By now, we’ve all seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with that “all” scarcely being hyperbole. And so, we all know that the plot of The Force Awakens is ... exactly the same plot as in A New Hope. It hits the same beats, it has the same characters, and it traces the same narrative to the same conclusion. It feels recycled, in a significant way.
We can argue about the effectiveness of this decision all we want, because make no mistake — recycling A New Hope's plot was a deliberate decision. For me, it didn’t work: I had come to see a new movie, not a remake, and yet, after the terrific first 40 minutes, here I was, watching another run on the Death Star, like a billion VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray discs weren’t just sitting around as proof of the inevitability of its destruction.
Most people liked it, though. That’s fine. The movie sold $528 million in tickets in three days, which means you’re right, and I’m wrong. But that got me thinking: There’s something Disney did with the new Star Wars trilogy that’s wonderfully unique in the world of modern blockbuster filmmaking, and it hints at a possible future for the franchise that would delight even me, a Star Wars agnostic and Force Awakens denier. What Disney did is opt for potential.
J.J. Abrams, who is also the overseer of this trilogy, is very good at what he does, as is Colin Trevorrow, the director of Episode IX. But these two men also have a specific skill set: They shepherd group visions to the screen. Both have shown a tremendous knack for taking the reins of a franchise with incredible expectations behind it and channeling those expectations and the needs of many into a watchable if not mind-blowing product.
This is the same obligation faced by directors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: These movies are too expensive, too important, and too enmeshed in larger schemes to put in the hands of truly original and iconoclastic directors. Within the MCU, Kevin Feige keeps the disparate parts looking more or less the same so that when they come together in the Avengers movies, it’s a seamless transition. In a way, this is true of the Fast and Furious as well: Justin Lin and James Wan are talented visual directors, but they also know how to work within a larger architecture seamlessly.
Franchise filmmaking is a delicate high-wire act designed to make the most money possible, not to generate the best individual movie, and to that end it helps if the chosen directors can defer to the producers and powers that be. Nothing in Joe and Anthony Russo’s previous credits seemed to indicate that they should be directing Captain America movies. But that also meant there was no precedent for how they would approach them. The same is not true of Michael Mann, or Quentin Tarantino, or Steven Spielberg. It’s also not true of Christopher Nolan, and DC is still dealing with the ramifications of his Batman movies, which, virtuosic as they at times were, have proven incredibly hard to emulate. DC could be doomed to make karaoke versions of The Dark Knight until Superman and Batman have no more cities left to destroy. Imagine Sam Raimi getting Spider-Man in 2015. I doubt it.
But then, placed in charge of writing and directing Episode VIII and writing Episode IX, you have Rian Johnson — one of our best young American filmmakers, a writer-director who made Brick and Looper, two of the most innovative and unique genre subversions of the last decade. Here is a guy who makes weird, creative movies that play with and reinvent tropes rather than submit to them. He has yet to direct a movie he hasn’t also written, and Episode VIII will be the first in which he works with a preexisting concept. It was a shock when Disney tapped him.
But hiring Johnson suggests a straying from the blockbuster playbook followed by Marvel, DC, and so on. Working together, Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan turned Michael Arndt’s first draft of The Force Awakens into a successful reboot of the series. But that movie was a throat-clearing: Its larger purpose was to assure audiences that no one was going to make Star Wars about kids playing dress-up again. Abrams did establish the ground rules of the new Star Wars universe with Force Awakens—through Kylo Ren and Snoke, the First Order, Luke's reemergence, and Han’s death—to ensure at least some narrative precedent. But Johnson has a tremendous amount of room to work within the larger Star Wars sequel trilogy.
Even if we take the most pessimistic view of Johnson’s role, which would be that he’s a details-man brought in to breathe life into Abrams’ and Kathleen Kennedy’s expanded-universe vision of forever-blossoming new properties, giving him the scripts for both VIII and IX is a tremendous vote of confidence in his talent for those details. But statements made by Kasdan at the beginning of December suggest a more nuanced reality. He told the Los Angeles Times, “These movies are going to be so different. Rian Johnson is a friend of mine—he’s going to make some weird thing. If you’ve seen Rian's work, you know it’s not going be like anything that’s ever been in Star Wars.” Then an even more resounding vote of confidence came from Abrams himself earlier this week, who, according to Force Awakens actor Greg Grunberg, said that Johnson’s script for Episode VIII is so good that Abrams wishes he were the one directing it.
Of course, even without writing or directing the movie Abrams’ fingerprints will still be on it, and prudently so: It would be insane to disempower a guy who just made the highest-grossing opener of all time. He assuredly has more than a faint idea in mind of what he wants for the next two installments and has conveyed them accordingly. But by hiring Johnson, a splendidly original thinker, and handing him a considerable degree of power, Disney, Lucasfilm, and even Abrams have shown a rare awareness of their limitations. They’re welcoming the kind of filmmaker who doesn’t take the obvious or easy route, and that decision demonstrates a genuine understanding of what made Star Wars special in the first place: It showed audiences something they had never seen before. There are few directors I can think of who would be qualified to do that again. Johnson is one of them. Now let’s see how far Disney lets out that leash.