From Brick to Looper, Johnson knows what he's doing.
image: Johnson at the Star Wars: The Last Jedi premiere in Los Angeles
Disney has handed The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson the keys to its biggest cinematic franchise, giving him the opportunity to develop a new, original movie trilogy set within cinema's most famous galaxy far, far away. This is significant not only because of what a great opportunity it is for Johnson, but because of the infamously troubled time Disney has had with Star Wars directors.
Josh Trank, Colin Trevorrow, and the directing duo of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord have all been let go, while Rogue One director Gareth Edwards was reportedly sidelined in favor of screenwriter Tony Gilroy when the production underwent extensive reshoots. Will things turn out better for Johnson?
Depending on who you ask, either Star Wars is very lucky to have Rian Johnson, or cinema as a whole is worse off for the director being tied to a big blockbuster franchise for the next however-many years. But Johnson's talents are exactly what Star Wars needs; looking over his short filmography shows that, as a director and writer, he's capable of producing consistently great work across different genres and modes. His work in TV also shows how comfortably he can step into an existing world.
Despite having only directed three films, Rian Johnson is an obvious fit for Star Wars (assuming that The Last Jedi is as good as we want it to be, at least; read our The Last Jedi review). Let's take a look at his career so far to see why.
Many argue that Brick is Johnson's best work. It's a neo-noir detective story about a high school student looking for his troubled ex-girlfriend, with a lot of long shots of bodies in motion. It's a film where Johnson seems to be constantly experimenting, figuring out what he can do with a camera, when to go wide and when to go close. The experiment is a huge success--it's gorgeous to look at. It's also the film that essentially kickstarted the next stage of star Joseph Gordon Levitt's career, and he would go on to re-team with Johnson for Looper seven years later.
Brick was made for under $500,000. Johnson has never worked with a budget even close to his Last Jedi budget, and some might worry that sending the director into the stars will make him less grounded. But in Brick, Johnson tapped into the humanity underpinning even his most ridiculous characters, and the emotions that drove them, a fundamental skill that's as important in a blockbuster as it is in a small indie. Brick also has some excellent chase and fight sequences--again, Johnson mines a lot of material simply out of watching people move, in the way a character might run or walk differently from others.
Above all else, Brick is just a great film--the sort that marks a director as one to watch.
The Brothers Bloom (2008)
Of the three films Johnson has directed, The Brothers Bloom--about a pair of con artist brothers played by Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo--is by far the least interesting. The plot is shaggy, the soundtrack is overbearing, and it's a little crowded with gimmicky narration and "cute" plot elements. But still, for all its faults, it's hard to dislike The Brothers Bloom when it keeps throwing amazing shots at you. Directors can't hit every time, but The Brothers Bloom is still a competent, interesting piece of filmmaking, even if it's not an absolute classic like Johnson's other two films are.
Terriers (1 episode, 2010) and Breaking Bad (3 episodes, 2010-2013)
Johnson's work on cult classic one-season wonder Terriers doesn't necessarily stand out above the other episodes on the show, but then there's no single episode of that show you could point to that encapsulated the show better than the others--it's a 13-episode run that never dropped the ball. Johnson's episode was the fifth, and it works very well for an episode that needs to stretch out the ongoing plots.
Breaking Bad, on the other hand, is a phenomenal showcase for what Johnson can do. His three episodes--Fly (season 3), Fifty-One, and Ozymandias (both season 5) are all distinctive, with Ozymandias often looked upon as the single best episode of the show. Each episode is memorable, and fits into a specific trope--Fly is a bottle episode, Fifty-One is a milestone (it is, amusingly, the fiftieth episode, also denoting a year since the story began), and Ozymandias is the show's great denouncement, the big finale where everything hits the fan before, essentially, a two-episode epilogue.
Although Johnson was not a writer on Breaking Bad, he expertly adapted to the different styles and tones of the three episodes. While Fly is a tightly wound coil of an episode that threatens to snap at any moment, Ozymandias is a harrowing, escalating series of horrors, and Johnson handled both with equal comfort and aplomb.
Looper, a huge critical and commercial success, is the film that most likely landed Johnson Star Wars. The premise--an assassin (Joseph Gordon Levitt) teams up with his time-travelling future self (Bruce Willis) to deal with a child who will grow up to be a powerful crime lord--is pure pulp. But in Johnson's hands, it becomes something truly special, a movie with so many cool ideas, characters, and scenes that it's hard to talk about without getting giddy.
Looper reveals Johnson to be a master of exposition. It's a movie heavy on plot details and concepts, and Johnson's script not only explains everything, but actively encourages viewers not to worry too much about the gaps. The existence of telekinesis in the world of Looper is explained and swept away at the film's opening with such care that by the time it re-emerges as a serious plot point it feels natural. Bruce Willis's insistence that they not worry too much about the particulars of time travel ("I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws") is genius. Looper's ability to acclimate the viewer is something that is often missing from blockbusters.
One of the major problem with the Star Wars prequels, for instance, was that character motivation often didn't make sense--it wasn't clear what characters wanted, or why. The terminology and political makeup of the prequels was also muddled in a way it wasn't in the originals. The first Star Wars introduced viewers to a lot of concepts (the Death Star, the Force, the rebellion, Jedi), but did so elegantly enough that the viewer wasn't left confused.
To create new Star Wars films that move beyond what we've seen before, the franchise needs a person who--like Johnson--is good at communicating complex ideas plainly, and convincing audiences to go along for the ride, certain that they'll pick up ideas along the way.
Without a confident, thoughtful pair of hands behind the wheel, even a series as big as Star Wars can falter (see: the prequels). It's true that, in the short term, we'll lose something by not having Rian Johnson out there building his own unique passion projects, just as we perhaps lost something when a young George Lucas never followed up on American Graffiti. But if Johnson's career output is any indication, we'll gain something even more valuable by giving him the franchise: a new generation of filmmakers who will have grown up watching and loving Johnson's clever, exciting filmmaking, and who will find out where he came from and realise that anything is possible--which is the exact message Star Wars has always excelled at delivering.