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The Empire Strikes Brick: Rian Johnson to write, direct Star Wars: Episode VIII

Rian Johnson is set to write and direct Star Wars: Episode VIII, and deliver a story treatment for Episode IX, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He was originally reported to be “in talks” to write and direct both (via Deadline), and a not-so-cryptic tweet from Johnson himself seems to confirm that there’s some merit to these reports. There’s been no formal announcement yet from Lucasfilm parent Disney, but this one’s looking pretty concrete.

Rian Johnson

Rian Johnson

Johnson’s tweet, which posted right around the time the news broke, features a clip from The Right Stuff, the award-winning 1983 film that chronicles the story of the Mercury Seven astronauts. In the clip, Scott Glenn — playing astronaut Alan Shepard — mutters the words “Dear lord, please don’t let me f**k up.” An appropriate sentiment coming from a man who likely now holds the keys to one of the biggest entertainment franchises on the planet.

As a filmmaker, Johnson is perhaps best known for his time traveling sci-fi story Looper, which starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. He had a flashy debut as well, nabbing a Special Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival for his work on the stylish modern-day high school noir, Brick. He also wrote and directed the offbeat 2008 action-comedy, The Brothers Bloom, and later lent his talents as a director to one episode of TV’s Terriers and three episodes of Breaking Bad.

The hiring represents a significant step away from the marquee headline-grabbing writer/director J.J. Abrams, who is in production on Star Wars: Episode VII right now. Abrams isn’t just a geek hero, he’s also got a massive resume that includes two Star Trek movies, the TV series Lost, and a topflight production company in Bad Robot. Johnson is more of a wildcard; he’s acquitted himself well of the projects he’s taken on so far, with BrickThe Brothers Bloom, and Looper all having received praise from a majority of critics (according to RottenTomatoes), but his unique stylistic tendencies will likely be reined in for Star Wars.

To be clear: no one, not even Abrams, enjoys completely free creative reign over a project like this. Franchise building on this level represents a staggering investment, and Johnson steps in to take over a story that will have already been set in motion by Abrams. He’ll likely have freer hand than Marvel’s executive-level universe-building reportedly allows for (see also: Edgar Wright), but don’t expect Episode VIII to turn into The Empire Strikes Brick.

Brick 1

Some views of Brick (via Film-Grab)

Johnson made a splash with his 2005 Sundance debut. Brick miraculously toes the line between noir sensibilities and high school drama, without ever succumbing to outright parody. It’s a funny film, but not a patter-driven comedy in the way that the similarly noir-ish Assassination of a High School President is. 

There’s a disorienting bleakness in the scenarios that Johnson sets up. His story is inescapably grim, yet you can’t help but chuckle inwardly at the knowledge that these dire circumstances are unfolding within the social strata of a suburban high school. It’s also just a gorgeous film to look at, embracing the high-contrast sensibilities of film noir while applying a dazzlingly bright color palette.

That unique sense of style, coupled with Johnson’s knack for weaving complex, character-driven stories — Looper is yet another fine example — should leave fans genuinely excited to see what he does in a galaxy far, far away. This isn’t a situation where a single filmmaker is “right” for the gig. There are scores of young writers and directors, all raised watching George Lucas’ original trilogy, and any number of them could bring some fresh energy to the franchise. But Johnson is a fantastic choice.

We’ll leave you with a few words from the man himself on Star Wars. Johnson was asked in early 2013 — shortly after Disney’s Lucasfilm acquisition — what he would think of tackling a Star Wars movie, in an interview with Digital Spy. For context, these comments were made a few months after Looper hit theaters.

Oh, sweet irony. If Johnson only knew then what he knows now.

I don’t think I’m on those sorts of lists. On the one hand, it’s Star Wars, it would be very hard to say no to.

On the other hand, for me, I’m really enjoying just writing my own stuff, and right now that’s what I’m doing, I’m writing another original screenplay now, and we’ll figure out how to get it made.

That’s sort of what I’m in it for, is telling my own stories, and seeing if we can strike out on some new ground. So, luckily I don’t think it’s a problem that I’ll have to deal with!

[Image courtesy of s_bukley / Shutterstock.com]

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