Abrams was born in New York City and raised in Los Angeles, the son of television Producer Gerald W. Abrams (born 1939) and executive Producer Carol Ann Abrams (née Kelvin; 1942–2012). His sister is Screenwriter Tracy Rosen. He attended Palisades High School. After graduating high school, Abrams planned on going to dental school rather than an arts college, but eventually enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College, following his father's advice: "it's more important that you go off and learn what to make movies about than how to make movies."
Abrams's first job in the movie Business started at 15 when he wrote the music for Don Dohler's 1982 film Nightbeast. During his senior year at college, he teamed with Jill Mazursky to write a feature film treatment. Purchased by Touchstone Pictures, the treatment was the basis for Taking Care of Business, Abrams's first produced film, which starred Charles Grodin and James Belushi. He followed with Regarding Henry, starring Harrison Ford, and Forever Young, starring Mel Gibson. He also co-wrote with Mazursky the script for the comedy Gone Fishin' starring Joe Pesci and Danny Glover.
In 1994, he was part of the "Propellerheads" with Rob Letterman, Loren Soman, and Andy Waisler, a group of Sarah Lawrence alums experimenting with computer animation Technology who were contracted by Jeffrey Katzenberg to develop animation for the film Shrek. Abrams worked on the screenplay for the 1998 film Armageddon with Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Director Michael Bay. That same year, he made his first foray into television with Felicity, which ran for four seasons on The WB Network, serving as the series' co-creator (with Matt Reeves) and executive Producer. He also composed its opening theme music.
Abrams has created numerous television series, including Felicity (co-creator, 1998–2003), Alias (creator, 2001–2006), Lost (co-creator, 2004–2010), and Fringe (co-creator, 2008–2013). He won two Emmy Awards for Lost — Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series and Outstanding Drama Series.
Under his production company, Bad Robot, which he founded with Bryan Burk in 2001, Abrams created and executive-produced ABC's Alias and is co-creator (along with Damon Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber) and was executive Producer of Lost. As with Felicity, Abrams also composed the opening theme music for Alias and Lost. Abrams directed and wrote the two-part pilot for Lost and remained active Producer for the first half of the season. Also in 2001, Abrams co-wrote and produced the horror-thriller Joy Ride. In 2006, he served as executive Producer of What About Brian and Six Degrees, also on ABC. He also co-wrote the teleplay for Lost's third season premiere "A Tale of Two Cities" and the same year, he made his feature directorial debut with Mission: Impossible III, starring Tom Cruise. Abrams spoke at the TED conference in 2007.
In July 2002, Abrams wrote a script for a possible fifth Superman film entitled Superman: Flyby. Brett Ratner and McG entered into talks to direct, although Abrams tried to get the chance to direct his own script. However, the project was finally cancelled in 2004 and instead Superman Returns was released in 2006.
His directorial film work includes Mission: Impossible III (2006), Star Trek (2009) and its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), and Super 8 (2011). He also directed and co-wrote Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), the first film in the Star Wars sequel trilogy and his highest-grossing film, as well as the third highest-grossing film of all time. He will return to Star Wars by co-writing and directing Episode IX.
In 2008, it was reported that Abrams purchased the rights to a New York Times article "Mystery on Fifth Avenue" about the renovation of an 8.5 million dollar co-op, a division of property originally owned by E. F. Hutton & Co. and Marjorie Merriweather Post, for six figures and was developing a film titled Mystery on Fifth Avenue, with Paramount Pictures and Bad Robot Productions, and comedy Writers Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky to write the adaptation. According to the article, a wealthy couple Steven B. Klinsky and Maureen Sherry purchased the apartment in 2003 and live there with their four children. Soon after purchasing the apartment, they hired young architectural designer Eric Clough, who devised an elaborately clever "scavenger hunt" built into the apartment that involved dozens of historical figures, a fictional book and a Soundtrack, woven throughout the apartment in puzzles, riddles, secret panels, compartments, and hidden codes, without the couple's knowledge. The family didn't discover the embedded mystery until months after moving into the apartment. After Abrams purchased the article, Clough left him an encrypted message in the wall tiles of a Christian Louboutin shoe store he designed in West Hollywood.
In November 2009, it was reported that Abrams and Bad Robot Productions were producing, along with Cartoon Network Movies, Warner Bros., Frederator Films and Paramount Pictures, a film adaptation of Samurai Jack. However, in June 2012, series creator Genndy Tartakovsky stated that the production of the film was scrapped after Abrams' departure from the project to direct Star Trek. For this and other reasons, Tartakovsky decided to make a new season instead of a feature film.
He wrote and directed the Paramount science fiction thriller Super 8, starring Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning, while co-producing with Steven Spielberg and Bryan Burk; it was released on June 10, 2011. Abrams directed the sequel to Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, released in May 2013.
On January 25, 2013, The Walt Disney Studios and Lucasfilm officially announced Abrams as Director and Producer of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh entry in the Star Wars film saga. Disney/Lucasfilm also announced that Bryan Burk and Bad Robot Productions would produce the feature. Following the news that he would direct The Force Awakens, speculation arose as to Abrams's Future with Paramount Pictures, with whom he had released all of his previously directed feature work, and which had a first-look deal with his Bad Robot Productions. Paramount vice-chairman Rob Moore stated that Abrams will continue to have a hand in the highly successful Star Trek and Mission: Impossible franchises going forward. Abrams directed, produced, and co-wrote the screenplay for, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, working alongside Lawrence Kasdan, following the departure of co-writer Michael Arndt. Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened in theaters on December 18, 2015. It grossed over $2 billion at the box office, making him the second Director to make a $2 billion movie since James Cameron's Avatar. He served as a Producer on the 2016 sci-fi sequel Star Trek Beyond.
In January 2014, during the promotion of the TV series Believe, it was reported that Abrams was interested in making film adaptations of Alias, Lost and Felicity.
In November 2015, it was reported that a sixth Mission: Impossible film was in the works and that Abrams was expected to return to produce the film, along Tom Cruise, Don Granger, David Ellison, and Dana Goldberg.
In July 2016, Abrams reported that a fourth Star Trek installment was in the works and that he is confident that Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Chris Hemsworth will return for the sequel.
In September 2017, it was announced by Lucasfilm President, Kathleen Kennedy, that Abrams would be returning to Star Wars to direct and co-write the upcoming Episode IX with co-writer Chris Terrio.
In February 2018, HBO ordered Abrams sci-fi drama Demimonde to series.