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The Mystery MacGuffin
J.J. Abrams loves mysteries. Long-running mysteries. Multifaceted mysteries. Mysteries of publicity. Mysteries inside of mysteries. He gave a whole speech once about mysteries. See? It all started with Rambaldi, the Renaissance scientist whose curious inventions powered Alias. From beyond the grave, Rambaldi kept on dropping helpful artifacts onto the Alias plot. (Call him Tupac ex Machina.) Mystery powered Abrams’ most famous creation — the TV show Lost. Before departing for the big screen, Abrams co-created the series with Damon Lindelof and directed the pilot; in fact, the series premiere of Lost could be his masterpiece. What is that monster? Why is there a polar bear on a tropical island? Who are these people? Where are we? All four of Abrams’ films are structured as mysteries. (What is that mysterious ship in the cloud? Why are the dogs running away? Who is John Harrison?) Because Abrams is so secretive, and because he was an early adopter of the Internet-as-publicity-scavenger-hunt, the films develop their own meta-mysteries. Nothing in the Abrams-produced Cloverfield is as interesting as the months-long hunt to figure out exactly what Cloverfield was. And because so little was known about Star Trek Into Darkness, the pre-release buzz for the movie focused on one simple question: Is it Khan?
J.J. Abrams loves mysteries. He does not, however, necessarily like solving mysteries. The MacGuffin at the center of his first film, Mission: Impossible 3, is called the ”Rabbit’s Foot.” Everyone wants it. People kill for it. What is it? A virus? A Rambaldi sphere? Red matter? (Spoiler Alert: We never find out.) It’s important to note that, in that TED talk, Abrams specifically says that he has never opened his mystery box. It’s interesting to note that Abrams launched three different series rooted around mystery MacGuffins — Alias, Lost, and Fringe — and then eventually (or quickly) departed all three, leaving collaborators behind to tease out the answers with varying degrees of success. (On Alias, they failed; on Lost, they succeeded until they failed; on Fringe, they completely changed course and succeeded, then completely changed course and failed.) For Abrams, the destination is never as interesting as the journey, and the answer is never as interesting as the question. This is why his movies are so exciting, and also why his endings aren’t very good.
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