Essays · Movies

J.J. Abrams Is Using the Mystery Box All Wrong

By  · Published on May 21st, 2013

Rumor has it that J.J. Abrams is known to approach strangers, hold his finger beneath their nose while stifling a laugh and then ask them if they can tell which box it smells like. That probably isn’t true, but the man most definitely loves a good mystery.

As writer, director and/or producer he’s been attached to dozens of films and TV shows featuring mysteries both big and small. The secret to Lost’s island, the reveal of the monster in Cloverfield and the alien in Super 8, the explanation as to why Felicity cut her hair… all mysteries we eventually saw answered after a glorious period of intense curiosity. Hell, we’re still eagerly awaiting an answer to what exactly he was thinking while writing Gone Fishin’.

Abrams famously explained his attraction to the idea of a “mystery box” during his 2007 TED Talk, and it basically boils down his belief that “mystery is more important than knowledge.” There’s a semantics argument to be had there, but the core point is a sound one that more often than not gets lost in an online world used to having all of the answers and information available 24/7. People who read books don’t (usually) read the ending first, so why do so may of us want to know as much as possible about the plot points, casting and cameos in the movies we’ve yet to watch?

Abrams simply prefers as little as possible be revealed in advance of our eyeballs actually seeing his work onscreen, and while that’s an incredibly admirable (and sadly naive) ideal it’s still netted great success. So if it’s a brave idea that’s worked well in the past, why and how did it go so terribly wrong with his new film, Star Trek Into Darkness?

Fair warning, a single spoiler (yes, that one) exists in the paragraphs that follow. You most likely already know it, but proceed at your own risk all the same.

“Withholding information is much more engaging.”

It wasn’t long after Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot hit it big that the speculation began as to the possible return of the original franchise’s favorite villain, Khan Noonien Singh, for the inevitable sequel. The late, great, leathery Ricardo Montalbán brought the character to life on the TV series first before returning on the big screen in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The character is a legendary bad guy, and his appearance in the film came pre-loaded with backstory and emotional weight between him and Captain Kirk that ultimately increased audience anticipation and satisfaction.

When it came time to start work on the sequel Abrams and his writers (Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Damon Lindelof) chose to go the easy route and bring Khan into their new universe for seemingly no reason aside from “Heh, fans will love it!” The character’s presence was never revealed publicly, but hard-hitting investigative online journalists leaked the story and soon the internet was overflowing with suspicions and rumors about Khan’s return. Abrams and company played mum, even to the point of flat out denying it, but as evidenced by the film playing in theaters, we know now the rumors were true.


Abrams’ decision to keep Khan’s presence inside his mystery box was a mistake. While I don’t believe it’s to blame for a smaller than expected opening weekend like some do, this particular secret and its subsequent reveal add absolutely nothing to the experience of seeing the film.

First, Abrams and his trio of questionably talented but incredibly lucky and smart screenwriters disregarded Abrams’ own advice from his TED Talk where he says “the investment of character… is the stuff that’s really inside the box.” He acknowledges that too frequently people making sequels are “ripping off the wrong thing. You’re not supposed to rip off the shark or monster, if you gotta rip something, rip off the character, rip off the stuff that matters.” With Into Darkness, they treat Khan like the shark from Jaws or the monster from any number of horror sequels by assuming his name and past appearances will wholly inform this new incarnation.

Second, holding something back like this from audiences, both in the lead up to the film but also within the film itself, implies the eventual revelation will hold real value. But as Jack Giroux asked in this feature, what does Khan even bring to this universe? Not only is there no narrative history as there was with Wrath of Khan, but Khan is only “Khan” because of what happened in a different timeline. He has no personal beef here with anyone we care about, meaning there’s no “Oh shit Khan’s back!” moment for us to relish. And that’s not even taking into account the audience members who’ve never watched the original series or movies. The name “Khan” means absolutely nothing to them, and there’s nothing magically mysterious about merely changing a character’s name from John Harrison to Khan.

Third, and most simply, the mystery box should be a place for unknowns. Hence the name. Unlike the creatures of Cloverfield and Super 8 or the truth about Lost’s island, secrets that really could have ended up being anything, Khan is a known quantity loaded with baggage. The smart play here would have been to create a whole new bad guy free of preconceptions. Barring that, why not acknowledge Khan was going to be a player in the film and then have the actual surprise be that he’s a good guy? Abrams’ films are in an alternate timeline for the very reason that they’re not bound to Star Trek canon. Why not take real advantage of it?

Here’s the twist: I still stand by the core truth of the mystery box.

More and more the possibility of walking into a movie and being genuinely surprised by the appearance of an actor or major plot turn is disappearing. Anchorman 2 is still seven months away, but I already know of half a dozen cameos. The latest trailer for the surprisingly fun V/H/S 2 gives away several money shots and character fates. These films and many more could benefit from having mystery boxes of their own, and I find it hard to believe that most people would have a problem with that.

Contrary to what some think, the box is not the problem in the case of Star Trek Into Darkness. This particular mystery is. I’m hoping Abrams can dust himself off and learn from his mistake here, but I for one don’t want to see him give up on the idea that fun and surprising movie revelations belong in a darkened theater and not at the click of a mouse. Will the box follow Abrams into the Star Wars universe with Episode VII? Our own Neil Miller asked this question last month and seemed to think that even if Abrams wanted to he’d be quickly overruled by that franchise’s corporate overlords. That’s probably true, but even if the obvious characters and actors are made known to us here’s hoping Abrams finds room for some real surprises too. His fingers aren’t going to smell themselves.

Haven’t seen Abrams’ 2007 TED Talk yet? Check it out below!

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.