Late on Friday, I received wonderful news from a galaxy far, far away: director Rian Johnson has been tapped for Star Wars Episode VIII, and possibly also IX. The reaction to this has seemed pretty mixed, with fans of Brick duking it out with people who think Looper’s time travel made no sense, so I wanted to chime in with a few reasons why I think THIS IS THE GREATEST THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED.
The second film has to have depth.
Even if J.J. Abrams goes big with Episode VII and gives us all of the lens flares, jaw ripples, and explosions he can stuff into frame, he’ll probably still be fairly surface level when it comes to human conflict. Which is fine! We can have a big action-packed space opera to restart the franchise, and hook the kids all over again. But. Rian Johnson is more than capable of digging deeper in his stories, and marrying real heart to stylistic flourishes and quirks, which is exactly what we’ll want for the second film, if the new trilogy is going to have any depth. On paper, Brick doesn’t work—it’s high school noir detective story that feels like it should be a goofy Buffy riff, without any of Veronica Mars’ real-world grounding to keep it from choking on its own pretensions. But it not only works, it perfectly captures the intense emotional world of high school—the turf wars, the nonchalant drug use, the sex that’s actually about power. The ending is still one of the greatest cinematic gut punches I’ve ever experienced. The Brothers Bloom is a con man fairy tale from another era, that actually has real consequences by the end. Yes it probably twists around a few too many times, but I challenge you to watch this scene and not fall in love with Penelope. And again, extraordinary ending. As for Looper, say what you want about the time travel, but Joe’s growth is real, and the way Johnson sneaks a truly moving supervillain origin story into a time travel movie is pretty ingenious.
He’s F-ing great at endings.
Even Looper. While I’ve seen him accused of Shyamalan-style tricks, I have yet to see one of his films that didn’t have a moving ending that made emotional sense. Does Looper’s totally work as a time travel plot? Probably not. Does it work for the established character arc? I say yes.
He doesn’t care about making the science work.
Looper wasn’t about the science. From the minute I knew the plot synopsis, I knew how it was going to end. I’m guessing a lot of people did. The point was getting there, both reveling in the style of the thing, and watching Joe change from the person he thought he was bound to become into the person he actually is by the end. Star Wars isn’t exactly about the science, either—it’s a fun space opera. Johnson will be more concerned about the “fun” part than the shoehorned-pseudo-scientific-babble part, and will actually be able to construct an emotional arc that counts as recognizably human. We might even escape without anyone uttering the words midi-chlorians.
He commits to his world.
There is no winking in Rian Johnson’s movies. There is plenty of humor, there is plenty of out-sized style, there is plenty of lingo that skirts dangerously close to the land of twee, but there is no distance, no irony, no cynicism. Exactly the qualities that made Star Wars such a hit in 1977. In the current world of ever-louder, ever-larger epics, how great would it be for a new Star Wars story to come in wearing its heart on its sleeve?
He credits Star Wars for making him a filmmaker.
Or, more exactly not Star Wars itself, but a book about Star Wars. Check out #74 in Wired’s list of “74 Things Every Great Star Wars Movie Needs”
Allow me to repeat: a book about Star Wars. The nerd.
His weaknesses will work for the story.
As should be apparent by now, I love Johnson’s films, but even I’ll admit that they can become top heavy with forced melancholia. But the Star Wars universe will work with the type of melodramatic emotion that seems over-the-top in other films. Forbidden love, secret fathers, long-lost twins, mystical powers, cynics who reform by the end, wise old masters who can’t cook—the SWU is patched together from tropes and archetypes that have been around since we first started telling each other stories. Johnson’s commitment to filling his characters’ hearts with blood won’t seem corny or old-fashioned here.
I’ll confine this to talking about The Brothers Bloom, which contained elements of The Sting, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Paper Moon, Dostoyevsky, Melville’s The Confidence Man, Joyce’s Ulysses, The Odyssey, ‘30s screwball comedy as a genre, and I’m pretty sure the celluloid was woven from locks of Wes Anderson’s hair. Staying within one established universe will be good for him. It should rein in his riffing, but we can also trust him to exhaustively research the canon. I’m guessing there will be plenty of references for fans to squee about in his installments, but I also think he’ll be careful to serve the story.
I present to you, examples of dialogue from Episodes I, II, and III:
“His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I have seen in a life-form. It was possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorians.”
“I’m haunted by the kiss that you should never have given me. My heart is beating… hoping that kiss will not become a scar.”
“Anakin, you’re breaking my heart! You’re going down a path I cannot follow!”
Please note that I’ve left Jar-Jar, the Younglings, Commander Cody, and all references to the relative roughness of sand out of this. Now, for the sake of comparison, dialogue from the three films scripted by Johnson:
“Maybe I’ll just sit here and bleed at you.”
“It can be—it can be hard to keep track of those things because lunch… lunch is a lot of things, lunch is difficult.”
“I think you’re constipated, in your fucking soul… I think you might have a really big load of grumpy petrified poop up your soul’s ass.”
“I’m going to France.”
“You should go to China.”
“I’m going to France.”
“I’m from the future. You should go to China.”
“I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.”
Our probability of seeing Rinko Kikuchi in Star Wars just went up.
OK, I might have a slight crush on Rinko Kikuchi. By slight crush, I mean that I’m utterly besotted, and whenever she comes up in conversation I reiterate my vow to marry her, and then I waste valuable time plotting ways to woo her. But apart from my undying love, I also think she’s an extraordinary actress, a silent movie style actress, conveying more emotion and humor simply by widening her eyes than many people manage to do with all of their various faculties. She was the best part of Babel. She only says two things as Bang Bang in The Brothers Bloom, but they’re the two best moments in the movie. She makes the cheesy-but-wonderful Pacific Rim dialogue just wonderful. A few weeks ago we made her one of the picks for a new Indiana Jones film, but I think she needs to be our new Han Solo.
As did our possibility of Joseph Gordon Levitt.
I want to live in the universe where the kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun ends up in Star Wars. That’s a good universe. Things might turn out OK there.
So…that’s what I’ve got. I say all of the above with all due love for JJA, and all my childhood reverence for George Lucas, but I think Rian Johnson might save Star Wars from the path it’s on—the path of needlessly bloated, empty-headed action franchises—and return it to the thrilling adventure tale with a heart that made us all love Luke, Leia, and Han in the first place.