This temporal relativity allows Abrams to create forms of entertainment more time-bound directors cannot. And it is increasingly not only a stylistic signature, but also an added bit of leverage in the marketplace. ("We are thrilled to be in business with him," says Brad Grey, Paramount's chairman and CEO. "Bad Robot was one of the first deals we made to help rebuild the studio four years ago.")
The son of two Hollywood producers, the 42-year-old Abrams got his first movie job at 16, when he composed music for cult director Don Dohler's Nightbeast in 1982. During his senior year at Sarah Lawrence, he wrote his first feature treatment, which became 1990's Taking Care of Business. By 1998, Abrams had cocreated the gen-Y hit Felicity, which ran four seasons on the now-defunct WB. Then he hit it big with Alias, starring Jennifer Garner, and Lost, which he created with Damon Lindelof.
Abrams's bent for time-bending goes back to his early screenwriting work: In Mike Nichols's Regarding Henry (1991), the central character, played by Harrison Ford, recovers from amnesia and tries to amend his past. In Forever Young, the following year, the lead (Mel Gibson) awakes after a long cryogenic slumber and begins aging rapidly. In Lost, Abrams, who directed the pilot, uses a plane crash to draw a line between past and present, but his characters shuttle between their earlier and marooned selves, allowing him to trace multiple narratives for each of them. And in directing this spring's Star Trek, a prequel featuring Spock and Kirk as hot post-adolescents, Abrams used time travel to reinvigorate a tired franchise (and spare us from seeing what the years might have done to Shatner since The Undiscovered Country).
Abrams uses his time-shifting device to allow for more narrative complexity, which became a way of not only holding on to more viewers but also fueling an elaborate online existence for his shows. With his latest Fox series, Fringe, Abrams has pushed the concept further, breaking down the idea of a "series" altogether. "Lost has a reputation for being a very complicated show where you have to watch every episode," Abrams says. "Fringe is an experiment for us -- you don't have to watch episodes one, two, and three to tune into episode four." Each episode can be viewed and understood consecutively or on its own; by breaking down the linear narrative, Abrams opens his series up to new viewers each week.
Abrams's expert maneuvering within the space-time continuum seems to have sharpened his ability to see into his own future. In March, an associate directed him to a soon-to-be-published article about the world's biggest diamond heist, in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2003. Abrams immediately arranged to buy the rights through his deal with Paramount. In his mind, he could see the film taking shape -- the duplicitous diamond dealer, the genius safecracker, the security-systems expert, and a muscleman with savantlike logistical skills. "The story struck a chord and I just reacted to that gut feeling," Abrams says. Safe to say it came along at the perfect time. -- by Mark Borden