I’ve written about my problems with the storytelling of Rian Johnson in the past. However after observing his career for some time, I’m beginning to believe that there’s a deeper thread running through his work that bears addressing. In the past, Johnson has stated he’d rather have half his audience love a film and half hate it than have a large majority simply like it. In fairness, he has succeeded in becoming quite the controversial director.
This position is merited. But I think the reason underlying that merited controversy is Johnson’s simple, undiluted laziness. On his own, I don’t think Johnson being a lazy director who somehow finds an audience is bad. Art and effort don’t have an entirely linear relationship and, once a certain degree of competence is achieved, even lazy creators can still create work of surprising artistic merit. This is true in every area of life and I don’t think art is an exception.
If Johnson was the only lazy director out there it might not be that big of an issue for movies as a whole although it would be disappointing. However we’re starting to see it with other creators as well. James Gunn and Taiko Waititi are also directors with a great deal of talent, in particular with a gift for striking visuals and excellent editing. As writers they have very little ambition.
Let me make my case using some examples from Johnson’s writing – and be warned there will be spoilers in here. In the movie Knives Out, Johnson builds his entire plot around a character, Marta Cabrera, who’s most notable characteristic is an is her inability to lie. Any time she lies she winds up vomiting. Marta is the caretaker for the aged Harlan Thrombey who winds up dying (indirectly) of an inappropriately administered medication. As his caretaker, Marta is implicated.
By the end of the story the genius detective Blanc has deduced the real killer and corners him into confessing using a gambit that hinges on… Marta lying. This is revealed when Marta barfs all over the killer after he confesses. All this happens in direct contradiction to all the previous instances where we see Marta vomit when she even tries to lie.
Now, I wouldn’t object to this as much if we’d seen Marta practice to overcome her difficulty. However there’s no set up like this at all, in fact it raises the possibility that Marta can lie and everything we’ve heard from her is actually a lie. We were supposed to be able to be confident in Marta’s integrity and the climax completely undercuts it to the point where I’m not sure her entire untruth allergy is a ploy on her part. It destroys Johnson’s narrative.
This happens again in Glass Onion, Johnson’s latest mystery film. A major central character, Andi, is revealed to be dead and the character who’s been called Andi up until the middle of the story turns out to be her twin sister Helen. This doesn’t add new dimension to any of the characters. It doesn’t cast any of their conversations in new lights, it doesn’t create tension since we don’t know Andi is an impostor and it doesn’t give rise to any clever gambits. A little more effort could have made this a twist that improved the story but instead it just undercuts our investment in what we thought we knew.
Finally, in The Last Jedi Johnson sets up the infamous hyperdrive kamikaze scene, where one ship rams another at near lightspeed in spite of the ways that contradicts everything else we’ve seen about the hyperdrive in the past including the previous installment in the franchise, Rogue One, where we see a ship at near lightspeed collide with another and get smashed to rubble without harming the other one. Give the hypderdrive kamikaze it’s due. It’s an impressive visual. It also shows a lack of care for the previous story and a lack of imagination for how he will get to his desired visual. There are may ways he could have achieved this. In fact in said previous film we see ships using ramming in ways suited to the Star Wars universe.
Johnson is supposed to be a genius artiste, setting up common tropes and then subverting them with his clever movie making. However, when he subverts he does it in the laziest way possible. You thought Marta couldn’t lie? Surprise! She can! You thought Andi was one person? Surprise! She was someone else! In fact, in Glass Onion the story is so bad that the characters themselves insult it as moronic. However, hanging a lampshade on your story’s lazily used tropes doesn’t make them okay. It just points out your laziness.
Waititi and Gunn are likewise both artists with their own visions that they seem intent on forcing into any narrative they produce and not making the least concessions to it. Gunn relies on character tropes to replace much of his character development. Waititi shoves jokes into his movies without trying to smooth the transition from narrative to joke or make the joke organically arise from the situation. It’s deeply frustrating, especially as these directors show so much talent in many other areas of their movie making.
Most of all it’s frustrating that people are so content with cheap entertainment. It is great to see people creating at their highest levels but when they only put their passion and effort into a very narrow band of what they make it shows incredible contempt for their creations and their audience. Hopefully one day we’ll all have more care for what we create and consume.