Star Trek Into Darkness: Was The Mystery Box Worth It?
Star Trek Into Darkness is now finally open in theaters everywhere, the United States included, and depending on how careful you've been you're either seeing it with minimal knowledge of the plot… or you've checked IMDB lately and gotten spoiled on a major plot point that director J.J. Abrams has spent many months keeping secret.
Abrams is famous for his "Mystery Box" approach to storytelling, the idea being that it's better not to know what you're getting before walking into a movie. And though there are surprises in Star Trek Into Darkness that you probably won't know in advance, there are also parts of the film that Abrams went to a lot of effort to keep secret… and don't seem to matter all that much when you know them. We've spent months and months speculating about what he and his team were hiding behind the mystery box, and once it was revealed.. was all that waiting worth it?
Sean and Katey don't know themselves, but they're trying to figure it out in our latest Great Debate, piecing through the reveals of Star Trek Into Darkness and wondering if Abrams' secretive approach blew up in his face this time. Read their conversation below, but ONLY AFTER YOU'VE SEEN STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. Admiral, there be spoilers here.
SERIOUSLY. MAJOR STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS SPOILERS FOLLOW.
KATEY: I'm tempted to start this conversation with a spoiler warning, but at this point I have no idea what qualifies as a spoiler for Star Trek Into Darkness. There's what J.J. Abrams considers a spoiler, which is basically anything that happens after the title card. And then there's what everybody actually knows about the movie, which even a glimpse at IMDB will reveal is more than Abrams is willing to talk about. When you finally saw STID yesterday, had you managed to stay unspoiled? And did it matter?
SEAN: Well, no. To both of those. No, I didn't stay unspoiled, or as unspoiled as Abrams probably hoped. And no, it didn't matter.
We should just come right out and say this, though. We have to reveal the big reveal here, don't we? Because it's integral to what we're going to discuss. Isn't it?
KATEY: Oh definitely. So: Abrams didn't want you to know it was Khan. And the movie itself plays with the reveal of Khan, dropping a few hints that Trekkies will get before the big "MY NAME IS KHAN" reveal about an hour in. I legitimately didn't know if it was coming when I saw it, though I strongly suspected it before seeing the movie. But you knew it already for sure?
SEAN: Well, never 100% for sure. But that's what annoys me the most about this whole "Mystery Box" bullshit. Because the one shot that shouldn't exist in ANY marketing material for Star Trek Into Darkness is a blatant nod to Wrath of Khan -- the hands on the glass -- and Paramount (with Abrams' consent, no doubt) revealed that in December.
Now, Abrams can lean back and say, "Well, yes, we were misdirecting people with the truth, then lying to you the whole time." But to me, that doesn't generate wonder and awe and admiration. It generates resentment and hostility. And it suggests that Abrams and his crew wasn't confident in their decision to go with Khan in the first place. I thought the "mystery" around Khan was an actual distraction, and I didn't need it, because the movie works DESPITE this big identity reveal. It's not better BECAUSE they hid Khan's identity. It doesn't matter in the film.
KATEY: Alright, a couple of things here. There were several nods to Wrath of Khan, from the casting of Alice Eve as Carol Marcus to the hands on the glass to even the lines in the trailer that talk about Kirk doing anything for his family. (I, at least, thought that referenced the son he has in Wrath of Khan, though that doesn't actually come to pass).
I did an interview with Damon Lindelof and he told me they wanted us asking "did they do it or did they not do it?" which I think is what they pulled off. They knew we would be talking about Khan-- people were talking about Khan days after the first one came out -- and they basically leaned into the skid and played the game. I agree with you about the relative unimportance of the reveal within the movie-- Khan doesn't mean anything to Kirk at this point, so when he reveals his true identity, it has no bearing on the story whatsoever. But I don't know if the general game-playing actually matters that much beyond the relatively small world of people who trade in movie spoilers on the Internet.
Abrams and company got the diehards talking about Khan months ago-- and everybody else just went about their business and was surprised when they saw the movie. What's wrong with that?
SEAN: I'm not sure that there's anything wrong with it ... if everyone gets the reveal at the same time.
I think that's what bothers me most about the "Mystery Box" game. It works best when everyone gets the answer at the same time. The way that Paramount, Abrams, Bad Robot and whomever was involved pulled off the Khan "reveal" was to essentially "reveal" it multiple times over the past 10-15 days. They went to extreme lengths to protect a secret through production, then hoped that those who saw the movie early (either critics or international audiences) would play along and keep that secret. And a few did. But most didn't. If you went to IMDB's page for STID, next to Cumberbatch, he'd credited as Khan. That made me laugh out loud There's your "Mystery Box," Mr. Abrams.
KATEY: But that's not their fault! They asked people as best they could to play along, and when they don't, what are they supposed to do?
SEAN: I'm not sure. Logistically, I know it's near impossible. But if Abrams desperately wants to maintain this secret right up until his movie screens, they have (in rare instances like this) to figure out some way to do a day-and-date release.
But that's an industry problem. Let's talk more about how it affects STID. Now that we've seen it, and we know how far Abrams goes to painstakingly reference and, in some cases, mirror Wrath of Khan, don't you think they would have better served the movie if they just came out at the beginning and said, "We're going to do Wrath of Khan, but in this new storyline. Come find out how we pull it off!" That would have been exciting enough for fans and non-fans to reveal in. Because as you say -- and this is crucial -- Pine's rebooted Kirk has NO connection with this Khan. So the beats of the original Wrath don't work here, even if Abrams and his team want to go through them ... sometimes scene by scene.
KATEY: I think it could have been as simple as just "Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan. Now see how it works." Leave us wondering just how much they'll mimic Wrath of Khan, or if they'll do it at all. If we learned anything from Iron Man 3, it's that the best way to surprise an audience is to use sleight of hand-- have us looking one way while doing something totally different. With Star Trek everyone was focused on Khan, just like Abrams knew we would be. And then the reveal... was exactly what we thought it would be. I guess the fact that Admiral Marcus is the real villain is more of a twist, but he's about as toothless a villain as Nero was the first time, maybe even more so.
SEAN: And as I mentioned earlier, I think Into Darkness works well as a thrilling, fun popcorn blockbuster DESPITE the Khan inclusion and reveal. I'm more annoyed at the mystery and spectacle surrounding is-he-or-isn't-he because it distracts from what Abrams accomplished here ... which is following up on a winning reboot with an entertaining sequel. The set pieces are stunning. The performances are great. The actors better understand these characters. I wish we were just able to embrace what worked.
I mean, I guess we are, now that the silly Khan mystery is over. Hopefully the movie can now stand on its own legs, because those legs are pretty damn sturdy.
KATEY: I still think the mystery box game is an Internet obsession that doesn't extend that far to regular audiences. I'm a little annoyed at how it played out as well, but I have a hard time assuming that most people who see it are going to care at all. To me it's more of a problem that they seem obsessed with stealing the beats of Wrath of Khan, and like you said, insecure about doing that film to begin with. Bringing in Leonard Nimoy to tell young Spock how bad Khan is is the definition of telling and not showing. It's like they revealed how nervous they were right there.
SEAN: That's where I'm most conflicted about this movie and their approach. They didn't have the courage to stare back into the eyes of the Trekkie fanbase and say, "Look, we're doing Khan. We're doing it. This will be our take. Come see what we do." They did everything they could to put distance between themselves and Wrath of Khan. And then they reference it. Beyond that, they embrace it. So, as we're saying, if you are GOING to embrace it, then embrace it from Square One.
But that's a case, similar to Iron Man 3 and The Mandarin, of saying, "I wanted them to do it this way," and that's not always fair. In hindsight, I'm just going to believe that Abrams stole some of his own momentum by not fessing up to Khan in the first place.
KATEY: Yeah, it's hard to separate my frustrations with the Mystery Box approach and frustrations with how they dealt with the Wrath of Khan references. I firmly believe that the Mystery Box doesn't really matter that much in the long run, and in a few years re-watching STID we won't remember all the speculation about Khan, just the actual performance and the film around him.
SEAN: Let's hope. Because I think there's a lot there to appreciate. It's an expertly-crafted spectacle-event movie.
KATEY: I still think Abrams's penchant for secrecy is a good thing in a day and age when there's so little of it, and I'm super, super interested to see how that plays out with Star Wars, which has infinite potential for surprise references and cameos. I'm hoping he's learned a little more about sleight of hand from this though-- if you're gonna use the Mystery Box, distract us from its very existence until you're ready for the reveal.
SEAN: Or just go into complete radio silence. "You'll have a new Star Wars movie in 2015. See you then!" And then nothing. Imagine that?
KATEY: The Internet, sadly, would never allow that. We're complicit in the system that turns things like the Mystery Box into a scavenger hunt... and I have some regrets about it. But I also don't think the flatness of the reveal is ENTIRELY our fault, as much as Abrams might want to think so.
SEAN: Oh, I totally agree. And that's where the pressure of the Mystery Box and the reveal might have gotten the better of Abrams and his screenwriters. They were so preoccupied with keeping the mystery, they didn't cook up a brilliant way to drop the facts. The more we talk about it, the more opposed I am to the Mystery Box. I understand the need for some secrecy. But it shouldn't detract from the final movie, and I honestly believe the Khan mystery stole from some of the impact of the movie, in general.
KATEY: That's probably true. Imagine if we'd known from the start that he was Khan, and that was part of what we were witnessing with the terrorist attack and especially the attack on Starfleet. That would save us the giant monologue that Cumberbatch has in that jail cell, where he basically has to explain the entire plot and we are asked to remember it (again, telling and not showing). And then you still get the fun of seeing the Enterprise crew working with Khan as a kind of rogue force, literally a guy from another time. And he can still betray them. It gives you the same satisfying elements of the Khan plot without the dancing around.
SEAN: And -- which is most important -- I think you can have Cumberbatch talking about Khan in the run up to the film. Which could only help!
KATEY: So if we're trying to teach Abrams a lesson-- and we recognize that it's impossible to just say "Star Wars Is coming in 2015, be there"-- how should he approach these mysteries going forward? Is it only the Iron Man 3 method of distraction? Or can you keep secrets in the way Abrams wants without driving everyone crazy?
SEAN: I think that he needs to be open and honest with Star Wars. I don't know if there is as central a mystery to Star Wars as Khan is to Trek. They're not bringing Darth Vader back. So I think he'll be doing the movie a better service if he includes fans in on the journey. Stop with the bait-and-switch nonsense. Do you agree?
KATEY: I think there's a balance between bait and switch and between keeping reveals to yourself-- like how the alien in Super 8 wasn't in any of the marketing, and it made for a good surprise. But I think that the Khan reveal was turned into a game with the Internet, and Abrams lost the game-- and that's something I hope he avoids next time.
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