A Mystery Box Full of Red Matter

Here is a fantastic TED talk by JJ Abrams, the guy behind many of the most interesting genre movies and TV shows in recent years (Alias, Lost, Star Trek, Cloverfield, Fringe). It’s about the fundamental role played by mystery and the unknown in storytelling.

I’m posting it here because, as wonderful as the talk is, I disagree with it at a deep level. Yes, indeed, the concept of “mystery” is absolutely crucial to what makes a story compelling. But I think Abrams takes the idea too far, valorizing mystery for its own sake, rather than as motivation for the characters and the audience to try to solve the mystery. The reason why mysteries are interesting is because we want to figure them out! If they are simply irreducibly mysterious — if there is no sensible explanation that ultimately makes sense of all the clues — then it’s simply frustrating, not magical.

This isn’t just jousting with words — it has consequences for how stories are told. That’s why I chose Star Trek as my one movie to complain about in our Comic-Con panel last summer (as much as I enjoyed the movie overall). The dangerous planet-killing substance in that case was “red matter.” Shiny, red, and ominous-looking, red matter is not anything known to modern science. Which is fine; modern science doesn’t know about warp drive or Vulcans, either, but they work well in this particular fictional context. The problem is that red matter wasn’t associated with any sensible properties even within this fictional world. We never knew where it came from, why it did what it did, how it would react to different circumstances, etc. (Why did it have to be deposited in the exact middle of a planet, rather than just splashed on the surface?) It was simply “mysterious.” But this particular bit of mystery didn’t make it more compelling — it prevented the audience from engaging with the menace that the red matter presented. If we knew something about it, we wouldn’t just be going “okay, that’s the bad stuff, gotcha”; we’d be following along as Kirk and Spock tried to defuse the danger, understanding what might and might not do the trick. Not all mystery is good storytelling — sometimes a bit of understanding helps grab the attention.

Just to draw the distinctions even more carefully, let me come out in favor of ambiguity as opposed to mystery. The end of Inception is quite famously amenable to more than one interpretation. (To go back further, ask whether Deckard was a replicant.) This drives people crazy, trying to figure out which one is “right,” an impulse I think is misguided. It’s okay to accept that we don’t know all the answers! But in theses cases we understand quite well the space of all possible answers. There is no black box whose operation is simply mysterious. We don’t need to know all the final answers once and for all; but it’s better storytelling if we understand what the answers could be, and that they make sense to us.

Hopefully it’s not too hard to read between the lines here, and see the consequences for science as well as for movies. There are those who argue that science destroys the magic of the world by figuring things out. That’s exactly backwards — the scientific quest to solve the world’s puzzles is one of the things that makes the story of our lives so interesting.

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49 Responses to A Mystery Box Full of Red Matter

  1. Daniel Kuehn says:

    One person that wrote extensively on the role of the unknown in fiction was H.P. Lovecraft. I think he would generally agree with you – that we don’t know what to do with the unfathomable unknown. However, Lovecraft used this inability to cope to present a fiction that capitalized on that sort of helplessness that you describe.

    If you just leave it as non-descript “red matter” I think you’re right – that probably doesn’t move the plot forward at all. But it is possible to leverage that lack of certainty into something more compelling. That’s essentially what Lovecraft’s stories were.

    I think a good modern sci-fi example of this was the movie Event Horizon. It’s been a little while since I’ve seen it, but I remember the distinct sense of have no clue what the hell was going on or exactly what Sam Neill was. That “unknown” that left us completely in the dark was made to be compelling – it wasn’t just filler like “red matter”.

    Granted, this use of the unknown is probably more easily adapted to horror-oriented sci-fi, but I still think it’s a very productive use of the utterly unknown.

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  3. Clinton says:

    I’m not sure The Mystery Box relates exactly to Red Matter, although I’ll admit it’s been a while since I watched JJ’s TED talk. Perhaps it was the unknown of the parallel universe it helped create that was the true mystery.

  4. Schell says:

    I totally agree with you on ICP and I’ll add that scientific discovery produces more questions than it answers. You could say that science kills one miracle in order to create newer more miraculous miracles…

  5. Mike says:

    I rolled my eyes when red matter was mentioned in Star Trek, as I saw it as little more than a self-aggrandizing homage to Alias — in which the red matter first appeared. But really, is the “mystery” of the red matter relevant, in light of the plethora of flaws in the film?

  6. Non-Believer says:

    Have any studies been done on the correlations between what people understand about science and their TV and Movie experiences?

    Its popular to assume that our knowledge of science is influenced by TV and Movies. (and I have often used the assumption when discussing the subject) There are studies that show that many of our fundamental stereotypes and biases are influenced by these Media, but that is not the same as knowledge of science.

    Is any one aware of any related studies?

  7. Analyzer says:

    The red matter is a MacGuffin whose properties are unexplained because they are irrelevant. Sci-fi that attempts to explain the science of every last technology that it employs to drive the story rapidly becomes pedantic and really boring. How does the Force work? Heck, how does a lightsaber work? How do Star Trek’s infamous “inertial dampers” work, or the “Heisenberg compensator” that allows the transporter to function? How does Cerebro work? How does time travel work in every sci-fi story ever? It doesn’t matter. It’s not the point. The answer does not drive the story.

    Red matter destroys planets. That really is all that you need to know. “Okay, that’s the bad stuff, gotcha” is exactly the intended reaction. How red matter might work is an interesting topic of discussion for a handful of physicists after the movie’s over. It’s not interesting while you’re watching the movie.

  8. I deeply agree. Red Matter was the greatest plot flaw in the otherwise very entertaining, emotionally clever, well-acted Star Trek movie.

    I’d known, back when he was on faculty and I an undergrad at Caltech, Leonard Mlodinow, after Gell-Mann brought him to Caltech’s Physics Department, and we were both hanging out with Feynman. See Mlodinow’s:
    “Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life”

    Beyond his research (what would QM say if there were an infinite number of spatial dimensions?) and books on popular science, he also wrote the screenplay for the film Beyond the Horizon (currently in production) and has been a screenwriter for television series, including Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGyver.

    I’m not demanding that you, Sean, write a screenplay. But you and your talented wife and others can collaborate on one, as evidenced by Kip Thorne’s “Interstellar.”

    How does that sound: Sean Carroll, Executive Producer of the smash hit “From Eternity” starring Zoe Saldana, Star Trek’s new Uhura…

  9. Scott says:

    Hmm, I go with Analyzer’s view.

    I *would* agree with the premise of the post if Red Matter were the central premise of the movie, like this:
    “There is a dangerous thing called Red Matter and it’s causing black holes to erupt willy-nilly around the galactic sector containing many habitable planets. We need to find out where this Red Matter is coming from, then figure out how it works so we can stop it as fast as possible. Unfortunately, the Enterprise is the only ship in the sector and we need you to break off your training cruise to…”

    But in this move, the red matter was just a weapon. They didn’t care how the weapon worked at the time. They just wanted to stop the baddie from using it again – and they warped around to do it.

    RM was just some weapon which is unrealistic given current scientific knowledge.
    Warp (or Star Wars hyperspace, or BSG Jump) are means of travel that are unrealistic given scientific knowledge.

    For that reason, you kinda either give both things a pass in the ST franchise or you condemn it for both (which many do).

    I absolutely do agree that the more central a particular “sci” device is to the premise of a movie or a film, the more plausible it should be.

  10. Elwood Herring says:

    Whenever I watch any Trek episodes or movies made since Gene Roddenberry’s death, I always try to ask myself, “What would HE have thought of that?” Roddenberry was well known for getting the best out of his stable of writers, mainly by means of ensuring that whatever crazy ideas they came up with, they always had to be subordinate to the plot. “Yes, yes, but what’s it about?” was his main grilling point.

    Regarding red matter, I think he probably would have okayed it, but might have asked for some extra supporting techno-babble. But since it moves the plot on swiftly without too much fuss, he’d have probably given it the green light. I don’t like it myself, and it did grate on me when I watched the movie, but after asking myself that question I imagined I heard the ghost of G.R. say “It’ll work. Trust me.”

  11. Al Feersum says:

    “Red Matter” = “Unobtainium”. At least Cameron had the sense to use the name of the thing that it symbolises.

    Often poorly written Sci-Fi includes plot devices such as these and makes no attempt to explain them. I tend to avoid novels with the lazy incorporation of ‘unexplainedium’.

    A good Sci-Fi author will use speculative science to make the plot devices seem plausible, even though they may be fantastically impossible – often invoking scientific gobbledegook to back up said devices.

    For example, in Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe, the FTL devices used seemed plausible, and even had a development lifecycle as a historical narrative, as did the Conjoiners. Even the Shrouders invoked Weyl curvature tensors and quantum stuff to hide their universe.

    There didn’t seem to be any real paradoxical pseudo-science involved, requiring a “special thing that doesn’t exist“. Admittedly, the manipulation of stuff at the quantum level is probably farfetched (and later on, interacting with branes). But at least it was kind of explained to the reader in a way that could be understood (assuming prior knowledge).

    I suppose it helps that Alastair Reynolds is a scientist (sorry, physicist).

  12. Josh Neal says:

    It’s not *just* a MacGuffin; it is more precisely an Artifact of Doom (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ArtifactOfDoom). The thing about artifacts of doom is that they have to be dealt with, and how that’s done is critically important to the story. Think of Frodo’s Ring. It couldn’t be destroyed (by conventional means), and it couldn’t be effectively hidden, so they had to throw it where no one could ever get it.

    The red matter very specifically creates black holes, apparently when it comes into contact with sufficient matter. I don’t think this is a problem for the movie, other than that deposit-in-the-planet’s-core part. (I say we chalk that part up to the need for dramatic build-up.)

    IMO, this is a sufficient explanation for “how” the red matter works. It works by converting matter into a singularity. How it does that is an interesting topic, but not necessary to be able to follow along with Kirk and Spock as they turn the bad guy into a singularity.

  13. Josh says:

    I think Lost suffered in the same way. It was great at the beginning when there were all these mysteries, but most of the explanations at the end turned out to be red-matter-esque (e.g. “strange electromagnetic properties”), if there were explanations at all.

  14. onymous says:

    I came to the comment thread thinking “the word ‘MacGuffin’ really needs to be injected into this discussion,” but I see Analyzer got there first. MacGuffins work perfectly well and play a useful role in lots of stories, so I think if you’re going to criticize the red matter, you have to do more work to show that it’s not just playing the role of a MacGuffin. (I saw the movie and don’t even remember what role ‘red matter’ played in the plot, so I guess the whole thing didn’t make much of an impression on me. I just remember thinking ‘well, at least it was better than the one where they went looking for God on some asteroid.’)

  15. MarkS says:

    I agree with those who have equated Red Matter = Unobtainium = Frodo’s Ring = MacGuffin. The fewer details, the better. Maybe Unobtainium handles it best, using a silly name that telegraphs to everyone that it’s silly and therefore unnecessary to bother explaining.

    Sean is maybe too polite not to mention that the mysteries in Lost are of the kind that start out teasing the audience into believing there’s something to figure out. As the episodes wear on, viewers discover there’s really nothing behind the mysteries other than Mystery. Big disappointment in the way that MacGuffins are not.

    Finally, what about 2001: A Space Odyssey? Kubrick’s movie left a lot of theater-goers frustrated because the mysteries were not explained. Readers of Clarke’s book, on the other hand, learned everything (OK, maybe not exactly how those black slabs worked, but at least what the heck they were). The movie was the greater work of art. The book, the proof that the moviemaker wasn’t *just* messing with our minds. Perhaps the perfect way to pair mystery and sensible explanation.

  16. psmith says:

    The problem here seems to be that we are only comfortable if the mystery is in some way anchored to our experience or personal body of knowledge. We need not understand it. It must just be anchored somewhere in our body of knowledge so that the mystery has a context that gives it some meaning.

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  18. Matt B. says:

    The dumbest part of the red matter plot device was that they had hundreds of gallons of it when one drop was enough to collapse a planet. Someone’s expense report is not going to get approved. But the lack of plausibility also seriously damped down any sense of wonder that would have come from it, making Star Trek just an action movie. (The canyon in Iowa proves they weren’t even thinking about plausibility.) The more I think about that movie the less I like it.

    On the subject of MacGuffin-ness, any sci-fi invention will fall apart if examined too closely, and the Star Trek TV shows have been in the habit of doing so. But with no explanation at all, you have to wonder what other inexplicable invention might exist that someone could whip out as a deus ex machina, and that kind of ruins the fun. So somewhere in between is best.

  19. Dave says:

    I’m curious, sean, what did you think of the movie ‘Primer’ in terms of mystery?

  20. Bad Trek says:

    Red Matter is just the tip of the iceberg. JJ Abrams took the Star Trek universe and flipped it on its head.

    – Filming portions of the Engineering area in a brewery? They need pipes of crap going everywhere? Did he even watch the series? Mr. Scott would have had a medical incident.

    – Having Kirk meet ‘old’ Spock on a planet – Ok…far fetched…possible. Meeting Mr. Scott and his pet ‘monkey’ guy? Ok…more far fetched. Having Mr. Scott able to beam them aboard an Enterprise that had been moving in an unknown direction (Kirk was unconcious remember) for a long period of time? – No…rediculous.

    – Communicating with a ship being ripped apart by a black hole? Yeah…right. Escaping the same black hole by ejecting your fuel and having it ‘blow up’ with a shock wave pushing you out? Uh…do you understand physics at all Mr. Abrams?

    Anyway, I enjoyed the acting, nice to see Uhura with some life, McCoy, Kirk and Spock were great. Other than that, flush the whole movie and start again. JJ Abrams shouldn’t be allowed near a Star Trek set ever again…

  21. JMW says:

    I think that commentators arguing the validity or lack thereof of Red Matter are missing the point of the post. The point is that science fiction in particular shouldn’t have magic McGuffins of uknown provenance and unknown properties and unknown effect.

    Not to say that science fiction shouldn’t have mystery. But the mystery shouldn’t be something that one of our main characters understands and (in this case) created.

    If I’m James T. Kirk in the expository scene where Spock-prime is explaining what happened to Romulus, I’m not going to simply blow by the question of what Red Matter is and how it works without comment.

    But this “mystery cult” in science fiction – particularly post-Roddenberry ST – is particularly annoying. I recall one episode of ST TNG where the Enterprise picks up one of its own shuttlecraft with a comatose Picard on board. Turns out they eventually get caught in some whirlpool of time, and Picard has to figure out how to get them out of it, by watching what Picard 2 does, and then doing the opposite.

    But there’s no attempt to analyze the whirlpool, no attempt to explain how it came to be, whether it might pose a danger to other ships travelling through that region…

    TNG relied on this and other kind of poor storytelling far to often for my taste.

  22. Dave @#19 has a good question. Low budget Science Fiction can be very good.

    I was shocked by how good the director’s cut (not the commercial release) of “The Butterfly Effect” was. It is deceptive in the extreme, but turns out not to be
    Sci-Fi, but fully realized Science Fiction. And why nothing from the award-wining “Cube” series?

    Moving to lower budget but genuine Science Fiction, my wife and son and I have seen “Primer” about half a dozen times each, read the websites and blogs with
    their differing reconstructed chronologies and clashing hypotheses, and argued long into the night.

    Made by nerds, for nerds, about nerds, with an awesomely sophisticated plot, insight into how real science and engineering is done, Venture Capital, jealousy, and so much more. It is much more tricky than it looks the first time through. It gains on
    re-viewing, for those who do the work of interpolation from noisy and intentionally misleading data.

    For big budget, I’ve seen “2001” over 20 times, and loved it every time. But for microbudget?

    Dollar for dollar, “Primer” is the greatest Science Fiction movie ever made.

  23. Thanny says:

    I think writers like to champion mysteries for their own sake because they aren’t very good at providing plausible and interesting solutions.

    Take Lost, for example. What’s crashing through the trees making all that noise? The first thing I thought was a dinosaur (a character on the show did, too), but what does it end up being? A cloud of black smoke that makes strange mechanical noises. What is the smoke and where did it come from? The bad guy floated down a stream to a pool and flew out as the smoke, while other people went to the same place and did nothing of the sort.

    Some might say that mysteries become lessened when a prosaic explanation is found. The Lost example is anything but prosaic, and I found it to be a real letdown. I’d be delighted if the explanation turned out to be something quite normal but entirely unexpected.

    So, in general, I consider mysteries best solved. There are cases, however, where I have a hard time imagining a satisfying answer – where leaving the mystery be may be the better option. Two examples are both “what’s in the case” mysteries – from Pulp Fiction and Ronin. Would knowing what’s in those cases add anything to either movie? I have to think that it could, but I also have to grant that it would be difficult to come up with the right answers. It’d be trivial to disappoint with lousy ones.

  24. Chris says:

    Thank you. I remember thinking what the heck when I first saw the movie and we had a bunch of discussions on what it could be. We felt it would have been better to use Strange Matter. Fire it at a planet and it converts all the normal matter into strange matter. This is at least a “plausible” science, however it doesn’t seem likely to occur, but I have a feeling black holes scores well with the audiences, so they went there.

  25. viggen says:

    I disagree very strongly with how JJ Abrams tells stories. In my opinion, his Star Trek reboot held up under an initial viewing, but doesn’t survive repeated viewings very well. I liked that movie a lot the first time I saw it, but the lack of any reason “why” for most of the visual and story elements in it has become extreme cloying to me. If you look at the structure of how that movie works, it’s a bunch of free-standing plot devices leading one to the next that are not significantly connected to _any_ fundamental structure except that they provided a pretty visual or an exciting moment. “Red Matter” was about the biggest example.

    I think Hollywood has become too interested in catering to the 15 second attention span… given the choice, I’ll patronize “Inception” over the new “Star Trek” every time.