Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

Why 'Star Trek Into Darkness' Suggests J.J. Abrams Needs To Leave His Mystery Box Alone For A While

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
May 21, 2013 2:34 PM
13 Comments
  • |

*Spoilers Ahead For 'Star Trek Into Darkness' & "Iron Man 3" *

In 2007, J.J Abrams gave a TED talk about the mystery box; principally, a Tannen's Mystery Box he was bought by his grandfather from a magic store when he was a child. Abrams, in a typically articulate, engaging and funny address, talked about how the box had come to represent, for him, infinite possibility, and became a kind of manifesto for much of his work up to that point. And in the years since (quite deliberately, in a lot of way; it served as the front cover of an issue of Wired he edited, for one), it's become a recurring motif in his work, and often referred to in reviews or commentary of his work. And with "Star Trek Into Darkness," it's started to become a bit of an albatross.

First things first. I like J.J. Abrams a lot. I like the way he's melded familiar pop culture tropes to weird sci-fi ideas with the likes of "Alias" and "Lost." I think he's grown exponentially as a filmmaker each time out, and is now as talented a director of big action tentpoles as is working today, while still being capable of pulling off the emotional beats too.  And yes, I like the way that he's placed an emphasis on surprise in a world where every beat of a movie is often revealed in trailers, stills or similar. It was genuinely thrilling to see those teaser trailers for "Cloverfield" and "Super 8" and not have any idea what the movies were, or even what they were called, until months later. And we appreciate the lengths he goes to preserve the surprise for the viewer; as Abrams said earlier in the year "Every choice we make, every costume fitting, every pad of makeup, every set that’s built — all that stuff becomes less magical if it’s discussed and revealed and pictures are posted online. I just want to make sure that when somebody sees something in a movie they didn’t watch a 60-minute behind-the-scene [video] that came out two months before. We just say up front that all the work we’re doing is about making this a special experience for the viewer; let’s preserve that as long as we can."

Keeping things close to your chest, even to the extent of digitally altering preview scenes, as Abrams did for "Star Trek Into Darkness" (and we find the outraged reactions from some of the geek community, the "he lied to us!" kind of thing, somewhat entitled; it's his movie, he's not under oath, and he's under no obligation to tell the truth)? Fine by us. But it's this new film that suggests the mystery-box approach to storytelling might be hurting Abrams more than it's helping at this point. In "Star Trek Into Darkness," Khan has been reenvisioned for a new era, in this case as a kind of superpowered Morrissey, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch. There's no reason that that might not have worked in and of its own. But Abrams and the film's writers Damon Lindelof, Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman decided to keep the fact that Cumberbatch was playing Khan a secret, giving him instead the moniker of "John Harrison," despite early casting reports having already spilled the beans, and despite it being pretty obvious from the way that the rest of the movie seemed to be homaging 'Wrath of Khan' (even to the point that it steals the climax from that film and reverses it; see our Best & Worst Of "Star Trek Into Darkness" feature). 

And the question we have to ask is why? We like surprises as much as anyone, and "Iron Man 3," which quietly contained a rug-pull of a reveal half-way through that's more shocking without having felt the need to built it up for eighteen months, proved how effective they can be. But the twist in "Star Trek Into Darkness" doesn't seem to serve much purpose beyond creating a mystery for the sake of mystery. And beyond that, it actively hurts the movie as a whole. Because rather than developing a new take on the classic villain, Abrams and the writers simply drop him into the middle of the movie, and let Leonard Nimoy explain, not that clearly, who he is. The result is a villain who feels positively anaemic, not least if, like most of the target audience, you haven't seen the original series or 'Wrath of Khan,' and only have the vaguest sense of who the character is. Imagine if, rather than faking the audience out, the movie had used its first half to actually develop Khan's motivations, backstory and personality? It might not have made the film a classic, but it certainly would have solved some of its biggest issues. Ultimately, we can't see what anyone -- Abrams, Cumberbatch, the audience -- got out of Khan's identity being a secret. 

It extends past the movie itself as well. Do you know what the 1701 was? No? It was a viral marketing hashtag thing that Paramount tried to get going, but never seemed to take off, even among fans. It seems to have indicated that fans just weren't taken in by all the mystery, and that's backed up by the film's box office, which is fine, but looks likely to come in at about the same, or maybe even less, than the first Abrams "Star Trek." And it's all of this -- along with the underwhelming reaction to Abrams' "Alcatraz," for instance -- that makes us suggest that Abrams needs to put his mystery box in the attic for a little while. Right now, he's hitting the kind of problem that M. Night Shyamalan from "The Village" onwards -- a surprise isn't a surprise if everyone's expecting it from you. And Abrams is being watched so closely, particularly now he's in charge of mega-properties like "Star Trek" and "Star Wars," that it's harder and harder for him to pull off a big reveal like this.

That's not to say he shouldn't try, but only if it's justified by the narrative, or the project. We hope he's secretly planning a "Super 8" style project that'll drop from nowhere a few years from now. We hope that he shoots "Episode VII" under lock down, and that when we see the movie in 2015, there's all kind of exciting surprises in the movie not even hinted in trailers and marketing materials.. But we also hope he doesn't spend the next two years going 'Ooh, what's the great mystery in 'Star Wars?,' only to reveal that Chewbacca's in it or something. Because right now, the mystery box is becoming less an exciting, tantalizing draw, and more like the video below.


Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

13 Comments

  • screenplayhouse | May 24, 2013 5:45 PMReply

    " But the twist in "Star Trek Into Darkness" doesn't seem to serve much purpose beyond creating a mystery for the sake of mystery. And beyond that, it actively hurts the movie as a whole. Because rather than developing a new take on the classic villain, Abrams and the writers simply drop him into the middle of the movie, and let Leonard Nimoy explain, not that clearly, who he is. The result is a villain who feels positively anaemic, not least if, like most of the target audience, you haven't seen the original series or 'Wrath of Khan,' and only have the vaguest sense of who the character is."

    Exactly right. If the point of this film was to brag it was a Khan remake, but you have to keep it secret that it was -- what's the point? I think they were so embarrassed at their inability to generate a new idea they hid from the fans they were recycling content.

    Personally -- there's nothing more frustrating than waiting all these years to get some 'new' Trek only to be delivered a strained remake. It was entertaining, yes, but the surprise could have been much BIGGER and much BETTER.

    If I may suggest one such story.

    Suppose the trailers plainly revealed a Montelbanesque Khan. And you saw Elder Spock warning he's the most dangerous adversary they'd ever met. So the preview would pitch remake. They'd even show Spock scream 'Khan!!!!" in the preview.

    Right off the bat -- my expectations would have been lowered. Oh, I see... yet another Khan like story (WRATH OF KHAN, NEMESIS, STAR TREK 2009). So I'd hear it was full of action and fun and surprises -- so disappointed me would go just for fun.

    When I get to the cinema, sure enough, there's Khan wreaking havoc. But he's not so evil in this universe. As Abrams demonstrated, he's just pissed at being doublecrossed/used by Peter Weller. And so Khan would help end Weller/Dreadnought and we'd fell -- wow -- this is a different universe. Khan might even suggest there's a place for him in humanity now.

    We Roddenberry types would be all hopeful. Until someone drops Khan within the first 45 minutes. But who? It's at this point you reveal that one (or more) of the other cryogenic types have already awakened. That Khan has a wife or sister. And whoever SHE is --

    -- she's a serious bitch. Her name is Kane Noonien-Singh. (In the preview, when Spock screams 'Khan!!!!'... he's really scream 'Kane!!!!' from later within this story.)

    Pardon me if this comes off as misogynesitc. Not like me at all. What I'm doing is breaking the 'male' bad guy role and hopefully making the story NEW. And perhaps Kane is deceitful about her aspirations at first. Perhaps Kane could have been a love interest for Kirk. Winning him over the way Khan won them over... only to flip. In fact maybe the audience thinks she's way nicer than Khan and so it utterly flabbergasted when she turns out to be evil. Kane could have also been planted to come back a few features later.

    This type of idea would have been fresh. Fresher would have been abandoning any sense of Khan altogether. But that seems beyond Abrams and pals.

    I wish it wasn't.

  • jimjeff | May 24, 2013 7:11 AMReply

    The premise of taking characters like Kirk, Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew, and the original actors who made them icons, and replacing them is challenging enough. But then to erase 50 years of Star Trek history because you believe you could do it all over again and make it better takes huge, well, you know. How does it work, especially when this new series continues to reference the key great moments from the original crew. (Original Spock died saving the ship and came back. This time Kirk did it. Original Kirk screamed "Kahn!" this time Spock did it.)
    It is almost as if someone is saying Abrams vision of the Star Trek universe is better than Roddenberry's. If that is true then why not create a new crew to continue the adventure? Why expect fans to buy into replacements. You build on success you don't erase it or try to redo it.

    The new Spock is the only good character in the movie. He could have been the original Spock's son and Kirk could have been a clone of the original Kirk (Shatner). The other "stars" of the Enterprise crew are just plain hard to watch. you didn't have to change the timeline to get a new doctor, engineer, communications officer, etc. They could have been their own personalities instead of trying to be characters Star Trek fans have grown to love since the 1960s.
    The tech in this movie is the most advanced of any and therefore the story should have taken place after "The Next Generation" series. At least then you could bring in Picard and Riker in flashbacks along with Nimoy. tying everything together and making this a must see for Trekkies. Instead this speaks to a totally new generation that has no link to the past.

  • Alan B | May 24, 2013 7:33 AM

    "It is almost as if someone is saying Abrams vision of the Star Trek universe is better than Roddenberry's" This is your whole argument and no one has said this: it's all in your head. And you are about four years too late with your argument: the whole point of the reboot was to be as inclusive as possible, telling fans that there was still an original universe, but there is also a new one for more adventures. Also, I have no idea why anyone would want a completely replaced crew about the enterprise along with Kirk and Spock.

  • Trek Fan | May 23, 2013 6:25 PMReply

    Sorry, Kahn is NOT a Caucasian Englishman! He is an olive-skinned Sikh Warrior! Kudos to Ricardo Montoban. If Star Trek needs a villain for it's next movie, Just imagine the scene cuts to an icy class M planet and camera zooms to the other side of the planet which is barren except for a deserted Di-lithium cracking station. We all know which planet I'm talking about! Pan out a couple of miles to a valley with a giant boulder. The boulder gets pushed up and guess who jumps out pissed off at everyone, eyes all aglow!

  • stepfordwife | May 22, 2013 7:23 PMReply

    You obviously are bitter. This movie was GREAT!! It was so fun and entertaining I went twice in a weekend. Everyone I talk to loves it!! It seems you had to have something that sounds academic to say so this review can be viewed as art--it's obviously making way too much out of a fun action movie that is a great show for everyone. Give me a break. Go see it again then think about your bashing of JJ.

  • bohmer | May 22, 2013 2:59 PMReply

    I get what he want for the audience but maybe we're in a different place right now...the 80's doesn't work in the internet era. We will anticipate the movie release the way we want and you can't make a big surprise with franchises such as Star Trek and Star Wars where the fans are we too much obsessed.

  • ska-triumph | May 22, 2013 2:27 PMReply

    This mystery box is looking more like a paper square.

    A new timeline established in 2009 should've just meant to go as "wild" as they could with decades of OTHER, less iconic, stories in the pantheon. Geez, I'd been more impressed if HARRISON said "My name isssss PICARD." That would be a WTF moment. But to weigh this sci-fi-grafted action flick to TWOK was brain-dead.

    While I can't pretend that I liked Orci & Kurtzman's PEOPLE LIKE US - it read with much more weight than it shot - at least they had and did a project that required no VFX or tentpole marketing. Some straight-forward family drama that required some character depth and motivation.

    This is a dream, of course, but JJA shouldn't wait until he's in his 60s to do something relatively small - maybe even quiet - with more realism and less lens flares.

  • Matt | May 21, 2013 4:13 PMReply

    "But we also hope he doesn't spend the next two years going 'Ooh, what's the great mystery in 'Star Wars?,' only to reveal that Chewbacca's in it or something."

    Nail on head. These "mysteries" become the focal point of the marketing, thus building the suspense to heights that the "reveal" can't possibly live up to.

    A real surprise would have been to, you know, come up with a compelling *new* villain.

  • Kelley Marie | May 23, 2013 3:39 PM

    Wouldn't it be great if Star Trek actually explored strange new worlds as well!

  • Rev | May 21, 2013 3:52 PMReply

    Great article. It's starting to feel like J.J. and Lindelof write "stories" (to put it kindly) via template. There simply HAS to be a reveal, HAS to be a twist. Doesn't matter if it moves the story forward, but the "twist" beat seems to be more important to his projects than an actual story or character development.

    I honestly doubt I'd pay a dime to see another movie with Lindelof attached. As a DIS shareholder, I'm pretty bummed about Abrams directing the new Star Wars. I have no doubt he'll start with a "Luke, I'm your father" reveal and surround it with a bunch of exposition to drive whatever over-the-top action scenes he dreams up (his action scenes don't seem to have much weight beyond the exposition spouted by a character moments before).

  • Cate | May 21, 2013 3:21 PMReply

    Only on the net would you have a tiny minority of people complaining about the film being spoiled if they advertised for Kahn in the film. Stating that a character exist in a film isn't a spoiler. The point is regular audiences did not respond to the advertising for this film, the box office shows that. I think the writer's assessment of the movie's BO is overly optimistic as far as the domestic numbers go. This film will certainly make less than the first film.
    Something went wrong and the needless mystery surrounding this film may well have hurt it. The film isn't very good, though it is enjoyable. Between its lack of quality, the overly long 4 year wait between films, and competition it looks like the studio will have to essentially relaunch the series. I hope they bring in a new creative team. I love the cast.

  • Ron | May 21, 2013 2:57 PMReply

    And if JJ allowed the Khan thing to be shown in trailers this article would have been. "Star Trek Into Darkness gives too much away in trailers". Just saying

  • James | May 21, 2013 3:42 PM

    This piece is not suggesting that Khan's identity should have been revealed in the trailers, but that it never should have been a secret. He should have been a fully developed character and not a parlor trick. Keeping him shrouded in mystery for half of the film makes him an unnecessarily nebulous character, just for the sake of a twist that was meaningless to 80% of the audience and groan-inducing to the other 20%.

Email Updates