By Thomas Cowley
J.J. Abrams has recently gone on record with The Times Magazine in the U.K. About wanting to bring mystery back to the Star Wars films and its universe.
“The beauty of [the original film] was that it was an unfamiliar world...and yet you want to see it expand and to see where it went.”
Now, were this any other filmmaker this would simply read as “we want to build upon what has already been established” but with Abrams, it is an entirely different scenario. Abrams creative process, as he has said himself, is driven by the concept of “The Mystery Box”. He has given a TED Talk about the subject but the readers digest version of the concept is that audiences like to be surprised. That is basically it.
And while that is not a bad concept nor is it false, Abrams has always been better at crafting suspense in his promotional material rather than executing it in his actual movies. In order to back my statement I will provide two examples: Cloverfield and Star Trek Into Darkness. There will be spoilers here for these two movies but with Star Trek having been out since May and Cloverfield for over 5 years now, I'm assuming those interested in reading have already seen these movies.
Abrams did not direct Cloverfield, but he wrote the story and was a main producer and had his name plastered on absolutely every aspect of it that it is a fair example. Cloverfield was promoted as a huge mystery that audiences would remember for a life time and its viral marketing technique build up hype to insane levels. But hype is a cruel mistress and it is always eager to watch you eat it. If a film is bad but has a lot of hype, then much like Icarus, the burn and fall will only be greater for it. Cloverfield viral marketing was tight lipped throughout production and before release. So much so that when rumors began flying around that it was a Voltron movie or based on Lovecraftian horror, the studio simply let speculation run wild in order to sell more tickets. And while this is great for marketing, it ultimately results in failure when the audience finally sees the finished product. Cloverfield ended up being exactly what we originally thought it was: a monster movie shot with a hand held camera. Hell that is giving the film too much credit. It was a 85 minute trailer. We exit the theater knowing exactly as much about the movie and the creature as we did from the trailers before we even saw it. Honestly watch the trailer on repeat for an hour and a half occasionally pausing to intercut it with still images of a guy talking on a phone and you basically have the same experience.
Star Trek: Into Darkness was shrouded in mystery as to who exactly Benedict Cumberbatch would play in the new film and once again heavily utilized viral marketing as a source of promotion. This question was quickly answered by nearly every Trek fan (I refuse to use “Trekkies” because it sounds like a condescending mother explaining a vacation to her infant) and as a result it was speculated that the character was Khan from the original show and 1980 hit, Star Trek II the Wrath of Khan. This two turned out to be right on the nose and again fell completely flat. Khan was ingaging in Wrath of Khan because he was an unanswered question from the original 1960's run. Fans knew about him, they had a a history, they were surprised and shocked that he was back. In Star Trek Into Darkness, we have never met him before, know nothing about him, and his grand reveal means nothing to anyone who isn't a fan, and fans already guessed it before hand so what was the point of the mystery?
Both times Abrams has attempted to create intrigue and a surprise, but both times he seems to only remember it during marketing and forgets about it as soon as the movie starts. He is not a bad filmmaker, but he is a much better producer and marketer in my opinion. So with Star Wars about to get the same “Mystery Box” treatment I am very skeptical as I'm sure many other fans are. After the lackluster response to the prequel trilogy, many fans are jaded and will lash out in many ways, so whether this mystery box concept pans out or not, only time can tell.