‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ Director J.J. Abrams Explains His ‘Mystery Box’

J.J. Abrams might be geek royalty nowadays. After all, the filmmaker resurrected both Star Trek and Star Wars, co-created Lost, and produced Cloverfield. Yet, for all his successes, the man’s approach to storytelling is controversial to some fans.

Some call out his penchant for lens flares as one egregious stylistic touch. But more often than not, Abrams’ critics poke fun at his “mystery box.” But what is this concept, and how might it affect Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker?

J.J. Abrams speaks onstage
J.J. Abrams speaks onstage | Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix

What is J.J. Abrams’ ‘mystery box’?

In a famous TED Talk in 2008, Abrams — who at that point had only directed Mission: Impossible III — discussed his “mystery box” in depth. This narrative theory is inspired by Abrams’ decision to keep an unopened box his grandfather gave him. It highlights the possibility of what lies beneath the surface, emphasizing deliberately vague storytelling to keep audiences engaged. In essence, the story introduces mystery after mystery, only answering questions when absolutely necessary.

Lost is perhaps the best example of this concept in action. Throughout its six seasons, the ABC series confounded viewers with a series of seemingly impossible plot twists. But the payoff often failed to live up to the allure of possibility that had been introduced.

Rather than crafting a nuanced narrative, some moviegoers have accused Abrams of stringing them along with needless mysteries. Take the infamous Khan mystery of Star Trek Into Darkness. Rather than reveal outright who Benedict Cumberbatch was playing, Abrams and his team hid the identity for little reason other than to keep fans guessing.

Abrams finally explains how the ‘mystery box’ works

Over the years, Abrams’ mystery box has remained a divisive topic, especially as he continues to creatively impact one franchise after another. In a new interview with Rolling Stone, Abrams is once again asked about the mystery box and, more specifically, how it impacts the grand finale of his stories.

It’s not a driving force at all. I’m not actively thinking, “How do I employ mystery-box strategy to this story?” What I meant was just that a good story makes you want to understand what’s going on, what makes it tick, what’s inside. And it was my friend and talented producer Bryan Burk who, when I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to talk about at the Ted Talk, said, “Why don’t you talk about that box you have?”

Over the years, Abrams has perhaps been a bit too closely associated with his signature storytelling device. His general idea about stoking the audience’s curiosity in your story is sound. Unfortunately, at this point, the mystery box has developed a life of its own.

How will this affect ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

When it comes to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams has the responsibility to tie up more than 40 years worth of storytelling. So fans wary of the mystery box might be worried about what kind of role it plays in the “galaxy far, far away.” Abrams addressed this too in his Rolling Stone interview.

Well, I never think about it, so whenever someone brings it up, I’m always like, “Oh, yeah, that thing.” It’s not to say I still don’t feel like a good story forces you to ask a question. But an ending needs to be, by definition, conclusive. I keep imagining a kid watching these nine movies a hundred years from now, so there needs to be a sense of inevitability and continuity to it. But again, if you’re not having fun, if you’re not at least trying to be delightful, you’re doomed. So there are things in the movie that, I think, might be crazy — but are some of my favorite things. And whether people accept them is up to them.

Abrams is clearly trying to provide a satisfying ending to the Star Wars Skywalker saga. But fans shouldn’t expect to have all their questions answered. The Rise of Skywalker might very well be just as challenging as The Last Jedi in some regards. Here’s hoping that, at the very least, Abrams empties out whatever mystery box he still has for the Star Wars saga.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters on December 20.