When the news broke that Rian Johnson would write and direct Star Wars: Episode VIII (and potentially write Episode IX) it was met with near unanimous acclaim. Here is an obviously talented and well-liked director taking a leap into one of the biggest movie franchises ever, so how could it go wrong? I, for one, was floored. Johnson’s ability to adequately mix genre with legitimate plot is evident in his teen-noir Brick and his unfairly overlooked caper-dramedy The Brothers Bloom. Were you worried he couldn’t handle sci-fi along with that genre and storytelling? Allow me to press play on the Blu-ray of Looper. But it didn’t take long for the Star Wars high to die down and for people to think otherwise about his big decision. But to me, Johnson represents the very best directorial decision, especially for a franchise looking to honorably regain its old following and present itself to new generations of moviegoers.
Johnson is a phenomenal director, there’s no doubting that. If you’ll allow me to pour some more praise on him, I’d just like to present the last episode of Breaking Bad he directed, "Ozymandias" (the episode that series creator Vince Gilligan cites as the best episode of the entire series), as more evidence that he can step into a set story with its own complicated mythology and still hit one out of the park—even if you somehow think TV directing is small potatoes.
When this line of backlash cropped up I couldn’t help but feel it was grossly off the mark since it boiled down to the age-old gripe of people calling other people a sell-out. Yes, in effect he will no longer make new and unique films for the foreseeable future since involvement with these franchises, after all, sometimes take up whole decades of a director’s life—ask Sam Raimi what last decade was like and I’m sure he’ll just repeat, “Spider-Man this, Spider-Man that,” over and over again—but it misses the point. Many of the detractors don’t care about Star Wars, and if I were in their shoes I could definitely see where they are coming from with all the whining, but to Star Wars fan this is a big deal. It’s bigger than an up-and-coming auteur decided to jump on board a huge brand.
To us, it’s akin to someone taking the wheel of a ship in the middle of a massive storm and giving everyone the confidence that they can steer it all the way home.The main squabble with the Star Wars news was that cinephiles had somehow lost a budding auteur/director who has potential, as if the Star Wars behemoth would gobble him up forever, never to be heard from again. To them, Johnson signing on to Star Wars meant that he was effectively cutting short the string of unique and original films that built his filmography. If we turn on the speculation here, we could say that he could have built up steam following Looper to write and direct another sci-fi story that could have been a modern classic, a new Blade Runner or Alien, something that we could have looked back on 30 years in the future and referenced as a defining genre film of a generation. Instead, to them, he went the easy route and joined up with a surefire financial hit.
I sort of liken Johnson helming Episode VIII to Irvin Kershner directing The Empire Strikes Back. Johnson will be able to take that unique and indivudial talent he gave to his other films and inject it back into Star Wars, hopefully in the same way that Kershner did with his entry. We all know how that turned out. Being able to function within an already defined universe like Star Wars doesn’t just make a person’s talent disappear (one could make the case agains Hayden Christiansen in this regard, but we’ll leave it at that), and it definitely won’t disappear in Johnson.Before I get ahead of myself, I should mention that Episode VII isn’t even out yet, and we’ll leave the JJ Abrams judgment for another day, but he is an unabashed fan and looks to be bringing the Star Wars universe back to something more than just terrible actors standing in front of green screens. But it’s telling because this backlash never came with Abrams’ hiring. He’d already taken a fledgling franchise and resurrected it with Star Trek, so he basically got a pass with most people. On the other hand with Johnson, he wasn’t so much untested as he’s never had this much responsibility before. The detractors said it’s too bad he’s gone, but I say I’m glad he’s here.
Most of these up-and-comers grew up on Star Wars, and having the opportunity to have their hand at adding onto that mythology is nothing short of a dream. Just look at Godzilla director Gareth Edwards (who will be doing his own official Star Wars standalone movie). He’s said multiple times that Star Wars is the reason he got into directing in the first place, and now he’s going to be participating in what got him there in the first place. For these guys (sadly, there aren’t any girls…yet, though one can hope) Star Wars is a galvanizing force, and Johnson’s directorial and writing abilities will potentially be the most valuable asset to this new trilogy.
The bottom line is that we should all just calm down, though I know when all is said and done with Star Wars nothing is calm. Johnson is gone to the people who think only in terms of a limited viewpoint, but a guy as talented at he is can’t simply wallow for that long. The incredible stepping-stones of those previous accomplishments like Looper and The Brothers Bloom have to lead somewhere. In this case, that visionary mindset is now involved in Star Wars and I couldn’t be happier.