Rian Johnson Represents the Future of “Star Wars,” and a Brand New Model for Hollywood Franchises

Rian JohnsonNew York Magazine/Vulture

If you’re at all a regular reader of this space, you’re well aware of my extreme distaste for The Force Awakens, my indifference to Rogue One, and my general pessimism about Lucasfilm’s corporate mandate and the overall direction of its Star Wars universe. Thus, when the news dropped the other day that Lucasfilm is going to embark on a brand new trilogy after this one is over, that it’s set in an entirely different galaxy with a brand new cast of characters, and that Rian Johnson, director of the upcoming The Last Jedi, is going to conceive the overall story as well as write and direct the first film, you probably thought, “Well, Turitz is just going to rip this apart on Monday. He’s going to go off on one of his epic rants and it’s going to be hilarious. You just watch. it’s gonna be great.”

Except, actually, I’m not, because I think it’s a winning idea. Yes, winning, and I’ll tell you why. For starters, it shows more than a little faith in the strength of The Last Jedi, which hits theaters in just a month’s time. Yes, yes, we’ve all heard this kind of balderdash before, of a studio thinking that it has something special on its hands and rewarding the filmmakers involved, only for it to backfire. For goodness sakes, we’re now stuck with J.J. Abrams again for 2019’s Episode IX, the news of which I found terribly dispiriting, for what should be perfectly obvious reasons by now.

Bringing back Johnson, though, somehow feels different. Kathleen Kennedy is giving him the keys to the Star Wars kingdom, so to speak, and you don’t do something like that unless you know, in a deep and fundamental way, that you have something special on your hands. This isn’t just a situation where Kennedy and her team have surveyed the box office landscape and foresee The Last Jedi performing closer to The Force Awakens than Rogue One. This is obviously a situation wherein they know that they found the right guy for the job, and he delivered above and beyond their wildest expectations.

For this reason, and for the first time since before The Force Awakens was released, I find myself cautiously optimistic about all things Star Wars-related. That sort of scares me, simply because of how profoundly disappointed I have been by each and every outing in this particular cinematic universe over the last 30-plus years. I have now conditioned myself to not expect much from these people. But this? This forces a sharp intake of breath and then a slow release, whilst shaking my head and saying softly, “Well, jeez, that’s sort of something, isn’t it?”

You know what else is something? The idea that, finally, we’re going to leave the Skywalker clan behind — a notion that has been on my mind for quite some time. Regardless of whether this new story is going to feature any of the hundreds of existing characters or only the brand new ones mentioned in the announcement, what’s important is that it won’t rely on the same old folks we’ve been following for over four decades now. Nothing against Anakin, Luke, Leia, and Kylo, but by the time the last movie plays out a little over two years from now, we will have all spent a combined 18-plus hours watching the exploits of this family, which is more than enough for anyone.

On top of all that, I also really like the idea of giving a single, skilled filmmaker the opportunity to oversee an original story of this scale. It almost feels like a television-inspired take on things, serializing a single person’s vision over the course of three installments, but on the big screen, it’s downright revolutionary, and it gives me hope that this could become an industry-wide trend. That other studios will do the same thing with their beloved characters or universes, thus ensuring a certain level of quality across the span of a particular story. Say what you will about Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and I certainly have, but it’s hard to imagine that those films would have the same level of power for so many people if, say, the second and third movies in the series had been helmed by other directors. I’d argue that one reason that trilogy works as well as it does is because it was primarily the vision of a single person, just like this new Star Wars trilogy could be, if Johnson decides to stick around and direct the other two films.

And yes, we’ve seen Warner Bros. and New Line give the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Peter Jackson, but those books offered a clear blueprint, just as Marvel comics gave Sam Raimi a blueprint for his Spider-Man trilogy. But when was the last time a major studio handed one filmmaker its best-known IP and said, “here, use this as jumping-off point to take a fresh look at an old universe, and create a whole new thing from relative scratch.”

It’s this kind of fearless deal that allows me to believe that there really are some smart and forward-thinking folks in the executive suites. It sets a strong precedent that others could follow, to the benefit of moviegoers everywhere. Warner Bros., for instance, has hired Matt Reeves to direct a standalone Batman movie that may or may not star Ben Affleck (but probably won’t), and which may or may not be on the big screen before 2020. Reeves apparently has a trilogy in mind, but is only currently on board for that first film. The studio should correct that mistake right away and just get him going on the whole shebang, which, let’s face it, we all know he’s eventually going to make, anyway.

I would even take it one step further and suggest to Barbara Broccoli that she look past this next James Bond movie that’s due in theaters two years hence, and start planning for after Daniel Craig’s sad but inevitable departure. Since we know that Bond 25 will be Craig’s last outing as 007, she can recruit both a new Bond and a director who might be willing to oversee an extended storyline that could encompass multiple films. It’s true there is a through line to the four movies Craig has made thus far, but imagine the possibilities of a new Bond and a single director taking over the series and planning that larger scheme from the outset. I salivate a little just contemplating the notion.

Granted, I could change my mind entirely on all this at about 12:30 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 15, when I walk out of the theater having just seen The Last Jedi. After all, we all know by now what a contrarian pain in the keister I can be, but that doesn’t change my belief in the logic behind this decision. Basically, what it comes down to is pretty simple: even if I don’t end up loving Johnson’s movie, I still very much like and respect the move by Disney to keep him in this universe.

Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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Still quiet here.sas

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