SPOILERS BELOW FOR STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS! READ WITH CAUTION!!!
Now that Star Trek Into Darkness is in out theaters everywhere, let’s take a look at how J.J. Abrams and his team at Bad Robot Productions made the Star Trek sequel…more specifically, how they kept the reveal of the villain a secret for so long. While we knew that British actor Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Star Trek Into Darkness’ villain, it was unclear which villain from the Star Trek mythology that was.
The Khan rumors had been around forever, or at least since the days when Benicio del Toro was rumored for the role, but Abrams and company just kept denying them. So when when Bad Robot invited members of the press to their Santa Monica headquarters to watch some footage from the new Star Trek film, they had prepared a bit of sleight-of-hand. The scene Bad Robot screened for the press was the thrilling space-jump sequence from the film’s second act. While it’s exciting, and reminiscent of the space-dive scene from the first Star Trek reboot film, it was clear that Benedict Cumberbatch’s character was named John Harrison. This was the first time that Bad Robot revealed the character’s name in any promotional materials.
If you’ve seen Star Trek Into Darkness, then you know that John Harrison is the character’s pseudonym, and he is indeed Khan Noonien Singh, or simply Khan. The filmmakers behind Star Trek Into Darkness wanted this part of the film to be a surprise for the audience, because, as screenwriter Damon Lindelof put it, the reveal to the audience would service the story because it would also be a reveal to the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
After the screening, Bad Robot was in a new stage of their mission to keep Cumberbatch’s true identity under wraps. In interview after interview, the cast of the film wouldn’t reveal the character’s identity, and would even flat-out say he was someone else, like Star Trek villain Gary Mitchell. According to Damon Lindelof:
‘The preservation of Harrison’s identity has been on ongoing and evolving strategy since the moment we decided to go down the road we went down,’ Lindelof said. ‘Before we even started shooting the movie, we acknowledged that there was a fine line between cryptic avoidance and outright denial. We never wanted to overtly lie, but agreed that a certain degree of misdirection wasn’t only warranted, but necessary.’
Bad Robot really went out of their way to keep Cumberbatch’s character a secret, even re-editing trailers, previews, and other marketing materials just to keep Khan’s identity under wraps. In the nine-minute IMAX preview of Star Trek Into Darkness that premiered before The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey this past December, Abrams re-arranged the John Harrison reveal with the question, “Who are you?” at the very end. In the final version of the film, that scene between John Harrison and Thomas Harewood (played by Doctor Who‘s Noel Clarke) has a different placement. Lindeolf explains:
“The ‘who are you?’ scene always came first in script… but when we saw a cut of the movie, it became clear that we should start with the action on Nibiru. However, when it came to crafting the IMAX preview on The Hobbit, we all agreed that the more exciting ‘cliffhanger’ would be to go out on Spock inside the volcano, about to get incinerated, thus restoring the continuity from the script, albeit temporarily.”
It’s important to ask why J.J. Abrams felt it was so necessary to hide Khan’s identity. Bad Robot spent months keeping the mystery a secret, but did it really serve the story? J.J. Abrams and his “mystery box” are notorious for keeping plot points and character reveals a secret so the audience will enjoy a pure version of the film. It seems as though this method of storytelling has hurt J.J. Abrams’ last two films — Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness — and it may hurt his next. Should we expect the same levels of secrecy for Star Wars: Episode VII? Don’t be surprised.
Read Germain Lussier’s in-depth piece on Star Trek Into Darkness at /Film for more insight on Bad Robot’s method of storytelling.