“What’s in the box?”
If you’re Brad Pitt the answer to that question is rather disturbing, but if you’re JJ Abrams… well, it may not be disturbing, but it’s probably equally disappointing. Thanks in no-small-part to JJ Abrams, the trope of the “mystery box” has become something of a trend into today’s media. From Lost to The Force Awakens, we have seen this lazy man’s plot device inserted and abused in almost every way. So, we are here to ask… from the deepest recesses of our hearts… PLEASE STOP.
The idea of the mystery box comes from James Jonah Abram’s TED Talk, in which he discusses all the various ways movies influenced his thinking and the way he approaches them. He also talks about magic, and misdirection, and how he -thinks- incorporating those things into his movies makes them better. He breaks a lot of this down to the idea of the mystery box. In narrative terms it is an object or a person that just kind of exists in the script, but which has a big and unanswered question surrounding it, the bigger the better. Now, we’re not just talking about the normal sort of mystery or ambiguity that sometimes surrounds characters or objects. No, a mystery box’s main personality trait and quality, is that it is a “mystery.” It is characterized as being more about the questions, than the answers.
Lost is a good example. There were multiple mystery boxes, each more fascinating that the rest. These objects were unknown and they allowed the audience to speculate widely about their nature, their origins, and how they would play a part in the plot. That’s all well and fine from a marketing standpoint, but as Jessica Jones Abrams has proven time and again, it’s not really satisfying from a plot standpoint. Lost continues to be a good example, because the answers that audiences got were generally unsatisfying. The questions were what drew people in and made them keep watching, but the answers were sub-par, at best, and that is one of the major flaws of the mystery box device.
The truth of what is in the mystery box, will never live up to the expectations of what is in the audience’s mind. With Lost people endlessly debated the mysteries of the island. Everyone had their own wild theories or expectations. So, when the answers finally did come, there was almost no way they were ever going to be as satisfying or exciting as audiences had built them up to be. It was basically Phantom Menace Syndrome on a much smaller scale. The hype was great, but because of that the reality was dull by comparison. -Also, it didn’t help that the writers were creating questions they themselves did not have answers to–
Speaking of Star Wars -which we will be a lot- one of the examples Jar Jar Abrams gives in his TED Talk is Luke Skywalker. He makes the claim that Luke’s father was the ultimate mystery box, because nobody knew anything about him, and then in Empire Strikes Back it was revealed that Darth Vader was his father. Here is the thing… He’s wrong. Luke’s father was not a mystery box. It was not something that was plopped in front of the audience with a big question mark on it, and a bunch of arrows pointing to it. Nobody left the movie theater in 1977 wondering about Luke’s father. People weren’t doing whatever-it-was-that-70’s-people-do-instead-of-blogging about “Who is Luke’s Father?” George Lucas didn’t even know who Luke’s father was at the time. The great mystery box that Abrams holds out as his example, is not even a mystery box. Yes, the reveal in Empire was one of the greatest moments in cinema history, but not because Lucas and his team consistently hit us over the head with the question of: “Who is Luke’s father?” It was great because the mystery and the moment happened organically, which is a word that is completely foreign to a Jacob Javits Abrams’ script.
The Force Stumbles Out of Bed
The identity of Anakin Skywalker was not a mystery box, because it was tucked away in the peripheral of the original Star Wars. A true mystery box, as James Joyce Abrams has so aptly demonstrated over and over again is something featured prominently. It is something that keeps the audience asking questions, and endless theorizing. In The Force Awakens: Rey is a mystery box, Finn is a mystery box; that old man at the beginning of the movie is a mystery box, Luke Skywalker is a mystery box… everything is a mystery box. In fact, the movie only seems to be filled with two things: blatant nostalgia and more questions than a four year old can ask in an afternoon… and just like a four year old, it gets a little frustrating. There are many other movies and examples we can use for this trope, but The Force Awakens is perhaps Abrams’ master opus of mystery boxes. It is the culmination of all the crappy plot contrivances and marketing techniques that he has perfected over a long and baffling career.
We know this, because The Force Awakens raises more questions than it does answers, and it feels more like it is meant as the first episode of a TV series, than it does as a stand alone movie. Do you know what was great about A New Hope? It was its own movie. It was not trying to set up a major universe or a trilogy of movies with a multitude of unanswered questions. It was just a good movie, by itself. Also, say what you will about the prequels, but at least they felt like complete movies. At least they tried to tell a complete story. At least they presented the audience with conclusions to most of the questions that were asked in the 2.5 hour time frame. That is the problem with the mystery box format. The Force Awakes feels like one-half of a movie. Luke doesn’t even get to say a line at the end. Abrams just cuts the scene like it’s a damn commercial break on The Bachelor, and that is kind of the point.
The main point of the mystery box trope is to sell interest, not story. Cloverfield, Jack Jack Abram’s epitomical monster movie was a fairly uninteresting take on giant kaiju monsters, but the marketing campaign was brilliant. It was full of mystery boxes that sold the movie, and sold it hard. If Cloverfield had been marketed normally -as just some shaky-cam monster movie- it wouldn’t have made half the money it did. It was the clever clues, the big questions, the shady reveals, and the months of speculation that drove sales, because that is what a mystery box really does. Abrams is not some movie genius, he is a marketing genius. The problem with applying that idea to Star Wars… is that it is Star Wars. You don’t need to market it. It markets itself.
An Open Letter
Dear Mr. Abrams,
Please stop. Seriously, just stop with the mystery box thing. We know it is kind of your ‘bag,’ err… ‘box,’ but it is becoming irritating. For once, we would like to sit down to watch one of your movies, and not have to try and guess at the complicated -and ultimately disappointing- backstory of every other person and every object that appears on screen. We don’t want to watch movies that tease later movies, and while we’re on the subject we don’t want to watch movies that keep reminding us of better movies. “Star Trek: Into Darkness” just made us want to watch “Wrath of Khan,” and “The Force Awakens,” just made us want to watch “A New Hope,” and both those two were filled to the brim with mystery boxes… and lens flare. Yes, we’re never going to let that go.
‘Oooo Luke’s original lightsaber? Where did it come from? How did it get in the possession of an alien that looks like a mix between Yoda and a Golden Girl?’ We’re tired of the mysteries and the boxes they come in. We are tired of walking away from movies feeling unsatisfied, with both your answers and your questions. For once, we want to sit down and have you explain something to us in a clear narrative form, plainly, instead of forcing us to guess it. That is fine if done, subtly and -here’s the big one- in moderation! Also, on a side note, please know the answers to the questions before you ask them. We know that sounds like a simple and obvious request, but we also know that it’s not… because ‘Lost.’ You’re the damn writer. You need to know what is actually in the mystery box before you create it. You can’t wait to be surprised, along with the audience.
We’re getting off track here… In conclusion, you have made us so mad that we are actually ending our letter with the words ‘in conclusion.’ Also, just stop. Please, stop. Stop. Stop. Stop.
The mystery box is a great marketing tool, but a crappy storytelling one. We promise people are going to go see the next Star Wars movie without your hype machine pushing it. They will always go and see Star Wars movies, even as our own sun burns out and the planet is consumed by super-heated gases. When alien archeologists discover the charred remains of our planets, they will discover that at lest 30% of us died watching something related to Star Wars. There is no need to sell us on Star Wars, so just make a regular movie. Just make a movie that poses questions at the beginning and answers them by the end.
PS: Hyperdrives don’t work that way. There is no way the Millennium Falcon could ever come out of hyperspace inside the atmosphere of a planet. The gravity well of planets and other large bodies creates bubbles that interrupts hyperspace, which is why “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy.” It is also why the Rebels on Hoth had to go through all that trouble to escape the Imperial blockade in ‘Empire Strikes Back’ instead of just being able to disappear randomly from its atmosphere… Well that and dramatic tension, which is also something you seem to not understand. In summation, hyperspace is a system that has rules, not just a convenient plot device for lazy writing.