Imagine sitting in a dark theater, watching the numerous production credits flicker by and knowing how much money each company has put into the film you’re about to watch. Imagine hearing the sound of a score booming through the speaker system, a score you’ve already listened to in samples and full tracks. In fact, you’ve seen the track-listing so you have a pretty good idea of the arc of the movie. Now imagine seeing the screen light up with projected images, images you’ve seen from numerous production stills, trailers, TV spots, and clips. This is our typical movie experience, give or take the unpredictable behaviors of the ten to two-hundred movie-goers surrounding us. The simple fact is that the majority of us don’t go into movies blind, regardless of our best intentions. It’s nearly impossible not to have at least some idea of what to expect. Even the most independent of films have a near constant barrage of marketing, less expensive but unavoidable all the same. But imagine sitting down for a movie and hearing a score you’ve never heard before, watching an opening scene that hasn’t been given away in interviews, watching a movie unmarred by prior knowledge, and leaving that movie feeling that a scared covenant must be maintained so that others can have this same experience. This is magic. And it is this that J.J. Abrams wants to preserve through film.
Those of us lucky enough to grow up before the internet age, or at least before the death of dial-up, probably remember what it was like going to the movie theater and seeing posters and trailers for movies we had no idea were planned. Just getting a trailer, let alone an entire film, that comes as a total surprise, is such a lost pleasure in the 21st century. We’re living in an age where it’s an absolute feat of resistance and social media dodging to even see a post-credit scene that hasn’t been rumored or discussed ad nauseam. Enter J.J. Abrams’ Mystery Box (a phrase he coined during his now famous 2007 TED talk) which he defined as “infinite possibility” where “mystery is more important than knowledge.” Almost all of Abrams’ projects from Lost to Star Wars have been founded on this concept. Naturally, there have been varying degrees of success to these mysteries, with the journey sometimes being far more satisfying than the conclusion. But there’s such an impressive restraint shown in his ability not to trick the audience but to let them feel the genuine pleasure of discovery.
I’m one of the many people who felt disappointed with the finale of Lost. I understood the ending and why it went down the way it did, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something had been, excuse the pun, lost. But this disappointment didn’t outweigh the overall pleasure I got from watching the series over the course of five years. I remember almost dreading watching the finale, not because I expected it to be over, but because I knew that would be the end of the mystery. Once the box is opened, its contents cannot be put back in. Ultimately, the years of fan-theories, puzzle-solving and wild conspiracies were far more rewarding than any ending, good or bad, ever had the potential to be. I believe this is the key to Abrams and his collaborators’ penchant for Mystery Boxes: they trust in the intelligence of their audience. Intelligence not displayed by solving the exact mystery as Abrams composed it, but intelligence in the creation of a unique experience that lives beyond the images displayed on the screen.
I remember seeing Transformers opening weekend and seeing hand-held footage of the head of the Statue of Liberty being thrown down a Manhattan street. I remember the excited whispers that filled the theater: “Is this the movie?” “Some kind of commercial.” “There’s no title.” “That’s weird.” That last sentence was mine. See, I love weirdness. I’m drawn to it. So much so that after leaving the movie the first thing I did was attempt to figure out what that ad was for. This led me to the discovery of J.J. Abrams’ secret project, a monster movie that I would spend half a year eagerly anticipating. There is nothing comparable to my experience of seeing Cloverfield for the first time. There are movies I have liked more and theater experiences that have been more rewarding, but there is nothing that matches the sheer exhilaration of truly not knowing. I later found out that Abrams and director Matt Reeves had hidden frames from King Kong, Them! And The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, films that helped to launch my love of movies, within the film. And the crown jewel? The Dharma Initiative logo from Lost was hidden within the opening frames of the film. This opened the film up to a new world of possibilities. Perhaps it was just a reference to Abrams’ work, but perhaps it was something more—the unveiling of a multi-media universe before we’d even become accustomed to the concept.
There was no replicating the surprise of Cloverfield, or so I thought. The idea that a film could simply appear out of nowhere and still be a major success died with the advent of rumor-mill sites and the growing popularity of social media. Knowledge became the hottest commodity of the film business, not the preservation of mystery. I went into Star Trek, its sequel Into Darkness, Super 8, and The Force Awakens with a carefully planned level of blindness. Through no fault of Abrams, films that big and anticipated couldn’t remain a complete secret. I found surprises in each of those films, but nothing comparable to Cloverfield. With franchises, or an Amblin logo in the case of Super 8, there comes a level of familiarity and expectation. Even though Abrams has faced many complaints over his refusal to be straight-forward with some of his films’ most obvious secrets (Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan), I still find it better than the alternative. You see, we know what films follow Captain America: Civil War. We know how many future installments the actors have left in their contracts. We know that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will lead to the formation of the Justice League. We know how much is riding on its success. No one has to reveal these things, or spoil them, we simply know because the movie business has become an open book of records and numbers, instead of an ancient tome filled with a language we can’t understand. We know that no matter how much we enjoy Marvel, DC, or James Bond films that certain characters will always be alive by the film’s end. Sure, there’s a certain level of comfort in this as a fan, but it seems that we could do with a little less comfort and a little more risk.
Regardless of its box office intake, regardless of whether any further sequels or spin-offs come to fruition, and regardless of its quality, 10 Cloverfield Lane changes things. Seeing people tweet reactions to seeing the trailer before 13 Hours gave me a sense of déjà vu. No, I didn’t go see Michael Bay’s latest with the same boyish excitement that had drawn me to Transformers, but the reactions from across miles and wires was palpable. Something wonderfully weird was born again. Once again J.J. Abrams proved he could make a movie appear out of seemingly nowhere. That fact has made 10 Cloverfield Lane one of my most anticipated films of the year, and I know next to nothing about it. I love the mystery of it, the weirdness of the subliminal images hidden in the trailer, and the possibility that we’ll spend years puzzling over them regardless of whether they pan out. This experience of a less than 3-month anticipation for this film is irreplaceable and a far more successful marketing experience than anything else we’ve seen this year. I’ve heard tracks from Batman v Superman. I’ve read set reports from Captain America: Civil War. I know Ghostbusters is being planned as a cinematic universe. But all of that’s alright because 10 Cloverfield Lane is coming and I believe in magic again.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures