Rian Johnson’s New Star Wars Trilogy Is an Opportunity to Get Weird with the Franchise

With Rian Johnson, Disney has a unique opportunity to present a Star Wars film not tied to the conventions of the film saga or its timeline.

Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is filled with the colorful science fiction visuals one expects from Star Wars – the Mos Eisley cantina replaced with the glitz of Canto Bight, Poe Dameron snarking in a starfighter like Han Solo before him, the deep red of Snoke’s throne room. Just before the film’s premiere came the big news that Johnson would be helming a new trilogy. Since that announcement, we’ve also learned that Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are also developing their own series of Star Wars films. While we may not feel too hot about the latter trilogy just yet, Johnson has already shown that he’s not afraid to take risks (despite how fans may feel about them) and that’s exciting.

With Johnson, Disney has a unique opportunity to present a Star Wars film not tied to the conventions of the film saga or its timeline. The director seemingly enjoyed quite a bit more freedom while making his movie than some of his coworkers, which could indicate that the studio will give Johnson even more free rein to construct the story he wants to tell for the new trilogy. And as Marvel Studios has done with its more recent movies, Disney could lean even more on the uncanniness and humor featured in Episode VIII to bring something new to the film franchise.

Take what Marvel Studios has been doing lately as an example. After ten years of telling interconnected stories, Disney has begun to invest in weirder interpretations of its Marvel characters. Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians Vol. 2 use psychedelic colors and classic soundtracks to replicate the comics. Doctor Strange is basically a kaleidoscope of psychedelia straight out of the mind of Steve Ditko and is not afraid to get very weird with its visuals – something most of the earlier Marvel movies largely abstained from. Thor: Ragnarok goes big on humor and feels like a straight comedy, while also giving fans some of the clearest Jack Kirby-inspired visuals yet. 

Then there’s Black Panther, a massive critical and financial success that goes a long way to represent a different group of heroes and villains than we’ve seen in past installments. It’s clear from the movies’ $235 million opening weekend, as well as the success of the other films listed above, that fans embrace blockbusters that break the mold.

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Even The Last Jedi, which has turned out to be a polarizing film among the fandom, has made over $1.3 billion globally and enjoyed much critical praise. Disney has undoubtedly taken note of its recent successes and will continue to experiment. In terms of Star Wars, Disney clearly trusts Johnson’s storytelling, which can be described as anything but conventional (see: Brick and Looper), and is setting him up to unlock unexplored territory in the galaxy far, far away – hopefully some of its weirder aspects, too. 

Besides the current slate of Marvel movies, there’s precedent for “weirder” sci-fi films in general. Movies like Arrival and 10 Cloverfield Lane are heavily-lauded examples of movies that subvert genre tropes (including the fact that they’re both female-led) to present something unique. Then there’s the upcoming sci-fi horror film Annihilation, which tells the story of a group of female scientists studying an environmental disaster. The film is based on one of the definitive novels of a literary genre called New Weird, which presents a slew of subversive stories that blend sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. 

With two trilogies and a few rumored standalone films on the way, there will definitely be a need for a less conventional Star Wars story to ensure the galaxy far, far away doesn’t start to feel stagnant in the years to come. Johnson could benefit from examining what recent Marvel movies and the New Weird get right when crafting the story of his trilogy. 

Ragna-Rock 

Thor: Ragnarok went big and went home. In order to save his home city of Asgard, Thor teamed up with a drunken ex-Valkyrie and a space pirate to stop a world-eating goddess of the dead. It helped that the movie had a wacky cast of memorable characters, but Marvel movies are usually well-received on that front.

The colorful movie has the chrome, universe-spanning aesthetic of a 1970s rock song, which is also the basis for Guardians of the Galaxy’s soundtrack and Star-Lord’s own emotional touchstone. Star Wars lends itself to inventive visuals: vistas like Marvel’s Rainbow Bridge and Hela’s giant wolf wouldn’t be out of place in the saga. Star Wars Rebels has edged into psychedelia with its hyperspace jumps, more colorful than the ones seen in the movies, as well as with vistas like the Lasat homeworld hidden in the wreckage of imploded stars. 

Star Wars uses the dust and rust of a “lived-in” science fiction world as part of its basic visual language, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for more experimentation. One of the oft-GIFed and highly praised scenes in The Last Jediwas the destruction of Snoke’s command ship, slowed down and colorized and washed out into a scene that disrupts the rhythm of the film like a sudden key change in a song. It’s this sort of unique visual that could make Johnson’s new trilogy unique.

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Director Taika Waititi also filled the movie with off-beat, over-the-top performances, including Jeff Goldblum’s hedonistic Grandmaster and the droll, absurdly practical Korg. (Remember, Korg tried to start a revolution once, but didn’t print out enough flyers.) Star Wars movies have always been filled with humor, too: the down-to-earth inventiveness of insults like “scruffy-looking nerf herder” live on in pop culture. More of this can be expected in Solo: A Star Wars Story particularly and this use of humor could help the new trilogy stand apart from the more serious Skywalker saga, especially when it comes to the darker Sequel Trilogy.

Larger-than-life characters are perfect for Star Wars. Let’s see explorers willing to set up elaborate starfighter racing circuits just to push a little further out into the Unknown Regions. How about some extreme Force users who can call down storms or finish other people’s sentences before they’re over. Even lightsabers themselves are so very suited to creative fight scenes as well as wacky hijinks — one can imagine a character like Thor using a lightsaber to topple buildings or, conversely, forgetting that they have one until the most dramatic moment.

The Expanded Universe has incorporated some of this “rock ‘n’ roll” character work: the video game The Force Unleashed featured a main character who could drag starships out of the sky with the Force. The New Jedi Orderwas full of biological weirdness: the living planet Zonama Sekot, living spaceships that psychically meshed with their pilots, and the sadistic Yuuzhan Vong cloaks (not to mention their actual torture devices). 

With Disney hosting both Star Wars and Marvel and Johnson willing to keep the fun in a particularly dark The Last Jedi, leaning into a more over-the-top and funny production for the next trilogy could be a lucrative choice. 

Deep Weird 

New Weird changes genre in a different way. This is a relatively new movement that incorporates elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror to create stories that cross genre boundaries and subvert established tropes. Annihilation is the latest big screen example, but the Bas-Lag books by China Mieville and Lovecraft’s monsters are other often-cited examples.

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Annihilation author Jeff VanderMeer defined New Weird as fiction with “realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy. New Weird has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style, and effects.”

New Weird often incorporates body horror and noir and ends without answering all of the questions posed by the story. Annihilation, for example, features four scientists exploring a mysterious swampy forest that seems to infect people with living vines and turns the sky into a soupy, oil-slick miasma. The trilogy of novels upon which the film is based isn’t hard science fiction, in which technology and phenomena are rigorously explained. Instead, it cultivates an atmosphere of dread and creative fecundity.

New Weird is still something of an underground genre, its parameters unclear and its notables have yet to enter into the rarified air of mainstream cinema. As well as having particular horror elements, New Weird also tends to focus on the influence of the world on the characters. The characters are realistic, and the clash between them and their bizarre surroundings creates the unsettling tone and invites questions about human nature, introspection, and bodily autonomy. 

Star Wars already has some of this type of weirdness too: certain cantina creatures are similar in design to Mieville’s insect-women, and the scene where Han surrounds Luke with the cut-open corpse of a tauntaun has the same kind of gross-out creature design. Star Wars movies also often have monsters. The rathtar chase in The Force Awakens features enough tentacle horror and forbidding corridors to fit nicely into New Weird, without the oppressive darkness of pure horror. 

The most recent trailer for Solo: A Star Wars Storyscratched some of the itch for monsters with a scene of the Millennium Falcon flying through a stormy sky filled with tentacles and teeth. The basic idea of that scene appears to be reminiscient of the space slugs from The Empire Strikes Back, a Scylla and Charybdis of Imperial forces and space monster. Scaling the monster up to something the size of a Star Destroyer makes it, for the purposes of the scene, an environment that reconfigures the viewer’s idea about where danger might come from and what it might do. How do you fly a spaceship through a sky that is itself a giant mouth? The monstrous element here is both central to Star Wars, which often includes elements of creature features and introduces creature horror at a new scale. 

Star Wars could also push horror elements through the way characters react to things. What if characters were disgusted by their robotic limbs instead of accepting of the common technology? How does it feel for characters who have become Force ghosts to suddenly live without their bodies? We’ve seen a hint of body horror in The Clone Wars,with Darth Maul’s spider-shaped cyborg body connected in some way to his downtrodden and furious mental state as he languishes in the trash heaps. 

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New Weird isn’t always about horror, though: sometimes the unexplained nature of the story is a factor too, and especially early Star Wars stories had this in spades. Luke expressed amazement and fear when presented with the strange aliens in the cantina or the vision in the cave on Dagobah – the situation was clearly as strange to him as it was to the viewers. 

Those cantina aliens each have their own names and backstories now, but the initial sense of unexplained possibility is still a good thing to cultivate in the franchise, especially if Johnson’s trilogy is meant to show the audience people places and things we’ve never seen before in the galaxy far, far away. The style could be incorporated into Star Wars‘ world-building, with living cities or enormous monsters like the purrgils in Rebels.

Common New Weird heroes include explorers, scientists, or rogue wanderers in situations they don’t entirely understand — perfectly suitable for the heroic narratives of Star Wars. After all, Luke wasn’t really sure what he was doing in those early adventures.

With its creatures and dramatic science fiction vistas, Star Wars is already weird, and its characters are primed to explore every corner of the galaxy. Johnson, who has already pushed what we thought we knew about the Force to a whole new realm of possibilities, now has the opportunity to stretch what we know about the galaxy far, far away as a home to billions of mysterious creatures. Pushing Star Wars a bit further into a weirder genre tone could give the saga a new energy and that recapture that sense of wonder fans first felt all the way back in 1977.

*Art by John Harris.