Is Rian Johnson set for mediocracy or brilliance with Star Wars: The Last Jedi?

It is a worrying conundrum for film lovers everywhere. Big studios are increasingly turning to arthouse and indie directors to bring the latest multi-million dollar visions to the big screen. It makes sense of course; like any other successful business, the likes of Marvel Studios and their parent company, Disney, need to source the best talent to get one up on the competition. The problem is that the constraints imposed on directors when making blockbusters run the risk of sucking out the flare and style that made them so popular in the first place.

It happens too often. Josh Trank made the fascinating teen drama Chronicle (2012) before being entrusted with the 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four, which deserves to be forgotten quickly. Marc Webb went from the indie rom-com hit 500 Days of Summer (2009) to The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), a project which Marvel abruptly ditched following a below-par sequel.

This year, an ultimate grudge match has been lined up between two of the most highly rated directors in the business today. In the red corner, there is Taika Waititi – famed for Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) among other things, and now placed in charge of reviving the popularity of a certain Norse God in Thor: Ragnarok. In the blue corner stands Rian Johnson, who directed the neo-noir mystery Brick (2005) and the science fiction masterpiece Looper (2012). He picks up the baton from J.J. Abrams to direct Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.

Thor: Ragnarok has just been released to near universal acclaim. It holds an approval rating of 96 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, and Empire described “the most outrageously fun film” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as “vintage Waititi”. It is a full blown action comedy that has let a talented director off the reins. Rather than simply an expression of studio demands, it undoubtedly demonstrates complete faith in Waititi’s abilities on the part of Marvel Studios. It raises the status of Thor from the ‘boring, long-haired avenger’ to setting a new, perhaps unassailable, standard for superhero movies.

That leaves Johnson. What can he do? Will he be allowed to express his take on the Star Wars universe in a way befitting of him as a director, as Waititi has managed with Marvel? Or will the expectations that come with stepping into one of the toughest gigs in cinema cast another director out into the realm of insignificance?

The official trailer for Episode VIII, released on October 9, features some clues. It certainly sets a much bleaker mood than the promotion of The Force Awakens (2015) did. The wide, long camera shots at the start of the trailer are reminiscent of much of Looper, which also features moments set in vast empty plains. This sense of desolation is clearly shared with the characters, who have all had the optimism from locating Luke Skywalker at the end of the last film drained out of them. Dark and brooding seems the order of the day.

Johnson has also shown a knack for building deeply complicated character motivations and relationships, something that arguably escaped The Force Awakens. There is a lot more of villain Kylo Ren in this trailer, especially with regards to his origins and his everlasting family turmoil. Furthermore, any suggestion that the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Rey was going to be a simple master and apprentice affair is undone by the complexity present even in such a short promotional reel.

The tantalising prospect however is the short exchange between Ren and Rey, and the implied connection between the two made throughout the trailer. Johnson has the ability to take that relationship and express it in an infinite number of ways, and the way that he chooses to do so will be the subject of much scrutiny.

Again like Looper, these interactions appear to be happening within the grander scheme of some massive conflict between opposing forces. Oscar Isaac’s character Poe Dameron suggests some plan designed to bring the First Order down once and for all, but what is shown in the trailer appears to be the evil remnants of the Empire getting the upper hand. This mass brawl, whatever it is about or wherever it will be, is not going to be pretty. It is an opportunity for Johnson to try his hand at large scale set pieces which he has not attempted before.

The commercial aspect of Disney’s treasured franchise does of course come across. The new creatures ‘porgs’ – some mutant cross between a fish, a bird and a hamster – uttered one peculiarly cute noise and just like that have become a merchandise phenomenon. There is obviously a massive emphasis on Mark Hamill’s return too; he gets plenty of screen time in the trailer and occupies a massive spot on an official poster as well. Whether Johnson includes him to such an extent in the film is, as yet, unclear, but he has not made a name for including characters for no reason or for longer than required. To be forced into this would not be a good start.

This is all (hopefully) well founded speculation. Johnson will find the spotlight of the world shining on him when The Last Jedi is released on December 15. If he has failed where Waititi has succeeded, and fails to impose his mark on a firmly established franchise with its own ideas and traditions, then the backlash could be relentless. If he can avoid this – and the initial signs are good – then it could become one of the best of the franchise.

“This is not going to go the way you think,” Mark Hamill claims at one point in the trailer. If the recently challenged trend of indie directors being lost in the golden riches of Hollywood is what he means, let us hope that Johnson proves him right.

Image: Lucasfilm LTD

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