Of the six planned Star Wars movies coming over the next six years, five now have confirmed writers and directors. They are J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Gareth Edwards, Josh Trank, and as Deadline reported yesterday, Rian Johnson, who will write and direct the eighth and ninth installments of the soon to be 40-year-old series.
Abrams will direct the first film, Star Wars Episode VII, scheduled for 2015, and write the screenplay with Kasdan. Edwards and Trank will direct the as yet unnamed Star Wars spin offs scheduled for 2016 and 2018. Johnson will then come on to write and direct 2017’s Episode VIII. In addition, Johnson will prepare a treatment for Episode IX, but no announcement have been made regarding the director or screenwriter.
Although Johnson, the avant garde director responsible for films such as Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper, has the second shortest resume of the group, the Internet erupted in a flurry of activity, joy, and speculation at the news of his involvement.
Brick is a masterpiece of early 21st century cinema. When no studio would make the film, Johnson raised the money himself, created a sparse, experimental soundtrack over the Internet with his cousin Nathan, and recruited some of the finest young actors on the verge of their adult careers. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, and Lucas Haas, the story recreates the best of the Marlowe, Spade, and Gittes-style hardboiled detective genre, while the film presents a vast wasteland of bleak southwestern landscapes as though seen through the eyes of David Lynch and Sergio Leone.
The style lent itself naturally to the series Breaking Bad, where Johnson directed three episodes, one of which, “Ozymandias,” series creator Vince Gilligan says “is the best episode we ever had or ever will have.” Time Magazine rated it the no.1 episode of television in 2013. The Daily Beast’s Andrew Romano called it “easily the most eventful in Breaking Bad history. But it was also one of the most heartbreaking.” The episode begins with the death of a major character by close range gunfire, a common theme in Johnson’s work.
Television is often thought of as a writer’s medium, but Johnson’s episodes of Breaking Bad show the difference a director can make. His ability to collapse and stretch time transcend genre and make compelling stories in the tiniest spaces or across continents and ages. His first directorial effort for Breaking Bad included the bottle episode “Fly” where Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are the only characters to appear and much of the episode takes place in real time. Johnson’s ability to carry the dramatically challenging setup influenced Breaking Bad writer Moira Walley-Beckett to specifically request the director return for the beloved “Ozymandias.”
Johnson’s later film Looper also plays with the rules of space and time. The film presents a time travel paradox in which the future version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (played by Bruce Willis) goes back to the past to kill himself.
Every protagonist in previous Johnson films have been orphans, or their parents were nonexistent, a recurrent theme in Star Wars. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s characters in Brick and Looper both come from essentially parentless households and the brothers in The Brothers Bloom were perennial orphans, bouncing from house to house as their various misdeeds got them kicked out of a never-ending string of foster homes. Not to mention, the brothers spend most of the movie pretending to kill each other as they perpetrate various cons, including one dramatic scene when, in a struggle for control of a gun, Adrian Brody shoots Mark Ruffalo in the heart, and then cradles him in his arms as he slowly bleeds to death (although to be fair, that time it was just for show). Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that, as the middle part of the upcoming trilogy, Johnson’s episode will feature intense family betrayal possibly by way of execution style killing. You know, for kids.
Johnson is also a master of visual effects, crafting action out of everyday settings. The middle act of Brick features a footrace every bit as action packed as the largest set pieces in exponentially more expensive films like Mission Impossible and it takes place in an open air high school hallway.
Also along for the Star Wars projects will be longtime collaborator Ram Bergman, who produced all of Johnson’s previous films. Bergman is responsible for producing a string of classic female driven ‘90s films including Wedding Bells Blues, Long Time Since, and Black and White. More recently, Bergman has also served as producer on Don Jon, Natalie Portman’s upcoming directorial debut A Tale of Love and Darkness based on the Amos Oz book of the same name, and Selfless the 2015 sci-fi thriller starring Ryan Reynolds.
The addition of Johnson raises some concerns about the treatment of women in the Star Wars universe. Despite the recent cast additions of Lupita Nyong’o and Gwendolyn Christie, Johnson is every bit as guilty of silencing female voices as George “one princess per trilogy only” Lucas. The Brothers Bloom features a strong female character in Rinko Kikuchi’s unfortunately named Bang Bang, but she does not speak. As Hyphen Magazine pointed out, unlike her character in Babel, for which Kikuchi received an Academy Award nomination, her performance in The Brothers Bloom featured a role with “functional vocal chords but no functional method of expressive communication—except through explosives.” A choice Johnson says he made channeling a Harpo Marx type character, and not a “mysterious Oriental.” Still, Brick while brilliant, trades on the “dead girl” trope and Anita Sarkeesian’s “Evil Demon Seductress.” Looper’s central story revolves around the psychological consequences incurred by a young boy who sees Bruce Willis murder his mother.
As yet, all the announced Star Wars directors and writers have been male, but with one film left unclaimed in the next trilogy, and possible one more spin off, Disney and Lucasfilm could still buck tradition. Fingers crossed for a Star Wars Episode IX directed by Sarah Polley and written by Jane Campion.
After the news was announced, Johnson tweeted a short clip from the 1983 space classic, The Right Stuff in which Alan Shepard (played by Scott Glenn) prays he won’t “fuck up” the first manned American space flight. That 15 minute suborbital mission was one of Shepard’s only two trips into outer space. The other was to the moon.