Lord of the Box – JJ Abrams and the Mystery Box
"What are stories but mystery boxes?" JJ Abrams asked in his TED talk in 2007. The term "Mystery Box" comes from a purchase he made as a child, a box of magic supplies he still has not opened. Why not? He explains that the box, closed, "representations infinite possibility, representations hope, representations potential." This concept of infinite possibility, closed inside a box that we can choose to open or not, is a recurring theme of his work. "Mystery is the catalyst for imagination," he said. He will never open the box.
The mystery box concept is fairly easy to apply to Lost, which at first glance appeared a neat package and, once opened, contained a plethora of surprises. Abrams shows himself to be a master at the creeping reveal through the show, and instances of smaller mystery boxes crop up at every turn – from the contained hatches, to the submarine, to the characters themselves, each with a whole backstory of mystery disclosed through flashbacks. Per his theory on mystery boxes, the story of Lost is riddled with mystery boxes that lead to more mystery boxes. Like infinite Russian nesting dolls, each mystery opened and uncovered yields another to discover.
The mystery boxes of Lost function not only as narrative tools, but also as doorways to extraordinary potential. In a scene in season 3, Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson) says to John Locke (Terry O'Quinn):
Ben: Picture a box. You know something about boxes do not you John? What if I told you that somewhere on this island there's a very large box and whatever you imagined, whatever you wanted to be in it, when you opened that box, there it would be.
This, Abrams admits, is the essence of story and imagination. The experience of storytelling is the gateway to what Abrams labels as "infinite possibility."
Looking forward to Super 8, out tomorrow, we can see his thoughts at work. The plot, heavily shrouded in mystery and barely hinted at in the teaser trailer, follows a group of children who capture a train crash and, usually, alien event with their handheld camera.
Here, Abrams goes beyond the second hand experience of opening the mystery box through walking into the movie theater. Super 8 explores the greatest source of "infinite possibility" – the act of creation, the act of opening the mystery box that contains the human mind and the source of creativity. In this, the use of the pen, the paintbrush, the clay, and the lens are all methods to open the mystery box. As the children of the film peer through their Super 8 lens, they open the door to imagination, to "infinite possibility" and to the darkness that lies beyond the "outside the mystery box" style of thinking.
What then, should we expect walking into Super 8 tomorrow? Abrams' TED talk speaks to the sense of childhood wonder he felt as his grandfather showed him the interworkings of electronics, or tricks of illusion. There seems to be plenty of this present from the glimpses we've come from the somewhat reticent trailer.
What Abrams does not discuss at TED is his obvious awareness of the infinite potential not just for wonder but also for darkness when one opens a mystery box. Mystery, he says, is more powerful than knowledge. What the children witness through the lens of their camera is due to be more powerful and terrifying than anything concrete they may experience in the rational world.
As with most artists, Abrams' thesis is probably changing and more layered with each work he produces. One thing's for sure – we'll keep opening his mystery boxes and diving in as long as he puts them in front of us. Starting with Super 8.