By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 21, 2013 at 2:34PM
*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.