'Star Wars': Why Rian Johnson Is Disney's Most Surprising Director Choice Yet (Analysis)

Rian Johnson vs. Jason Reitman
<p>Writer/director Johnson chose the <em>Up In The Air</em> writer/director to wage a faux Twitter war against to up his name recognition. After tweeting a few jokes at Reitman (who responded by posting a link to Notorious B.I.G.&#39;s &nbsp;song &quot;Warning&quot;), &nbsp;Johnson launched into a series of tweets detailing a supposed Mexican adventure.&nbsp;</p> <p><a href="http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/jason-reitman-rian-johnson-twitter-feud-249466" target="_blank"><strong>RELATED: Rian Johnson Ignites Twitter &#39;Feud&#39; With Jason Reitman</strong></a></p>   |   Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
The "Looper" helmer may break a trend of "safe" director risks for the science-fiction movie franchise.

On Friday, The Hollywood Reporter confirmed that Looper helmer Rian Johnson will write and direct Star Wars: Episode VIII and write a treatment for Episode IX

The news may have initially come as a surprise -- if only for the fact that Episode VII is still shooting, and many expected that installment’s director, J.J. Abrams, to stick around for the follow-up -- but it’s a choice that follows a trend for Disney’s stewardship of the franchise.

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Johnson’s discussions follow announcements of not only Abrams, but also Godzilla helmer Gareth Edwards (which THR first reported) and Chronicle's Josh Trank, as directors in charge of various Star Wars movies in various stages of development as Disney prepares for an annual onslaught of movies from a galaxy far, far away. All four have some level of credibility amongst fans (and critics) as savvy directors of original genre material, meaning that Disney can portray the choices as somewhat “edgy” and daring in a way that most multi-million dollar movie franchises rarely are; compare with Marvel’s left-field choices --which trend towards lesser-known directors either waiting for their big break or, in the cases of Joe Johnson and Shane Black, in the middle of their wilderness years -- or other studios’ love for guaranteed hit makers like Michael Bay or Zack Snyder.

Abrams, of course, falls into that hit maker category as well, and can be discounted to some degree from Disney’s thinking as a necessary populist outlier to get the franchise relaunched safely. But surely, the common wisdom seems to go, choosing Edwards, Trank and Johnson shows that Disney is prepared to take some risks, right…?

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Well, not exactly.

Bear in mind, after all, that Edwards has already successfully helmed a massively expensive, effects-heavy movie (and, in fact, rebooted a franchise) in Legendary’s Godzilla, and that Trank is in the middle of doing the same thing with Fox’s Fantastic Four, due for release next year. In doing so, they immediately become a far less risky option for Star Wars, having already shown the ability to, if you will, color within the lines of a big genre franchise in terms of meeting studio expectations (and, of course, budgets). They’re a conservative risk, at best; it’s not like they’ve hired Edgar Wright, or someone else who’s appeared to chafe against studio dictat in the past.

Johnson, however, is something else again. Everything he’s worked on to date has been an original creation and something that has existed within its own singular world instead of a series or franchise. Looper may have been a sci-fi movie with real, genuine movie stars, but it was one budgeted at a fraction of the estimated cost of Abrams’ Episode VII ($30 million versus $200 million, for the curious). He remains more of an unknown for Disney than any other director named to date for the franchise to date -- and yet, he’s the one who’s apparently being given the keys to the most important car in this metaphorical garage.

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That might explain the excitement online following the news -- more than a few comments on social media have been along the lines of “I wasn’t interested in Star Wars until now,” which may have been exactly the response Disney was hoping for with the selection. But given the relative security on offer from their other directors attached to the property right now, is there really that much reason to hope for anything more than a well-executed Star Wars movie from Johnson at this point?

If nothing else, Johnson certainly seems to have some idea of the task in front of him. After the news broke, he tweeted a clip from the movie The Right Stuff in which Alan Shepherd offers a prayer as he's about to be launched into space: "Dear Lord, please don't let me f--- up." Of course, the early days of space travel may have been less dangerous than running the risk of upsetting an Internet full of anticipatory fans, but at least he knows someone understands how he's feeling Friday.