The Most Exciting Thing About Rian Johnson's Next 'Star Wars' Gig

Leaving behind the Skywalker Saga could hold the keys to decades of stories.

When Star Wars Episode IX found itself in need of a new director and writer this summer, fans were hopeful that Lucasfilm might choose a filmmaker whose sensibilities felt appropriate to the galaxy far, far away. One of the early assumptions, or pipe dreams, was that the job might go Rian Johnson. Who better than the man writing and directing the next film in the franchise, The Last Jedi, to shepherd the new trilogy to its conclusion? In the end, The Force AwakensJJ Abrams was brought back to the fold for Episode IX, and Johnson kept his focus on the film opening next month. But based on Thursday's encouraging entertainment news, Johnson had a perfectly good reason for staying away: he’s going to be spending even more time with Star Wars in the years to come.

The news is simple and tantalizing enough: Johnson is going to develop a new trilogy of Star Wars films, the first of which he will write and direct. It would be easy to decry the loss of one of the best indie filmmakers of the early 2000s to a big blockbuster franchise, but Johnson proved in earlier films like 2006's Brick and 2012's Looper that he deserved a large-scale canvas on which to tell more of his idiosyncratic stories. A month out from The Last Jedi, it’s still unknown if the movie will be akin to The Empire Strikes Back, a darker second chapter that may become the most beloved in the current trilogy. But this much is clear: Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy must be one of Johnson’s biggest fans.

Perhaps the clearest sign isn’t even the fact that he’s been given the keys to the galaxy to make a new trilogy, but that said new trilogy will “be separate from the episodic Skywalker saga.” For fans of the Star Wars Extended Universe, that phrase may be the most exciting part of this story. For 40 years, the Star Wars films have revolved around a Skywalker, whether it’s Anakin, Luke or Leia. (Again, we’re still a month out, but speculation runs high regarding the parents of Daisy Ridley’s Rey, and whether Luke is her father or Leia her mother.) The setup of each of these films is clear enough: these stories take place in a totally different time and galaxy. Yet, they’ve all revolved around the same core group of characters.

So the notion that Johnson will be able to open up the cinematic series to “a corner of the galaxy that Star Wars lore has never explored” is what makes this news truly thrilling. There’s no real surprise in the fact that Lucasfilm is going to make new Star Wars films; now that the studio is owned by Disney, they’ll likely be making films in this universe for decades to come. What’s enticing is the sense that the studio’s bigwigs are comfortable in moving beyond the characters with whom we’re already familiar, allowing the world of Star Wars to be enough to sell audiences and get them interested.

Johnson, in his pre-Star Wars films, was able to craft distinctive worlds within a larger universe we may recognize. His high-school-set neo-noir Brick traffics in the traditional teenage cliches and cliques we may have seen in other teen dramas, but the characters talk and act in such a stylized fashion that it felt like a breath of fresh air. By 2012, Looper, his first leap into science fiction, suggested that he could handle a high-concept combination of time travel and gritty contract killers without stranding confused audience members along the way.

And now, he remains fully ensconced with the biggest intellectual property in modern cinema, one that has had a rocky relationship with other directors such as Gareth Edwards, Colin Trevorrow, and Phil Lord and Chris Miller. When Johnson was given the opportunity to write and direct an entry in the main Star Wars trilogy, it felt like an emboldening moment for those who had followed his career from its low-budget start, all the way through the episodes of AMC’s Breaking Bad that he directed. Unlike some other helmers who leapt to big-budget fare after just one movie, it felt like Johnson had been gradually building to this leap. Now, he’s leaping even higher.

It’s hard to imagine a bigger vote of confidence in Johnson, just five weeks away from the release of The Last Jedi, than getting the chance to expand the Star Wars franchise with three new films. Getting the chance to tell a story about any number of characters who exist outside of the central Skywalker tale that’s been told for the last 40 years is even better. For decades, we have only known a portion of the Star Wars universe on film. With Johnson at the helm, it’s truly exciting to consider the vast possibilities of what he’ll come up with next.