The way the new Star Wars trilogy’s been structured, each protagonist from the original trilogy has had a film that’s elevated them into the spotlight. The Force Awakens turned its focus on Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and the fractured relationship with his son, Kylo Ren, who ultimately kills his dad to prove his Dark Side bonafides. After only showing up in the final minute of that movie, Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker trained the prodigious Rey in The Last Jedi, a clever way to interrogate the Jedi master’s past failures and insecurities. Going off this trend, a renewed interest in Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa was on the cards to bookend the Skywalker Saga in this month’s The Rise of Skywalker.
Carrie Fisher left behind an indelible legacy when she died in December 2016. Beyond being a Star Wars icon—she and Leia are practically synonymous with one another—Fisher was an accomplished Hollywood script doctor and for years has been refreshingly forthright about the pressures of fame and handling of mental illness. (I highly recommend the HBO documentary Bright Lights, which focuses on Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, who sadly died right after her daughter.) Production on The Rise of Skywalker didn’t begin until 2018, so the franchise needed to improvise with Leia—if they could do anything at all.
The Lucasfilm braintrust was adamant they wouldn’t recreate Fisher’s likeness with CGI in the way Rogue One digitally resurrected the late Peter Cushing. (A New Hope–era CGI’d Leia very briefly appears at the end of the movie, too.) The ethical considerations of using a deceased person’s likeness aside, I suspect the notion of CGI’ing an iconic character played by an iconic actress wouldn’t have sat well with a lot of people, myself included. But where does that leave The Rise of Skywalker?
Unless you swiped John Boyega’s script, there’s very little chance that you know anything about Episode IX. Virtually everything about Rise of Skywalker has been shrouded in secrecy—as is the Star Wars norm—but we do know that Leia is going to appear in the film. The result? Unused footage of Fisher from The Force Awakens turned out to be the perfect skeleton key. “Hopefully, if it works, it will be an invisible thing and if you didn’t know, you would never know,” director J.J. Abrams told Total Film last month, explaining how he has Leia interacting with other characters. “But we got to tell the story with Leia that we would have told had Carrie lived. And that’s kind of incredible.” According to Fisher’s brother, Todd, there’s about eight minutes of Force Awakens Fisher footage that has been “reverse engineered,” allowing for a “magical” sendoff where “Carrie is talking to us all from beyond.” Sounds like you ought to have some tissues on hand.
Abrams has assured audiences that there hasn’t been much of a change to the original story—though that contradicts what former Rise of Skywalker director Colin Trevorrow and Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy said about the project needing to start from scratch after Fisher’s death. Really, it’s all semantics; it seems likely that when Abrams took over the gig from Trevorrow, he went about reworking the script to fit his vision knowing what Leia footage was left. But if this does just amount to eight-odd minutes of screentime, hopefully we’re still granted the same emotional payoff that Han and Luke received in the last two films. In fact, I’d argue that more than anything else—Rey’s parentage, if that’s still a thing; the return of Palpy; the embattled soul of Kylo Ren; the future of the Jedi—The Rise of Skywalker needs to get Leia’s sendoff right.
When it comes to our original trio of heroes, Leia arguably has the most impressive legacy in the galaxy—a distinction earned without wielding a lightsaber or using a blaster as the first course of action. Han’s relationship with Leia fizzled much like it did with their son; when we reunite with him and Chewie in The Force Awakens, he’s back to smuggling and pissing people off. (He even lost the damn Millennium Falcon!) Luke’s efforts to revive the Jedi Order failed spectacularly when Kylo Ren—erstwhile Ben Solo—turned against his master, and with a few other pupils, burned down the new Jedi Temple and joined Supreme Leader Snoke and the First Order. Luke was well intentioned, but that was a catastrophic L.
Leia, meanwhile, became the leader of the Resistance—you can read the canonical Star Wars companion book, Bloodline, to see how Leia contends with the rise of the First Order and the New Republic’s political shortcomings. Then, as revealed in The Last Jedi, we learn she’s just as Force-sensitive as her brother by doing something we’ve never seen a Jedi do on-screen before: surviving the cold vacuum of space. (Naturally this pissed off certain Reddit-inclined fans, who apparently want to be spoon-fed the same stuff in every movie then complain that Star Wars doesn’t try new things.) Thankfully, whatever footage Abrams found on the Force Awakens cutting room floor can finally give fans the glimpse of seeing Leia hold a lightsaber, per a Rise of Skywalker TV spot.
Leia is the franchise’s best embodiment of a genuine leader—at least among the core characters. And if the Skywalker Saga concludes with the franchise ushering in the galaxy’s next generation of heroes—Rey, Finn, and interplanetary sex icon Poe Dameron—then it’s only fitting for it to be Leia who passes the torch and imparts some final words of wisdom. She’s more than earned the right. (To be clear, Force Ghost Luke’s input is certainly welcome; not so much the ghost of Little Italy Pizza Lord/younglings killer Hayden Christensen.)
Leia’s sendoff in The Rise of Skywalker might not be what Abrams and Co. originally intended when they began the new trilogy; it’s a shame we’ll never know what that vision of the Skywalker Saga could’ve been. But as recently as Anna Paquin’s exemplary performance in The Irishman showed, the amount of lines and screentime a character’s afforded aren’t nearly as important as what they’re able to do with it. Given Fisher’s magnetic talent and on-screen presence, I’m willing to bet Leia’s coda will be responsible for The Rise of Skywalker’s most enduring and unforgettable moments.