“Maybe there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge,” J.J. Abrams observed during his 2007 TED Talk, in which he discussed what drives his form of storytelling and the "mystery box" obsession origin. It's a narrative signature that can be seen throughout his body of television work, including Felicity, Alias, and Lost. It also explains why Abrams is so good at writing the beginning of a story but struggles when it comes to producing a satisfying conclusion.
Alias had issues with convoluted mythology which extended to the devices that peppered the action, and Felicity had a scheduling curveball that impacted its conclusion. In fact, a lot of the criticisms that have been leveled at The Rise of Skywalker indicate a pattern of failing to stick the landing.
Warning: Mild spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker ahead.
Beginnings are exciting. They offer a world of potential. But all good stories must come to an end. Sure, there is always the possibility for sequels and spinoffs down the line, but at some point you have to say goodbye to beloved characters. Concluding an adventure raises anticipation levels, which is why the task of rounding out this Star Wars trilogy was never going to be easy. This is something Abrams was more than aware of, which is maybe why he originally only signed on to helm The Force Awakens, but he couldn't foresee the events that would change this.
A love of mystery is evident in how Abrams constructs stories, including a fondness for beginning in medias res. While viewing The Rise of Skywalker, I half-expected an "X Hours/Days Earlier" title to come up at the end of the opening scene (see also the Abrams-directed Mission: Impossible III). This calling card is an easy way to amplify intrigue, as it purposefully withholds information from the viewer.
But what is the "mystery box"? For Abrams, it covers a tableau of tricks — including an actual box he bought from Tannen's Magic Store in New York City when he was a kid and has yet to open.
As someone obsessed with how things work, Abrams found himself taking apart machines (and actual cardboard containers), but this specific box is also a metaphor for the infinite possibilities of imagination and the blank page. It is an idea laced in the romance of hope which has yet to be crushed by conclusive answers. Sometimes, however, that box needs opening; it is far more frustrating to have a cornucopia of loose threads and dead-end plot points.
Lost and Alias wove aspects of intrigue throughout, but Abrams's first series, Felicity, was a traditional coming-of-age story about a young woman who followed her high-school crush across the country to attend the same college. It isn’t a genre TV show per se, but it did have a conclusion that went all-in on science fiction. Relationship drama and academic-related stress frame most of the series; however, Abrams still managed to go full genre early on in a Twilight Zone homage entitled “Help for the Lovelorn.” The "mystery box" at the heart of this black-and-white episode occurs when Felicity’s (Keri Russell) roommate Meghan (Amanda Foreman) seemingly traps her and her friends within the walls of this container.
While the box makes appearances throughout the series, the real contents are never revealed; it is a cutesy character trait that doesn’t cause too much consternation. Felicity isn't a show laced in an enigma, and the point isn’t to find out what Meghan is hiding — but as Abrams' success has grown, so has his desire to keep aspects shrouded in secrecy, particularly in his films.
While making Felicity, Abrams’ first foray into genre television was born when he considered what would happen if the college student was also a spy. There was only so much pivoting into sci-fi that Felicity Porter could realistically achieve, so instead, Jennifer Garner became grad student Sydney Bristow and Alias sprung to life. Essays and espionage aren’t the easiest work/life balance, particularly when the covert missions are steeped in mystical devices with a centuries-old backstory.
A 22-episode season can lead to spinning wheels to draw a storyline out, which can create as many hits as misses (and even more misses in later seasons). Following a similar model to The X-Files, Alias balanced mythology with a monster-of-the-week structure — replacing monsters with missions. And, as with The X-Files, the details got more convoluted as it progressed, 'mystery boxes' springing up all over the place via artifacts and ancient texts. The Wayfinder in The Rise of Skywalker looks a lot like something that would have the name Rambaldi attached to it, potentially important while also potentially nonsensical, or a plot shortcut.
One criticism leveled at The Rise of Skywalker centers on the amount of exposition that either didn’t get followed up or complicated the narrative further. Early on, Beaumont Kin (Dominic Monaghan) mentions that various forms of science have been used by the Sith, including cloning — at this point in my notes I wrote the phrase “Project Helix,” which is the doubling program named in Alias. However, no additional information was given, which is why, from only watching the movie, it isn't clear how this version of Palpatine came back or gained this fleet. Having to rely on supplementary materials such as the Visual Dictionary to impart pivotal plot points is not an ideal course of action. A movie should not feel like a treasure hunt of information and sadly, The Rise of Skywalker did.
In an Alias oral history conducted with TVLine in 2016, the cast and creative team discussed how hard it was to keep up with the overarching mythology of the show. The doubling technology of Project Helix didn't technically involve cloning; rather, it could transform another person’s face and body to look like someone else. This led to one of the best (and most shocking) moments in the entire series, but it also became a frequently relied-upon crutch. Bringing characters back to life or unveiling a double is only effective for a limited amount of time. If you use this card too much, it cheapens the impact.
“It was all about just how impossible it is to comprehend, which was sort of the fun of the show. It was never about a particular storyline from the beginning,” said Abrams. “It was showing how confused she had to be.” Technically, Abrams is talking about Sydney here, but it could also apply to Rey (Daisy Ridley). When discussing the plotting of Alias, he added, “We had ideas where it was going to go, but nothing was in any way written in stone. The better idea wins. And you never have the better idea at the very beginning.”
According to Abrams, for a movie or TV show to be successful, it doesn't have to be fully plotted out at the start. However, the reason why this Star Wars trilogy feels disjointed isn’t necessarily that there were two different directors but because something as vital as Rey’s lineage seemingly wasn’t discussed or decided upon. In the greater context of the story, it comes across as a last-minute choice (with little or zero foreshadowing) to justify bringing back the Star Wars big bad. It's not really comparable to Luke finding out Darth Vader is his father in The Empire Strikes Back; instead, it is much closer to the revelation when Sydney discovers she has a secret sister in Season 4 of Alias.
Character is something Abrams excels at, particularly in the earlier seasons of his television shows, but it is also the aspect that gets sacrificed when the plotting becomes stagnant and big swings are made to rectify this. I sobbed during the series finale of Alias, but I still shudder when hearing the name Rambaldi or Mueller Device. The journey to these last episodes, particularly in the penultimate season was not always fun (or even interesting). A lot of course correcting had to be done. At times The Rise of Skywalker felt like it was doing the same, at odds with what had come before it.
Alias is the best example of using devices and exposition to cover the cracks, but Lost illustrates Abrams's ability at crafting an excellent introduction without a long-term vision. When it debuted, Lost was the most expensive TV pilot of all time, which is evident from the opening set-piece alone. In his TED Talk, Abrams noted the relatively short time he had to conceive, shoot, and edit the two-hour pilot with co-creator Damon Lindelof. "There was no time to develop it," which, as Abrams explained, is unusual. Instead of being told what they couldn't do, they just made the pilot as they wanted to. As an entry, this worked great, but what happens next?
“Guys, where are we?” is still a chilling way to close out the pilot, which also featured smoke monsters and a tropical island-dwelling polar bear. The end of Lost is much-debated and while Abrams's role wasn't particularly hands-on, he still went to bat for Lindelof and co-showrunner Carlton Cuse's choice. In an interview with Playboy, he reverted to the "mystery box" concept when discussing what they did and didn't answer: "[It's] like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. If you show me what's in there, I promise you it will disappoint me."
There are definitely times when withholding amplifies a story and makes it better — but just because Quentin Tarantino didn't reveal what was in the briefcase doesn't mean all filmmaking should follow this pattern. Mystical devices and heavy exposition that barely scratches the surface can only get you so far. The magic-filled box of Abrams's childhood is all smoke and mirrors. Ultimately, there will be a time when you need to look inside and find out how it ends.