The Problem With JJ Abrams' Mystery Box

I don’t like to talk too much about films in production, just because as a sideline spectator there’s so much that can change and be misinterpreted. Heated arguments and conversations over casting or alleged plot details can mean nothing by the time the final film is released. That being said, I have a few words about Star Wars Episode VII, aka the most anticipated movie in this writer’s life, and the secrecy behind its development and production.

According to Disney chairman Alan Horn, the film starts production in May, and is in fact already shooting (most likely second unit plates for visual effects), yet we know next to nothing about the movie. There’s a lot that’s been rumored or assumed, but little that has actually been confirmed by Disney/Lucasfilm.

R2-D2 and C3-P0 in  Star Wars (1977).

R2-D2 and C3-P0 in Star Wars (1977).

To illustrate, this is everything we officially know about Episode VII:

  • The film will be directed by JJ Abrams
  •  The screenplay is written by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan. Michael Arndt wrote the previous script based on George Lucas’ original outline
  • Bryan Burke will produce
  • John Williams will provide the score
  • Studio shooting will be at Pinewood Studios in England
  • ILM will do the visual effects
  • DP Dan Mindel will shoot the film on 35mm
  • Ben Burtt will do the sound design
  • The film will be released on December 18, 2015
  • R2D2 will be in the film
  • The cast will feature a trio of new leads along with “some very familiar faces”

Everything else you may have heard, from the casting to the shooting locations to even confirmation of a completed script, is just rumor… and the movie starts shooting in a month. Either Disney is planning the biggest press release of all time (I’d put money on May 4th) or things aren’t as put together as they’d like us to believe (JJ Abrams is known for being an indecisive filmmaker, sometimes waiting until the last possible moment to make a decision).

Regardless of what’s going on behind the scenes, the main problem I feel is that Disney isn’t owning these announcements like they should be, allowing insider sites like the Hollywood Reporter and Ain’t It Cool to break their news for them. When Disney does announce the return of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher in their signature roles, it won’t be met with excitement from the fans, mostly because we’ve already been subject to a year’s worth of assumptions (at a screening of Return of the Jedi last year, Mark Hamill flat out told us that he was in the new movie).  So why is Disney, a company that has had so much success with their own films, as well acquired properties from Marvel, been so reluctant to actually give us any information?

You see, JJ Abrams has this thing he likes to call the Mystery Box. Now ten years ago, the Mystery Box was a symbol of inventive, modern storytelling. Now it seems like it represents everything that is wrong with it. In his famous TED talk, Abrams explains the concept himself (yes, I’m going to let an 18 minute video do the work for me, partially because I’m lazy, but also because I think it’s really worth watching if you’re into storytelling):

I respect Abrams’ desire to give the audience an unspoiled experience. It’s been a long time since I walked into a movie and didn’t know what to expect going in. Part of that’s my own fault, it’s tough to keep up with the industry and not find yourself spoiled from time to time, but it’s also because of the world we live in. With the advent of the internet and social media, it’s a lot harder to go through you’re day without stumbling onto a set photo or leaked plot description.

So you see I don’t have a problem with Abrams’ intention so much as I do with his execution. He’s not above flat out lying to press when confronted about a character or plot point. Contrast this with Christopher Nolan, another filmmaker known for his secrecy, who responds to interview questions not with lies, but a polite “I can’t talk about that.” That’s how you do it. If you have to lie to protect your movie, you’re just being rude. Obviously you don’t want to spoil the movie, but there are ways to avoid the questions that are honest and elegant.

Let me illustrate this point further by using two 2013 summer blockbusters as comparison: Iron Man Three and Abrams’ own Star Trek Into Darkness.

Earlier I said it had been a long time since I was surprised in a movie theater. I kind of lied about that, because Iron Man Three really caught me off guard. The twist in that film is so huge and consequential to the story, that it’s something of a minor miracle that it didn’t get leaked or spoiled in the film’s trailers. About 3/4 of the way through the movie, we learn that the man we think to be the Mandarin, the film’s main villain, isn’t the big baddie at all, but rather an actor posing in front of the entire world. But how did Marvel manage such a feat? Simple: they didn’t give into the mystery. In fact, they didn’t even acknowledge that there was a mystery to begin with.

The problem with JJ Abrams is that he is so obsessed with secrecy. He notoriously had the cast ofStar Trek wear robes over their costumes when walking between their trailer and the studio, despite the fact that they looked pretty much like the original designs from the TV show. Abrams purposefully bends over backwards to keep information away from the fans. Marvel on the other hand has embraced the fans and been rather forthcoming with their information, all while being careful not to spoil the experience. The studio released posters, images, and trailers featuring the Mandarin and Aldrich Killian (the real Mandarin) without us realizing that we were being misdirected. By giving fans the information upfront (a hint at the story, a look at the world and characters) Marvel managed to satisfy their desires. Sure there were those still prying for information, but they were looking in the wrong place, more concerned about the film’s possible connection to the Avengers sequel and Guardians of the Galaxy than anything to do with the Mandarin.

JJ Abrams on the set of  Star Trek: Into Darkness (2014)

JJ Abrams on the set of Star Trek: Into Darkness (2014)

A few weeks later, the JJ Abrams directed Star Trek Into Darkness was released, mystery box and all. The identity of the film’s villain was a poorly kept secret, but for some reason they continued to keep it. Throughout the production and early promotion, Abrams and the cast went around building up the mystery, taunting fans with the idea that they thought we knew nothing, when in fact most of us saw it coming close to a year before. That isn’t how you keep something a mystery. A magician misdirects, he doesn’t go out on stage and make the mechanics of his trick the flashiest element of the show.

Execution aside, the real problem is that the twist itself wasn’t even twist-worthy. Bruce Willis being dead the whole time is a twist. “Soylent Green is people” is a twist. John Harrison being Khan is not a twist. Why? Because when the reveal is made it has no meaning to the characters or plot. It’s entirely dependent on viewers having seen Wrath of Khan (about a quarter of the audience I saw it with got it, while the rest let out a collective “huh?”). The only way it could be even considered a twist is if you consider Easter eggs, cameos or in jokes to be a reveal.

JJ Abrams should learn and take a page from Marvel. Give the fans information. Release official photos. Don’t taunt us. Misdirect the conversation to something else instead of flat out lying. The best way for Abrams to keep a secret is to not even let on that there is a secret.

Star Wars has never been a franchise about secrets. Sure, you have exceptions like Darth Vader being Luke’s father or Han Solo getting frozen in carbonite, and those are things I would never want spoiled before going in. But that being said, Star Wars has always been more about the characters and set pieces than it has been about the plot twists and reveals. If JJ Abrams is smart, he’ll remember that when it comes to marketing the film. But who knows? Maybe once production actually starts Disney and Abrams with be upfront about everything.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m bashing Abrams. I think he’s a really talented director and the perfect choice to direct a Star Wars film. I have no doubt the film will be good. Even Star Trek Into Darkness, which on paper suffers from a number of bad and lazy script choices, works thanks to his direction. I just hope when it comes to marketing and promoting the film, he’ll let us in instead of hiding everything in that Mystery Box.