, on the other hand, has met with few claims of stealing despite the fact almost all of his work is completely derivative of earlier works by other filmmakers, Super 8 being, perhaps, his most derivative work yet. I didn't get a chance to ask Quentin what he thought of the film on his way out, but I am personally stunned at the many positive reviews the film has received so far. I wanted to like it, especially after his wonderfully fun Star Trek from a couple of years back. Unfortunately, plot holes, ridiculous action sequences, cheap scares and bombastic music were the order of the day in this "homage" to '80s Spielberg films.

Where was Abrams' voice in all of this? I saw Spielberg, "The Twilight Zone" and then some, but what part of it was J.J.? I couldn't tell you. Then again I'm not sure what a J.J. Abrams film looks like at this point in his career.

His Mission: Impossible III didn't distinguish itself as being that much different from the first two films in the franchise. His Star Trek reboot was fun and entertaining but it owed more to Gene Roddenberry than it did to J.J. Add in films that he has written and produced like Joy Ride and Cloverfield and you still don't really get a feel for what it means when a movie is labeled a "A film by J.J. Abrams", though you can rest assured it will most likely be shrouded in mystery and have plenty of viral websites associated with it.

That may be why Abrams is rarely accused of stealing in the way that Tarantino has been by so many people. Because his films so closely hew to the filmmakers he admires that there is no mistake about what he is doing. Plus, Abrams is considered to be a mainstream Hollywood director, and I get the sense critics and filmgoers are simply glad he isn't a complete hack like say, McG or Brett Ratner. Most fans also believe J.J. loves movies as much as they do and, at the very least, he wants to entertain us. That alone gives him a certain credibility.

Quentin, though, is someone many of us truly treasure. Maybe that's the reason he often takes more flack. He's the man who went from being our favorite video store clerk to our favorite film director. He's not just a director, he's an embodiment of all of us. That's why I wasn't afraid to say hello to him last Saturday. We don't want him to simply entertain us. We want him to wow us. That is why his occasional slips ups are that much more disappointing. We take it personal because he's one of us.

I'm curious how the audience feels about these two major filmmakers. Do you think Tarantino gets a fair shake regarding his originality? Does Abrams get too much of a free pass? Or does it matter who imitates whom if both men give us entertaining films?

On the horizon for the two filmmakers is a spaghetti western from Tarantino called Django Unchained and for Abrams it will likely be Star Trek 2, though that remains unconfirmed. Should things work out as they are to be expected, 2012 will be 2009 all over again. I, for one, can't wait.

FYI: One similarity I think should be mentioned before I leave, is that both men are notoriously nice guys. Quentin used his own money to save one of the few revival theaters in Los Angeles and J.J. has been known to help anyone who has ever worked for him move up the ladder in Hollywood. Beyond any talk of their films, this alone is commendable.

  • Will Holston

    I think this criticism of both of them is a little unfair. Though I think they're more open about it, I think it would be silly to assume that other directors aren't stealing from or being inspired by other work in equal measure. They just don't talk about it or make it part of their mystique.

  • Rashad

    Considering many Star Trek fans, didn't like JJ's because it was so different I don't think you can say he owed anything to anyone. (Mind you I think it was crap and worse than Transformers 2.) What is JJ's voice? I don't know, and don't really care. I don't know Tarantino's voice beyond he loves movies, and makes great ones. I think people get too caught up in what someone is trying to "say," and don't focus on the story and action taking place. Sometimes there is no larger theme or message. Sometimes it's just a well told story and about hanging out with characters. I thought Super 8 was fantastic, and distinguished itself from the early Amblin films it's owed to. The same way Kill Bill is its own original movie despite having many references to past films.

    The reason Tarantino takes so much flack, is because he's dumb enough (in a good way) to open his mouth and talk about all the homages and in-jokes. Now, people go out looking for them even when it's not there really. All directors do it, he's just a lot more honest about it.

    • Brad Brevet

      When you say "I think people get too caught up in what someone is trying to "say," and don't focus on the story and action taking place," I think you are misunderstanding. It's not about the deeper meaning of the film, but the voice of the storyteller that I believe Bill is referring to. For example, imagine something like The Social Network if it were directed by Abrams instead of Fincher, you would certainly end up with a much different film. Now consider it directed by Tarantino, which one can you get a clearer vision of what the final product may look like?

      • Will Holston

        In that instance, I think it's hard to say, because it's not a subject matter that really seems like it would interest Tarantino in the slightest. It's hard to imagine how he would handle material like that since his films rely, in some way, on creating a reality that could be happening in any decade but is influenced by lots of different decades (I guess Inglorious Basterds is the exception). The Social Network is so specifically tied to a certain time and place.

      • Brad Brevet

        Will, with both of your comments in this thread you are ignoring the topic at hand, Bill and I both understand these two directors aren't the only ones that were influenced by past work and I understand The Social Network is something that neither Tarantino or Abrams would likely direct, but the point remains.

      • Rashad

        Funnily enough, I think Tarantino's version would have been very similar to the one Fincher made. Talky, fancy editing, monologues, quips etc. I don't think Abrams has done enough to distinguish himself in that class yet, but Super 8 was a start of more personal movies for him. I just don't know what we're going to see from him in his newer works, outside of lens flares.

  • Winchester

    I think Abrams is completely honest as well a lot of the time about what influenced him............but he's also much more popcorn oriented than Tarantino has ever really been.

    Based on their 2009 films, though, I thought Inglorious Basterds was over-rated tripe of the highest order that I simply did not like, whereas I highly enjoyed Star Trek and had no problem with it.

    I can pretty much tell where he's taken a lot of his influences from because he's said so in interviews. But for me the key difference is Felicity (which I never saw) and Alias (where I found out about him) is that he has a knack for getting me to care about the characters in his films.............irrespective of the silliness, plot holes etc going on around them. To the degree that it mitigates the latter. But I also don't think he's as 'serious' a film-maker as Tarantino seeks to be and perhaps is.

    But anyway, I never really feel anything with a Tarantino terms of caring about any characters in his films. There are a few of course, (Uma in Kill Bill, Robert Forster in Jackie) but for me that's down to the performances by those actors, not the writing or the direction. When I watch a Tarantino film - irrespective of whether he's trying to say anything or not - I just feel I'm watching someone whose showing off how knowledgeable he is about stuff a lot of folks have never heard of. Like he's ticking the boxes in his own way, the same that could be said for Abrams as well. And I think necessarily people don't always like an obvious show off. But for me, If I can't find some way to care about the people at the centre then I couldn't give a shit about the rest a lot of the time.

    I think they both have their respective niches, and I think they both work to their strengths. Is it unfair that Tarantino gets more of a rap than Abrams - maybe, but that's pretty much how it goes sometimes. One gets off, another doesn't even though they both do the same thing basically.

  • Abe M

    Tarantino's influences in his films are perhaps what I love about his films. I feel he brings bits and pieces of cinema touched up with some of his own flair and delivers a product that reminds me of what I love about movies. Tarantino LOVES movies and is naturally inspired and influenced by them. When I see him "biting" off of someone else's work, I don't view it as plagiarism, but more as him being enamored by that shot or whathaveyou that he included it in his film to share with the audience.

    • Brad Brevet

      I agree with you totally Abe, when he references someone else's work it makes me want to see that film, such as when I watched Lady Snowblood after loving Kill Bill.

  • maja

    On a filmmaking level, I honestly don't think there is a comparison in their quality. Tarantino is streets ahead, sure he has been around for a decade or so longer but even his early films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are way better and more original than anything that JJ Abrams has ever done.

    JJ Abrams is a decent director, but i don't think he is a great one, and honestly i think that his homages endear him to critics and fans who then ignore any shortcomings in films like Cloverfield and Super 8. Also as you mentioned, he much more 'Hollywood' and his films don't really have a certain style or feel to them.

    As for why Tarantino is ripped for plagarising whilst Abrams isn't, I think it's down to two things; firstly it's quite obvious that alot of Tarantino stuff has been copied from little known Asian movies that when people find out about it they have to shout from the rooftops because as they are not well known films people think Tarantino did this to hide that he is stealing. Whilst with Abrams he rebooted Star Trek and paid an obvious homage to a well known Speilberg. Secondly, Tarantino is a much more original director than any other in the past 10-15 years and although most love him, the ones that just don't get it need some sort of excuse so everyone jumps on the plagarisim bandwagon.

  • Grissom

    Both Tarantino and Abrams have their influences that make them who they are.

    Tarantino's influences range from Leone to Kubrick (not really hard to see why, people like Woody Allen and Tim Burton established Kubrick as an influence), but Abrams is a sci-fi guy, so Spielberg and Lucas are likely to of been influences.

  • Matt

    Bill, I was at that same screening! Interestingly enough, I was at an event that night with Abrams, Spielberg and James Cameron.

    • Bill Cody (author)

      That's funny. You had a quadfecta there. That's like 40% of the profits in Hollywood.

  • The Jackal

    Let me start this response by stating I am a fan of J.J. Abrams. Alias, Cloverfield, the first 3 seasons of Lost, Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek, Super 8 - I loved them all.

    No offence to Abrams, but comparing him to Tarantino is like comparing apples and oranges. Both are fruits yes, or in this case, both directors derive their sense of cinematic style from their love of what has come before (JJ with Spielberg, QT with Kung Fu & Grindhouse fare); however, one is a master, the other simply a good director.

    Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds - these films are all modern classics. QT is such a unique voice in cinema that the first posters for Kill Bill: Volume 1 hailed it simply as "The 4th film by Quentin Tarantino" - that is saying something.

    A J.J. Abrams film is fun, witty and entertaining. They are full of great special effects and plenty of homages to director's past. Super 8 could have been called "the lost film of Stephen Spielberg" - but it didn't decrease my enjoyment of it. QT has made quite a mark on cinema. Abrams is still discovering what kind of mark he'll leave on Hollywood - other than as "the director of entertaining films"

    Thems the facts

  • Nithin Muraleedharan

    I think the comparison is fine. But Super 8 was a well made and a well-crafted film capturing the emotions of teens in a brilliant manner than going sexual like most psedo-intellectual filmmakers would. Besdies, When I saw Mission Impossible 3, I felt that JJ Abrams is a brave guy, as it did not relate to the 1st part or the 2nd one in any way. Had I made MI3, It would be filled with action and action only, but Abrams intelligently added a lot of emotion to the movie. The movie was great in it's own way. As far as Fringe is concerned, that too I feel is inspired heavily from the X-Files. But again, the main concept of 'Fringe' is entirely different from that of the X-Files. That is where a true capability of a film-maker lies.