Like or loathe The Force Awakens, there’s no denying that at its heart, it’s very much a JJ Abrams movie. There are aspects of film and TV production that Abrams is generally acknowledged to excel at; likewise, there are elements for which he has repeatedly faced criticism over the years (insert tired, de rigueur joke about lens flare here. If. You. Must.). He’s great at world building – perhaps the most important element in establishing a new Star Wars trilogy is, y’know, making it feel like Star Wars. Sounds simple enough on paper but in a post-prequel world, we all now recognise that this seemingly simple hurdle is actually anything but. That said, Abrams did do an admirable job of updating the universe whilst remaining faithful to its core tenets.
So what else can JJ do? Perhaps his greatest strength as a filmmaker is his ability to elicit that sense of childlike awe that Spielberg did so well in his pomp. Cleverly, these sprouting seeds of wonder sit not only at The Force Awakens’ heart but flourish throughout its duration, borne through the air by the winds of the discovery as the younger generation of characters take their first steps into a much bigger galaxy.
I don’t know about you but after multiple viewings, the scene that still gives me the chicken skins every time isn’t Finn and Poe’s blistering escape from the First Order, amazing as it may be. It isn’t even Rey’s climactic face-off with Kylo Ren that tops my list. When an ageing Han Solo stands aboard the the reclaimed deck of the Millennium Falcon, mere yards from the spot where thirty-four years earlier he’d scorned the existence of a ‘mystical energy field’ controlling his destiny and reveals to the wide-eyed youngsters that actually, “it’s true – all of it”, the limitless potential of the galaxy mapped across his grizzled features, the unknowable stars and possible adventures bridging the generational divide between them, I get gooseflesh every single time.
Therein lies the talent of Abrams. Sure, he’s caught some flak for the quality of his storytelling at times (and it could be argued that The Force Awakens’ derivative plot is a case in point) but that only serves to strengthen my point: For better and for worse, Episode VII is a JJ Abrams movie. In that regard at least, you have to tip your hat to Lucasfilm; they knew exactly what the film needed to be and they found the right man to do the job.
Next Christmas brings us Episode VIII. Abrams won’t be returning and that may well be a good thing. The sequel to The Force Awakens needs be a different animal altogether, as tonally different to its predecessor as The Empire Strikes Back was to A New Hope. Glimpses of what may lie ahead have been maddeningly brief thus far: John Boyega has promised us something “much darker” and Daisy Ridley has gone on record to espouse the quality of the story… but what can we learn from the choice of Rian Johnson to helm the film?
If JJ Abrams was selected on the back of his extensive filmography to bring his clear strengths to bear on areas where the prequels fell far short, what specific talents has Johnson been hired for? Let’s look back at his projects to date and see if we can’t do a bit of reverse engineering to figure out just what type of movie Episode VIII promises to be:
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This series of short films made by Johnson span his time in college through to his breakthrough feature Brick in the mid-naughties. All three are available to view online and although it’s clear that this is a filmmaker still finding his feet, there’s a clear sense of engagement with darker subject matter. Themes of darkness, tragedy, mental illness and possession pervade the three tales and it’s clearly evident that Johnson (who has written all of his films, including Episode VIII) is as enamoured with the richness of his ideas as he is with the craft of filmmaking itself. That said, you can see the genesis of his visual style taking root here. imaginative shot choices and repeated quick cuts would develop over time to become recognisable aesthetic elements of the director’s style and it’s interesting to see them first take shape in this trio of films.
If nothing else, Johnson’s feature-film debut showed the world that he was an emerging talent capable of drawing great performances from a young coterie of actors. Most notably for the purposes of Episode VIII stargazing however, it’s the film’s near-perfect genre splicing that augers well for the next numbered instalment in the Star Wars saga. Led by a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the movie takes place in the classic American high school locale but through deft use of a series of cleverly-crafted tropes, Johnson seamlessly transplants a hard-boiled, noir-crime story into the film’s DNA. The mastery of style here is beat-perfect and assures us of one thing: this director can do genre cinema, surely a requisite factor for any filmmaker developing a space opera.
Brick’s plot is clever too; full of the twists, turns and red herrings one would expect from a movie of this type. The ambitious nature of Johnson’s storytelling cannot be discounted when examining his contribution to the Star Wars universe; critics of The Force Awakens found the plot to be underdeveloped, perhaps even derivative. One of Johnson’s emerging talents evident throughout this film is his ability to weave a complex tale, a sure tonic for fans unimpressed by the limited nature of Abrams’ efforts.
The Brothers Bloom (2008)
Interestingly enough, this may be the movie that unlocks the genetic code for Episode VIII. A globe-spanning, swashbuckling adventure tale that follows two con-artist brothers, The Brothers Bloom not only treats us to a range of madcap escapades set against a host of stunning locations (sound familiar?) but is also the closest thing to an ensemble piece that the director has done. Even the establishing shots for each far-flung exotic locale are stylised in a pulpy, comic-book fashion, furthering the radio-serial adventure feel perfected by Lucas in the late seventies and eighties. Although a straight-up adventure yarn in one sense, the plot does feature two master conmen and therefore bursts with intrigue, betrayal and enough twists and turns to qualify it as a Johnson screenwriting ‘joint’.
Perhaps the most notable point for discussion here is the director’s ability to draw nuanced performances from his cast. Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz and Mark Ruffalo are always good value but Johnson ekes out fabulous performances from them nonetheless. The same is also true for Rinko Kikuchi’s Bang Bang, a character who rarely speaks in the movie but is still able to elicit a gamut of emotional responses from the audience. I’m mentioning this of course because one of the most interesting things to emerge from Episode VII was Abrams’ more rounded take on Chewbacca, a popular but rather one-dimensional character in the original trilogy. By adding humour and pathos into Chewie’s narrative trajectory, I’m personally excited to see where Johnson takes everyone’s favourite wookie, especially when he’s already proven so adept at developing characters who communicate without conventional speech.
Oh, and did I mention the over-the-top screen wipes? A sure-fire must for any prospective Star Wars director, there are a few on display here. Joseph Gordon-Levitt also pops up here in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-appearance, meaning he’s featured in every Johnson movie to date. Surely a Simon Pegg-esque cameo awaits in Episode VIII? All in all, an underrated film that is definitely worth a watch, not least for what could be the clearest glimpse of what the future holds.
Johnson re-teamed with his muse JGL for this time-travelling, science-fiction tale that sent his stock sky-high and presumably went a long way towards securing him the Star Wars gig. A commercial success, Looper went some way towards proving Johnson could deal with the demanding production of a blockbuster title, not least because he did a good job of handling Bruce Willis (more experienced filmmakers like Kevin Smith had tried and failed), who by this point must have been heartily sick of running into past versions of himself (having previously done so in Twelve Monkeys and The Kid). The importance of such a trait cannot be understated, especially by Lucasfilm having seen the destructive consequences blockbuster production can have on relatively untested filmmakers, such as Josh Trank and his reported meltdown on the set of Fantastic Four. Trank was of course due to direct one of the upcoming Star Wars Anthology titles before being allegedly being fired. In contrast, Johnson’s ability to handle big stars and punishing schedules whilst making a movie that still turned a healthy profit would not have gone unnoticed.
One aspect of Johnson’s storytelling that we haven’t considered yet is his proclivity for torturing his protagonists. Looper’s Old Joe gets to watch his wife die before his very eyes, Brick’s Brendan takes more than his fair share of beatings and The Brothers Bloom’s Bloom is subjected to some severe emotional trauma… at the hands of his brother, no less. What does that suggest in terms of Episode VIII? Well, if you thought our heroes had it rough in the last instalment, you may want to think again. As well as referencing the “darker” tone, Boyega has also mentioned the more “physical” nature of the shoot. It seems fair to say that both psychologically and physically, Finn, Rey and Poe may be in for more troubling times. Come to think of it, we’re about due a hand decapitation by now, surely…
Breaking Bad (2010 – 2013)
Fly (Season 3, Episode 10) Fifty-One (Season 5, Episode 4) Ozymandias (Season 5, Episode 14)
In a departure from his cinematic efforts, Johnson didn’t pen his Breaking Bad episodes – that honour went to show runner Vince Gilligan and his writing team. Johnson’s contribution to TV’s greatest show shouldn’t go unrecognised though. Ozymandias is the only episode of television on IMDb to currently sit with a perfect rating of ten; it’s an elite piece of drama – the very best episode from the very best show ever made, not least because once again Johnson is able to coax performances from his actors that rank amongst their very, very best.
Of particular note is the director’s work with Brian Cranston; Series Three’s Fly afforded Johnson the opportunity to craft an entire episode centered around Cranston’s Walter White, the show’s conflicted protagonist. Series Five’s Ozymandias allowed him to do the same once more but with the stakes raised much, much higher. Cranston won an Emmy for the episode and if nothing else, Johnson proved that he can create brilliance with the archetype of the ageing, conflicted outsider. Surely it’s time to bring on Luke Skywalker…
So there you go. Johnson’s Episode VIII promises a less linear and more satisfying storyline, with performances from the leads that surpass our expectations of a Star Wars movie. Expect our heroes to run a physically and emotionally exacting gauntlet, Chewie to take a surprisingly larger role and for Mark Hamill to present us with the definitive take on Luke Skywalker – and all of that wrapped up in a perfectly realised slice of genre cinema that looks and feels exactly like Star Wars should. That’s not too much to ask… is it?