Why I wish 'Last Jedi' was Rian Johnson's last Star Wars movie

Commentary: We lost Peter Jackson to Middle-earth. Now we need to rescue Rian Johnson and Taika Waititi from a galaxy far, far away.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
5 min read

I'm doubly excited for " Star Wars : The Last Jedi". Not only am I a huge Star Wars fan, but the latest trip to a galaxy far, far away is directed by one of my favourite directors, Rian Johnson.

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Director Rian Johnson at the Star Wars Celebration in Orlando, Florida, earlier this year.

Brian Tong/CNET

So you'd think I'd be over the moon Johnson has signed on to create a whole new series of Star Wars movies after the current trilogy wraps up. Nope. In fact, I kind of wish "Last Jedi" was his last Star Wars movie.

Even if you haven't heard of Johnson, there's a good chance you've enjoyed his work: He directed three pivotal episodes of "Breaking Bad". I've been a fan going back to his idiosyncratic teen noir movie "Brick" in 2005, and I loved his time-travel mind bender "Looper", even if it doesn't make any sense. I like his work so much I once wrote an article in defence of his gleefully silly 2008 con-artist curio "The Brothers Bloom", and that's no one's favourite Rian Johnson film.

So I'm confident "The Last Jedi", in theatres worldwide from 14 December, will be a blast. And I'm pretty sure that under his stewardship, the planned new trilogy expanding the Star Wars universe beyond the Skywalker dynasty will also be compelling and exhilarating. He wouldn't have been put in charge if he hadn't impressed Star Wars impresario Kathleen Kennedy, who's not shy of booting directors who aren't up to scratch. And the policy among blockbuster producers to recruit vibrant, innovative, up-and-coming voices like Johnson has paid off with fantastic movies such as Taika Waititi's hilarious "Thor: Ragnarok" or James Gunn's exhilarating "Guardians of the Galaxy".

And yet … I hate it when my favourite directors disappear.

Taking charge of a big blockbuster with a huge visual effects component is a massive undertaking. You're looking at a couple of years to make one -- producing a trilogy could take the best part of a decade. Kennedy said Thursday she'd love for Taika Waititi to helm a Star Wars movie. But if intriguing voices like Waititi and Johnson spend all their time making Star Wars movies, what happens to the unique and personal projects they could have made instead?

Look at Lord of the Rings supremo Peter Jackson. His early films showed him to be an audacious and singular filmmaker -- and then he disappeared into Middle-earth. Thanks to his involvement in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series, he's helmed only two non-Tolkien films in the past two decades. Frankly, I'd swap the Hobbit trilogy for an original idea from Peter Jackson in a heartbeat.

Or take James Cameron. Since 1997 he's devoted himself almost entirely to "Avatar", a situation that will continue up to 2025. That's nearly 30 years spent entirely on "Avatar"!

In the same amount of time in his pre-"Avatar" career, Cameron gave us "The Terminator", "Terminator 2", "The Abyss", "True Lies" and "Titanic". Would you swap those stone-cold classics for a lifetime of "Avatar" sequels? Sorry JamCam, but nobody likes "Avatar" that much.

'The Last Jedi' press event: Sweet Star Wars outfits, cuddly porgs

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Now obviously I love unexpected, innovative perspectives on blockbuster franchises -- heck, Cameron himself gave us "Aliens", one of the best sequels ever. The unique interpretations of creative types like Johnson, Cameron and all the many other inventive filmmakers who lend their visions to our favourite franchises keep the characters and universes we love feeling fresh.

But, let's face it, a Rian Johnson Star Wars movie is always going to be a Star Wars movie first and a Rian Johnson movie second.

As much as I love, say, "GotG" and "Thor: Ragnarok", they're still James Gunn and Taika Waititi playing with Marvel 's toys -- and when you play with Marvel toys you play by Marvel rules. Auteur-led franchise blockbusters are super fun, but they're not pure undiluted Gunn, Waititi or Johnson drawing on their own unfettered imaginations, exploring their own themes and playing by their own rules.

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Taika Waititi talks "Thor" and "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" with CNET's Rich Trenholm at Sundance 2016.

Alvaro Aguayo

Or as Edgar Wright put it after he exited Marvel's "Ant-Man", "I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don't think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie".

We waited 10 years for Wright's take on "Ant-Man" -- and we never even got it, as Wright bowed out of the shrunken superhero movie at the last minute. Talk about an ant-i-climax. It feels like it's only with this year's riotously inventive "Baby Driver" that Wright has finally shaken off the "Ant-Man" thing.

It's great when filmmakers who are committed to franchises do squeeze in the kind of original, inventive, signature filmmaking that made us love them in the first place. 

Waititi deliberately set out to do something quick before he disappeared into the Marvel universe for two years, and the result was the wondrous "Hunt for the Wilderpeople". It's brilliant, and it's pure Waititi. Similarly, Christopher Nolan made a point of alternating "Dark Knight" movies with "The Prestige" and "Inception". The world would be a poorer place if our most creative filmmakers were tied up churning out blockbusters and we never got to see these more personal, distinctive visions.

OK, I don't really want Rian Johnson to stop making Star Wars movies. "The Last Jedi" will give us a firmer sign if he's the right man for the job, but Kathleen Kennedy, Lucasfilm and Disney are apparently confident. So yeah, a Star Wars franchise shepherded by Johnson and his collaborators will probably be pretty great. You can't beat an ambitious blockbuster made with love and imagination by filmmakers whose work comes together, from concept artists to visual effects wizards, to conjure a thing of beauty.

But man cannot live by blockbusters alone. For every "Ant-Man" I want a "Baby Driver". For every "Thor: Ragnarok" I need a "Hunt for the Wilderpeople". And once "Last Jedi" has blown our minds (fingers crossed), I want to know what else Rian Johnson has up his sleeve.

Star Wars at 40: Join us in celebrating the many ways the Force-filled sci-fi saga has impacted our lives.

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