The Other Mystery Box

For the seven people in the world who haven’t yet seen The Force Awakens, I must warn you; here be (pretty minor) spoilers. I’ve done my best to avoid the biggest, but seriously, if you haven’t seen this film yet then I think you need to reevaluate your choices in life.

Most of you reading this will have already seen JJ Abrams’ TED Talk, wherein he explains The Mystery Box, and preserving the audience’s experience of seeing a movie for the first time on the big screen. For those who haven’t, it is well worth your time. It’s from 2007, so pre-dates his Star Trek and Star Wars films…

In the weeks since the release of The Force Awakens, countless articles and blog posts have been written speculating on the unexplained parts of the story; the parentage of Finn and Rey, how Maz came into possession of Luke’s lightsaber, what caused Kylo Ren to turn to the Dark Side, how the First Order rose to prominence, etc etc etc. It’s natural for people to want those questions answered, but we seem to have learned almost nothing from the prequels and from JJ’s Mystery Box approach.

Take Darth Vader – the ultimate bad guy, until the prequels revealed him to be a whiney brat. You can never look at Vader the same way after you see him ask “Where is Padme?”, then scream “Nooooooo”. Vader was demystified, and his power diminished. This is why we’re collectively worried about a “young Han Solo” movie, even if it is written by the great Lawrence Kasdan – you have to have a little intrigue in your characters.

The Mystery Box is used as a shorthand for the lengths JJ and crew go to in order to preserve the secrets and surprises of the movie, but in fact I believe the point of The Mystery Box that gets lost is more aligned with forcing the audience to do the work of filling in the blanks themselves. It promotes debate between friends once the movie is over. As JJ himself says in the talk “mystery is the catalyst for imagination”.

For this story to work, it doesn’t matter who Max Von Sydow plays, and how he relates to Leia and Kylo Ren – he just knows them somehow. Isn’t it more fun to speculate ourselves than just to know? What would it add if he turns out to be a character from Rogue One? It might make us more sad when we rewatch him getting killed off here, but actually it would remove suspense from the other film if we know he is assured to survive (another prequel problem – Obi Wan and Yoda are the most likeable characters but you can never put them in real jeopardy, we know they’re in later films in the series).

We live in a world where all human knowledge is literally at our fingertips, and become incredibly frustrated if our lust for information isn’t sated, so isn’t it nice every once in a while to not have the answer? And instead to have to find our own answers.

Perhaps that’s why we seem to be responding so strongly to The Force Awakens; it has fired our imaginations back into life, and into world of possibilities. That’s the real purpose of the Mystery Box.

To quote JJ again; “there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge”.

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