Dear Mr. Abrams: Please Remember How To Use The Mystery Box For Positive Effect

Posted by Matthew on May 05, 2014
Editorial

JJ Abrams

Wait, what’s ‘The Mystery Box’?” you may be asking. The Mystery Box is something first coined by JJ Abrams to describe his approach to writing in the TED Talk he gave waaaaaaay back in 2007. The long version involves his grand father and childhood memories of a magic shop made real by way of an actual Mystery Box of Magic purchased when he was a child. The short version is that Mr. Abrams values, above all, we the viewers not knowing what is going on with his projects.

And I’m kind of tired of how that’s working these days.

If you watch the TED Talk in question Mr. Abrams talks about mystery in many forms. I will freely admit that I am perfectly fine with most of them. The problem today lies with just one form which he only mentions in passing: “mystery by withholding.”

When used in a storytelling sense this can be great. Take is own film Mission Impossible 3 in which the central macguffin, “The Rabbit’s Foot” is never actually explained beyond “these guys have it and the bad guys want it.” I like that because we don’t really need to know anything beyond that.

However in the last few years Mr. Abrams obsession with withholding information has extended to every level of his film making. He goes to extreme lengths to keep basically every aspect of his films under complete wraps until it comes out.

On the surface this sounds, well, kind of refreshing. In an age when I can tell you the entire plot of many films just by watching the trailer it’s nice that someone might actually want to avoid spoilers and to keep the magic in the box as long as possible.

So where is the problem? It’s that in this day and age of twitter, cell phone pictures, and constant connectivity, clamping down on information only makes the desire for it stronger. This has two effects and I am not a fan of either of them.

Firstly, it means that some of the things he’s trying to keep secret become the worst kept secrets in the world. Case in point, Mr. Abrams denied until the day of release that the villain in Star Trek Into Darkness was Khan but anyone who had any access to the web and wanted to know pretty much knew. This ended up undercutting the experience for me (and others) of watching that film. I wasn’t thinking to myself “what’s going to happen next?” I was thinking “when is he going to say his damn name?

Or to put it more succinctly: in trying to keep the magic in the box he made the experience less magical.

The second is that it’s just become a cheap marketing gimmick and hype generator. Earlier this week a film website that I rather like ran a story about “potential Star Wars actors seen in London.” That’s not news, or at least it shouldn’t be. Then this happened:

Star Wars Episode VII Cast

Behold the first photo of the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII. We now know who is in this movie, which is great! But now the internet is awash with news stories speculating who is playing heroes and who is playing villains and who is playing everyone in between.

Normally I’d be excited by the speculation but I’ve become so jaded about anything with Mr. Abrams involved that I fully expect anything he says to be a lie (à la “it’s not Khan”) if anyone says anything at all.

There’s also the posts asking about the missing other woman (original character breakdowns included two women, not just one). Has she been cast yet? Will she? Who knows! And Mr. Abrams will do his damnedest to not tell us.

Meanwhile we’re all scrambling to post our speculation about what’s become of that character, building the hype machine and our expectations to unreasonable proportions.

Part of me thinks that maybe the idea is designed to cover up that he’s indecisive. If it’s true that there’s a major part yet to be cast for his film which has already had its first table read? How is that anything close to a good thing? Is photography going to start without her? How is the cast meant to develop some chemistry if they aren’t even all cast yet?

The really frustrating thing about this is that there is a better way to do all this and Marvel has done it brilliantly.

Take a look at Iron Man Three last year. We all knew Ben Kingsley was the Mandarin way in advance. We all knew he’d be a bad guy, we all knew all kinds of things that Marvel told us. They told us just enough that when the big twist happened it caught everyone by surprise. They didn’t hold back everything, they held back just the important parts. They gave us just enough to satisfy our curiosity so we wouldn’t go looking for more.

They did it again with Captain America: The Winter Soldier this year. They told us everything we wanted to know and in doing so no one saw the big, crazy, universe altering twist coming.

Let’s think about this. Imagine for a moment that Star Trek Into Darkness trailers had just told us that Khan was the villain. How would this have affected our perceptions? To be honest? It wouldn’t have. The reveal was handled so poorly it wouldn’t have mattered in the slightest. Now imagine there had been a legitimate twist in the film, like Khan turning out to be a good guy, and they’d told us Khan was in it? That would have been shocking and engaging instead of banal and boring.

At the end of the day what I am trying to say here is that I think JJ Abrams idea that trying to keep all the mystery in the box is misguided. It’s either going to cause the internet to clamour for information and spoil the mystery or build up viewer expectations to unreasonable levels, levels that we can only be let down from.

The better way to do this is to figure out which things to keep a mystery and which things to let out to serve that mystery. To give us just enough information to get us engaged and speculating, but not so much that we can figure out the actual mystery.

Movies are magic, and mystery is often a central part to that magic. JJ Abrams “Mystery Box”, at least the way he’s using it now, is spoiling the very magic he’s trying to preserve and I, for one, am kind of sick of it. He’s directing the next Star Wars film and that’s something I want to be looking forward to with a childlike glee and as of right now I’m not really and that’s a problem.

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