More Lens Flare! 20 Years Ago the J.J. Abrams Effect Began With ‘Alias’

The lens flare obsession started right here.

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What was the greatest show that came out 20-years-ago, but feels like it came out yesterday? If you want to feel old, guess what, that show is Alias.

Alias made J.J Abrams… J.J. Abrams. The writer-producer-director had enjoyed success before, notably with Felicity, Forever Young, and Armageddon, but Alias – which will turn 20 this fall – set Abrams on his path to becoming an “it” producer, a guy who could craft zeitgeist-y, water-cooler shows and movies, and thus he was handed the keys to several kingdoms, in both existing IPs and of his own creation. Cases in point: Lost, Mission: Impossible, Fringe, Star Trek, Super 8, Person of Interest, Star Wars, and more.

But, 20 years ago, Alias arrived as the purest and most unrefined of Abrams products. Let’s break down how Alias created the pop-culture world we’re still living in.

Strong Female Lead

Abrams appreciates strong female characters. Felicity was a good start, but his penchant for putting smart, butt-kicking women front and center really began here. Jennifer Garner was in her late 20s but looked younger when Alias first rolled the camera. Early flashback scenes even presented Sydney Bristow as a college student. Soon enough, viewers saw her in spy mode, sporting all manner of disguise, perhaps none more memorable than one of the first: bright red wig and leather pants. More significantly, Bristow evolved during the show’s run, growing as a woman, experiencing love, handling world-at-stake crises, improving her espionage game, and doing it with smarts… and humanity. Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly), Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell), Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson), Root (Amy Acker), Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi), Rey Skywalker (Daisy Ridley), Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) all share strands of Bristow’s DNA.

The Nutty Stuff

Someone involved with Alias, maybe Abrams, could make sense of all the spy stuff, though the audience was often left guessing, with that journey-over-destination aspect part of the fun and part of the frustration of loving/hating the show. Let’s see… there was the SD-6, CIA, Alliance of Twelve, The Covenant, KGB, FBI, APO, The Shed, Prophet Five, and all those Rambaldi followers wreaking havoc. Abrams’ MO always seemed to be the bigger and badder the threat, the greater the challenge for Bristow and anyone in her circle. He’s made a career of that, introducing a strong female lead and constructing a convoluted, daunting, sometimes impenetrable world around her. Fringe, Lost, Person of Interest, Cloverfield (and 10 Cloverfield Lane), and Super 8 all fit the mold.

Is Alias Sci-Fi?

Let’s go back to the crazy stuff in Alias for a moment. Milo Rambaldi, in the 1400s, sought immortality. Don’t we all? Thus, his philosophies and artifacts fascinated disciples in the present day. Rambaldi actually sought world peace via the eradication of evil. But such beneficence is easily corrupted by others seeking power or personal gain. Paging… Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin) on Alias and pretty much every big bad in any Abrams production. Rambaldi’s devices were way ahead of their time, futuristic even. So, even if Alias isn’t pure sci-fi like Star Wars, Star Trek or Fringe, or sci-fi adjacent like Armageddon, its magical realism classifies it as genre fare.

Parental Issues

Parental conflicts make for great drama. Abrams didn’t invent that, but he played it to the hilt on Alias, benefiting from the superb bond between Garner and Victor Garber, who portrayed Jack Bristow. The two actors remain close friends to this day. He’s the godfather of her daughter, Violet, and officiated the wedding of Garner to Violet’s father, Ben Affleck. Anyway, Jack Bristow spent far too much time away from his family as a double agent, and lied about it, but atoned as best he could later by always having his daughter’s back. In fact, (mega-spoiler), he sacrificed himself to save her. Dad issues span Abrams’ entire oeuvre: Regarding Henry (Harrison Ford is a borderline monster… until he’s shot); Felicity (Felicity rebels); Lost (it’s all about Jack trying to find peace with his father); Fringe (Peter contending with, take you pick: sweet, brilliant but insane dad Walter or nasty, brilliant and calculated dad Walter); Star Trek (Spock’s torturous relationship with his father pre-existed, but Kirk trying to live up to the actions of his father unfolded under Abrams’ command); and Star Wars (Rey, who are your parents?)

Greg Grunberg, Slushos…and so much lens flare

In addition to his penchant for recurring thematic elements, Abrams turns again and again to certain images and people. Alias has it all, lens flares (which Mrs. Abrams blessedly convinced her husband to stop), Greg Grunberg (a lifelong friend and screen good-luck charm, a la Garry Marshall’s use of Hector Elizondo), Slushos (the Slurpee-like drink; yummy), red balls (like the lens flare, right there in the Alias pilot), the number 47 (Rambaldi’s favorite number), and composer Michael Giacchino (Alias was the first of their many projects together).

Alias is available to stream for free on Amazon Prime Video.

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