Stop Being So Secretive, J.J.
Dear J.J. Abrams,
When you spoke at TED a few years back, you mentioned that one of the chief influences on the way in which you approach a story was a mystery box, a childhood gift representing anticipation and unpredictability. You acknowledged that you never opened the original mystery box because, in your own words, “It represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential.”
Which brings us to your new film, Super 8, a love letter both to your childhood filmmaking endeavors and to the films you grew up on: E.T., The Goonies, Close Encounters. But rather than celebrate this remarkable jewel of a film for what it is (a small coming of age story set against a backdrop of the extraordinary), both you and studio Paramount Pictures sought to couch it in the now-familiar terms of your Mystery Box. Read the marketing and you’ll see mention of a “secret” within the film.
I watched Super 8 last week and quite enjoyed it, but I came away scratching my head because I couldn’t figure out what the secret was meant to be. The alien on the train wasn’t the secret, was it? Because let’s be clear about one thing: it was no secret that Super 8 involved an extraterrestrial.
And that’s where the trouble truly begins. I enjoyed Super 8 for what I saw within the film, beyond the notion of mystery boxes and mysteries in general. To put it in terms that any Lost fan would recognize, Super 8 was about moving on with life. While the marketing materials played up the mystery and intrigue surrounding the train crash and whatever strange creature emerged from within, the film itself is a small story masquerading as a large one. It’s about a boy, isolated in his grief following the death of his mother, who encounters the first blush of love and who learns to let go of his pain and the literal talisman that connects him to his dead mother.
While the mystery box holds a special importance to you, it more often than not appears in film and television projects which bear your name. On Felicity, the title character’s kooky roommate Meghan (Amanda Foreman, who appears in Super 8) has a mysterious box that she refuses to let anyone see inside. The short-lived 6 Degrees featured Erika Christensen with a strange box containing… something. On Alias, artifacts, belonging to visionary inventor Milo Rambaldi, are themselves variations on the mystery box concept. And on Lost, a major plot point in Season 1 involved what was inside the “hatch,” a mystery that Lost fans spent an entire summer debating. (Long story short: it contained Henry Ian Cusick’s Desmond and further mysteries, a virtual matryoshka of mystery.)
We get it: you love the possibility and potential of the unknown. Our imaginations, however, tend to outstrip the actual reveals contained within these mysteries, such as what’s inside Super 8’s Air Force train car or what the alien looks like, or what the monster in Cloverfield actually is. (Or, even, the title.) By forcing the answers, you’re playing fast and loose with the audience, setting up expectations that can’t honestly be met with the outcome at hand. We don’t need smoke and mirrors to enjoy a good yarn, but Super 8 seemed to try to outrun its true nature: that it is an emotion-driven story about a group of kids and an alien. That is is a sci-fi tinged exploration of the fact that we’re often all misunderstood, and that, as teenagers (and even as adults), the world itself is sometimes as scary and unknowable as an extraterrestrial.
But the film’s marketing will likely set Super 8 up for failure in the eyes of many moviegoers, who have become accustomed to seeing your own work in the same way you do. Not everything requires or needs a shroud of secrecy. As an aside: your own executive produced television projects fall into the same category. Undercovers, Person of Interest, and Alcatraz all fail to live up the hype surrounding them because the level of secrecy surrounding them is so dense. Lost succeed in gripping our collective imagination precisely because we weren’t told ahead of time, via flashing neon lights or viral marketing campaigns, to watch out for the mysteries, to try and open the figurative and literal boxes. It didn’t set itself up initially as a puzzle that needed to be solved, but one that unfolded in time to reveal the numerous mysteries lurking beneath the surface.
There comes a time when we must all put away childish things. Often that means facing harsh realities and being disappointed. But it also means growing up and seeing the world for what it is: that what’s extraordinary is the feel of someone’s hand in yours, a first kiss, the first steps of adulthood, just as much as it is about a glimpse of an alien. And when, as in Super 8, it’s not even clear what the "secret" is, you run the risk of following in the footsteps of M. Night Shyamalan, whose obsession with twists lead to him focusing more on the ending of a film than the story itself… and destroyed his credibility with his audience in the process.
I know that you can tell a straightforward, emotional story without resorting to bells and whistles, without employing the trickery of an unnecessary marketing campaign to get people into seats to discovery the truth behind the film’s “secret.” Compare the promotion of this film to, say, the unlikely success of alien-themed District 9, which didn’t present itself as a mystery but relished its matter-of-fact handling of science fiction memes. Just as Alias failed its viewers when we learned what the final Rambaldi device was (a large orange ball in the sky), so too does Super 8 disappoint in the context of its alleged secrets. (It’s a subterranean-dwelling alien with a thing for shape-shifting white Rubik’s Cubes?) Conversely, Super 8 soars when it comes to the human level of its story, of the estrangement between father and son, the friendship of like-minded individuals, and the beauty and innocence of young love.
So why upend this against your need to create secrecy and mystery? By returning to your beloved Mystery Box again and again, you’re doing a disservice to yourself, your stories, and your audience, because, more often than not, the mystery box is empty... and the true mysteries are those right in front of us, the ones that Super 8 seems to really want to deal with: life and death, love and loss.
In other words, it’s time, J.J., to put aside that mystery box. Open it, look at its contents, and—to follow the theme of Super 8 itself—let go before you’re sucked up into the sky.