J.J. Abrams is directing Star Wars: Episode VII. This is, essentially, the only piece of Star Wars: Episode VII news that is absolutely completely officially confirmed. Everything else — who certain actors are playing, what the movie is titled, why certain screenwriters were hired or fired, precisely what part of Harrison Ford’s body was injured on the set — is open for debate. But the fact that Abrams is directing Episode VII naturally led most people to assume that the reboot kingpin would be sticking around for Episodes VIII and IX, since we live in a world where Marc Webb and Sam Raimi both make three Amazing Spider-Men and Michael Bay makes four Transformerses, and hell even Richard Linklater seems destined to make many more movies about Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy wandering around Europe.
But now comes word that Abrams won’t be making Episode VIII. Instead, filmmaker Rian Johnson will be promoted into blockbusterdom: EW’s Anthony Breznican writes that Johnson will write and direct the Star Wars octoquel, while also working on a treatment for the conclusion of the trilogy. This is big news, and it leads to a basic question: Is there anything bad about this? Below, some snap judgment thoughts:
1. It’s tempting to compare Johnson’s hiring to the recent Hollywood tendency to hand major blockbuster franchises to indie directors: Think Colin Trevorrow doing the next Jurassic Park or Gareth Edwards going from the microbudgeted Monsters to the megabudgeted Godzilla. But Johnson’s a fascinatingly unique case, a genre stylist who is also an uncanny world-builder. Brick conjured up a whole noir universe set entirely within the constrictions of high school; Looper did the same in a brokedown future. Johnson’s work is stylish, but also a bit scuzzy: He helmed three of the finest episodes of Breaking Bad, including the Peckinpah-flavored “Ozymandias.” He feels like a guy you hire to direct a knife fight, not a lightsaber fight.
2. This is a good thing. Whatever you think about Abrams as a director — I hated his Mission Impossible, loved his first Star Trek, was disappointed by Super 8, and thought Star Trek Into Darkness was swell until the plot kicked in — he’s very much a director of the hyperkinetic modern age. He shoots everything like it’s a parkour rooftop chase. Hiring Johnson promises something different. And that’s not nothing: Sequels nowadays tend to feel very samey. Empire Strikes Back wasn’t Star Wars; now we know that Episode VIII isn’t Episode VII.
3. Josh Trank is making a Star Wars. Gareth Edwards is making a Star Wars. Rian Johnson is making a Star Wars movie. A couple of years ago, those were three young directors on everyone’s Hottest Young Directors list. Is it weird that an entire microgeneration of smart young directors will work on the same franchise? Is it weird that an entire microgeneration of smart young directors wants to work on the same franchise?
4. Part of what makes this announcement exciting is that it makes Episode VII feel more important. The biggest worry was that Abrams was plotting a kind of pilot-episode feature film: A movie that would throw a lot of balls into the air, that wouldn’t really pay off until the later movies. (This is, more or less, the Marvel brand of moviemaking.) But now there’s a leave-it-all-on-the-playing-field frisson to Abrams’ Star Wars movie.
5. Like, completely baseless theory: I bet that Abrams’ Star Wars will be the only new Star Wars to feature Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher. Episode VII won’t just be the launch of a new saga: It will attempt to be the conclusion to the old saga that Return of the Jedi could have been, with one major-cast fatality. (Han, right? Gotta be Han.)
6. Current reports have Johnson as the sole writer of Episode VIII. If that is true, and if that holds true for the next few years of internet rumors — and it might not; just ask Michael Arndt — then Johnson will be the first person credited as the director and sole writer on a Star Wars movie whose name is not George Lucas.
7. There’s an easy reason why directors of small movies agree to make gigantic franchise movies: The chance to be seen by a larger audience, the chance to work on a bigger canvas, money. Sometimes, great directors energetically overdeliver: Think of Brad Bird making the fourth Mission: Impossible movie into the best Mission: Impossible movie, or Christopher Nolan turning the seventh or eighth Batman movie into a 9/11 horror comedy. Sometimes, you can feel the directors working within the machinery: Think of Marc Webb, doing his best to find a beating heart inside of Amazing Spider-Man 2. The exciting promise of Rian Johnson both writing and directing such a big franchise picture is that — at this magic moment — Star Wars may not have as much machinery as we think. The optimistic hope is that the rebooted Star Wars becomes a kind of multi-demographic Alien franchise, a series that lets every director put their own distinctive spin on the material.
8. Another completely baseless theory: Since Johnson’s three films have all been twisty tales of criminality, Episode VIII will prominently feature at least one Hutt character. It will also feature Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but Gordon-Levitt will be playing a character who either wears a mask (like Boba Fett) or is covered in makeup (like Admiral Ackbar.) In fact, let’s just assume for argument’s sake that Gordon-Levitt will be playing Admiral Ackbar’s son.
9. It could be that Abrams is just stepping away from Episode VIII before returning for Episode IX. It could be that Episode VII will be overstuffed with characters and Episode IX will be overstuffed with the attempt to wrap up one trilogy’s plots while setting things in motion for Episode X. It could be that Johnson gets to make Episode VIII because it’s the fun one — the one that doesn’t have to set up or pay off anything. It could be that Johnson won’t wind up making Episode VIII at all. (See also: Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man, another exciting Disney property which now looks like a less exciting Disney property.)
10. At least he knows what he’s getting into: