There was a mystery afoot on the Internet yesterday. Did you hear about it? Were you drawn into it? There was a trailer for a new J.J. Abrams… something. It had no title, only vague imagery and voice-over, and an ending tagline of “Soon he will know.” But it opened with the animation for Bad Robot, the Lost producer and Star Trek director’s production company, so everyone went bananas. “What is J.J. Abrams teasing with Bad Robot’s new mystery trailer?” asked The Verge. “What is J.J. Abrams’ ‘Stranger’ Teaser?” wondered Rolling Stone. Slate’s David Haglund, while granting that it looks “interesting, for now,” asked, “What is it a trailer for? He didn’t say! Could be a movie, could be a TV show — who knows! It is all very mysterious.” And Entertainment Weekly offered up five theories as to what, exactly, we were looking at. But it became clear, in the hours after this giant non-event, that the clip was a teaser for S., a novel by Doug Dorst, “devised” by J.J. Abrams, whatever the hell that means. So here’s the question: why do we care?
The video went live on YouTube yesterday, and in that time, it’s racked up over a million page views. Those eyeballs didn’t land there because the premise is so intriguing, or because the voice-over is so compelling, or because the black-and-white imagery is so captivating; they’re there because of the Bad Robot logo. The first image, after that logo, is of a starry sky — exactly the shot that would presumably open a teaser for Abrams’ forthcoming Star Wars prequel.
Whether it’s the cruelty of that move or the crassness of the entire endeavor — according to the Los Angeles Times, the publisher of S. is seriously trumpeting it as “his first-ever idea for a novel,” as though that’s the same thing as writing one — the teaser feels like yet another iteration of one of pop culture’s most tiresome trends: J.J. Abrams fucking with us. Back to the publisher: “Abrams conceived of and developed a multi-layered literary puzzle of love and adventure. At its core, we have a book of mysterious provenance. In the margins, another tale unfolds: hand-scribbled notes, questions, and confrontations between two readers. Between the pages, online, and in the real world, you’ll find evidence of their interaction, ephemera that brings this tale vividly to life.”
In other words, more “mystery box” bullshit.
Let’s be clear: Abrams is not without talent. Super 8 is a pretty great little Spielberg homage, his first Star Trek was an awful lot of fun, M-I:III has its moments, and there’s some terrific stuff in Alias and Lost — early on. But throughout his career, in the endless wheel-spinning of those series’ later seasons, say, or the puzzling obfuscation of Cumberbatch’s identity in the second Star Trek, his obsession with creating pointless mystery and teasing out even the most basic information (as in the promotion for Cloverfield and Super 8) doesn’t actually add anything to the projects in question; when his work is good, it’s because of good old-fashioned craftsmanship. When it’s successful, it’s frequently thanks to built-in audiences. And when it’s bad, it’s usually because of the mystery box.
It’s not that a bit of informational restraint among creative types isn’t welcome, particularly considering the fan base that he’s currently serving (and pissing off). But it’s not like the Abrams name is magic in and of itself; ask the networks that canceled Alcatraz, Undercovers, and Six Degrees. More importantly, this bait-and-switch stuff is quickly becoming self-parody — particularly when applied to the filmmaker’s tossed-off side projects.