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Star Wars Saturday: Stars Align with Rian Johnson, Celebration Ensues

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Rian Johnson will be writing and directing Star Wars Episode VIII–SQUEEEEE!!!!!

In my youth, the movies I adored were often epic-scale adventures with a touch of intelligence and a dollop of romance. So big favorites then included The Goonies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Princess Bride, and, of course, Star Wars. Now, in my 30’s, my tastes in movies tend toward the smaller-scale, more personal stories. Rather than the sweeping stories of good versus bad in science fiction, I tend to prefer the more nuanced depictions of moral gray areas. I like Indie films. I like noir. I like postmodern, meta-fictional deconstruction of genre. Some current favorites: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Big Lebowski, Cabin in the Woods, and Brick.

George Lucas’s use of Joseph Campbell’s theory of The Hero With Many Faces made Star Wars more than just a dopey sci-fi story. It made it mythic in the most universal of ways. Unfortunately, I think the prequels failed to deliver that same universality even though they followed some of the same pathways. Instead they seemed to shallowly rehash elements of the first trilogy. They seemed like empty, soulless clones. In my wildest of dreams, the new Star Wars films will take back the tarnished reputation and elevate the franchise to greatness again. It will be as fantastic and influential for my son as the original trilogy was for me. J.J. Abrams did a great job rebooting Star Trek, but Into Darkness was a misstep of character development and a disappointment. I suspect he will likewise be a great first reboot director for Star Wars, but I’m overjoyed the next film will be in the hands of Rian Johnson for these reasons:

  • Brick was Rian Johnson’s first feature film, which he wrote, directed, and edited on his Mac. It was fast and cheap movie-making, but it is a delight to behold. Based off of Dashell Hammet detective fiction, it sets Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s character, Brendan, on a search to find his missing ex-girlfriend that leads him into the corrupt, dope-dealing underworld of high school. It is a neo-noir, where high schoolers fill the character tropes of 1940’s noir films and use the stilted language:

Brendan Frye: Your muscle seemed plenty cool putting his fist in my head. I want him out.
The Pin: Looky, soldier…
Brendan Frye: The ape blows or I clam.

And one would think this would be weird in a high school setting, that the whole thing would be off, or cheesy, or disingenuous. But instead, because of the finesse Rian Johnson gives it (and great performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lucas Haas), it works. It works so well it actually brings new insights into high school and teenage angst.

It proves Johnson can work, rework, and own genre. He can take what’s great about Star Wars, maintain its soul, and give us something new but familiar. He’s even done this within sci-fi–see his third feature film, Looper.

  • He uses genre to explore character. What makes The Empire Strikes Back the best of the franchise is its development of character. Each of the main players is challenged, undermined, and grows. Empire set a kind of precedent for this in blockbuster franchises. Consider the dark turns even lighter sci-fi films take in their sequels–Iron Man 2 is a great example. Into Darkness even calls attention to the movement in the title and fails to pull it off without undoing the good of the first film. Again, with Brick as exemplar, Johnson knows how to balance the light and dark, to challenge and deepen characters without breaking the fun. Brick, despite all of its darkness, is having tremendous fun with the genre tropes.  The Brothers Bloom is lighter all around, but still maintains a gravitas to the character relationships.
  • Johnson writes great dialogue AND he does great visual storytelling. He’s not a director of epic spectacle; he is a director of intimate character drama through the tropes of genre. That’s what I want out of new Star Wars. We’ve had plenty of mindless spectacle with the prequels and Clone Wars. Let’s get some actual character-driven substance up in here!

If you’re not familiar with his work, check out this succinct intro to Johnson’s films and work on “Terriers” and “Breaking Bad”. Then jump in somewhere. You can thank me later.

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Author: Erin Perry

I'm a high school English teacher specializing in AP Literature and Film Analysis. I'm interested in most things geeky, including superheroes, vampires, zombies, teen culture, postmodern philosophy, pop culture analysis, and combinations of the aforementioned. Follow me on Twitter @eriuperry.

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