If you were seeking a director to take the reins of the "Star Wars" franchise, you might not think Rian Johnson would be quite the droid you were looking for. Just ask Johnson himself. "I don't think I'm on those sorts of lists," he told an interviewer in early 2013 amid speculation over who would spearhead the newly relaunched series. "I don’t think it’s a problem that I’ll have to deal with."
Well, so much for that.
On Friday Johnson was announced as the writer and director for "Star Wars: Episode VIII," the sequel to J.J. Abrams' upcoming installment. It's impossible, of course, to know exactly what Johnson has in mind for "Star Wars" — many Bothan spies would need to die to get that information. Unlike "Episode VII" director Abrams, though, whose successful "Star Trek" reboot almost looks in retrospect like an elaborate audition for the "Star Wars" gig, Johnson's own eclectic body of work doesn't on the face of it provide a clear indication of where he might steer the universe George Lucas created.
If there's been any consistent through-line to Johnson's work to date, it's been the lack of a consistent through-line. Johnson has a predilection for jumping between genres -- and then subverting them. His breakthrough movie, 2005's "Brick," was a whip-smart fusion of a high school movie and a hard-boiled noir, and 2008's "The Brother's Bloom" was a family dramedy in the guise of a con-man movie. 2012's "Looper" was a formally daring combination of hit-man drama and time-travel head trip.
Given this pedigree, we can expect Johnson to try to push the second film of the trilogy in unexpected directions. Asked in the past to run down some of his favorite films, Johnson name-checked Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" — a gonzo dystopian sci-fi film that's hardly a popcorn flick. "My favorite sci-fi always uses its hook to amplify some bigger theme or idea — some emotional thrust," he once said.
That said, as the steward of the "Star Wars" universe, Johnson will have to play by a fairly orthodox set of rules. And, of course, he will need to deliver slam-bang action and eye-popping spectacle on a level he's never demonstrated before. While he may have a personal penchant for cerebral cinematic jigsaw puzzles like the one he created with "Looper," this is a "Star Wars" film we're talking about — and, to quote Pauline Kael, a "Star Wars" movie, as much as anything, is like "a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes."
While Johnson's specific vision for "Star Wars" may not be clear right now, there are other things we can safely discern from the news. First, it obviously puts to rest the widely held assumption that Abrams or any other single figure would oversee the entire trilogy. In tapping Johnson — along with Josh Trank ("Chronicle") and Gareth Edwards ("Godzilla"), who have been brought on to direct a pair of spinoff films — Disney and Lucasfilm appear to be following a model more commonly seen in TV, where bringing in different directors to helm different episodes is standard practice. Presumably there will be a degree of consistency to the trilogy — after all, there are a whole lot of toys to be sold here — but the idea of each film bearing a slightly different creative fingerprint, as in the "Harry Potter" series, is an intriguing one.
Beyond that, it's now apparent that, far from having a grand overarching plan, Disney and Lucasfilm are largely mapping out the future of the "Star Wars" franchise as they go along. Where George Lucas once claimed he had 12 "Star Wars" movies sketched out in his head, the handoff from Abrams to Johnson to presumably a third director to be named later (we'll refrain from any wild speculation for now) gives the impression of a multibillion-dollar franchise being created on the run. That may seem somewhat risky, but there's something undeniably exciting about it — and, in a Han Solo, shoot-from-the-hip kind of way, something fitting about it as well.
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