This article contains considerable spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. If you want to go into the film pure as the driven salt on the mining planet of Crait, you should wait until later to read this. Otherwise, join us for some insight on the meaning behind the fate of the original Star Wars heroine, General Leia Organa, and her role in the future of the franchise.
There’s a moment very early on in Star Wars: The Last Jedi that may leave Carrie Fisher fans who are still processing her death somewhat breathless. Entirely surrounded, Leia takes a deep breath as First Order guns blow out her ship’s bridge, in a stunning move that kills longtime franchise favorite Admiral Ackbar.
It looks like curtains for Leia, too—and, at least in the screenings I’ve attended, audiences went completely silent as Fisher’s face frosted over and her body drifted out among the stars. The image can’t help but recall the late Fisher’s famous wish for her obituary, from her one-woman show Wishful Drinking. Recalling how Star Wars director George Lucas requested she go bra-less in the original trilogy, Fisher once joked:
George comes up to me the first day of filming and he takes one look at the dress and says, “You can’t wear a bra under that dress.”
So, I say, “Okay, I’ll bite. Why?”
And he says, “Because . . . there’s no underwear in space.”
What happens is you go to space and you become weightless. So far so good, right? But then your body expands??? But your bra doesn’t—so you get strangled by your own bra. Now I think that this would make for a fantastic obit—so I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.
By some eerie coincidence, Episode VIII briefly gives us that image: Carrie Fisher, drowned in moonlight. But the moment is short-lived, because General Leia has a war to win and inherited Force powers at her disposal. The dramatic shoulders of her formidable cape almost look like angel wings as Leia summons the Force and propels herself to the relative safety of her ship, before spending much of the film in a coma. The sequence is made all the more compelling by the fact that joining Poe and Finn in the mad race to bring Leia back is Resistance fighter Lieutenant Connix, played by Fisher’s real-life daughter Billie Lourd. That character’s increased—though still subtle—screen time in the film serves as a constant reminder of the real-world impact of Fisher’s death.
After Fisher died, Lucasfilm could have decided to make that moment Leia’s last. Sure, the film was already in postproduction, but crazier things have happened to accommodate the sudden death of a franchise star. But director Rian Johnson and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy eventually decided to leave Fisher’s role in The Last Jedi untouched. “We were a little ways into postproduction when she passed away, and so we had it mostly put together,” Johnson said. “We didn’t really end up changing it. And that includes adding lines back in that we had cut out or anything like that.” Luckily for audiences, that means we still get scenes like Leia efficiently ending Poe’s mutiny with a single blaster shot.
The actress’s death also infuses several late-in-the-movie moments with added poignancy. When Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo says goodbye to her old friend Leia as she plans to stay behind and go down with the ship, Leia says she can’t take anymore loss. “Sure you can,” Holdo says serenely as if speaking directing to Fisher fans in the audience.
And when he wrote and directed a scene in which the Skywalker twins are finally reunited, Johnson could not have known the added meaning Luke’s comforting words would take. “No one’s ever really gone,” he assures Leia while handing her Han’s golden dice. That line takes on a triple meaning: it covers her grief over Han, prepares her for Luke’s disappearing act, and gives solace to an audience watching a film that immortalizes Fisher after her death.
The movie could have, again, tied up Leia’s story by having her disappear at the same time Luke does. She and Rey share a look as her brother vanishes off that Ahch-To cliff; The Last Jedi could have ended Leia’s story there, with Poe finally ready to lead and General Organa vanishing into a pile of regal cloak. But if she had, we wouldn’t have gotten the final scene in which Rey and Leia—surrounded by the droids, critters, and fighter pilots of the Resistance—have one more chat about the nature of death. It’s easy for audiences to take Rey’s observation that Luke vanished without pain but with “peace and purpose” and apply it, if they choose, to Fisher herself. The Last Jedi winds up, almost by accident, being the perfect farewell, one that ends with a dedication in the credits: “In loving memory of our princess, Carrie Fisher.”
But Leia does survive the action of The Last Jedi. So, how will the franchise handle her absence going forward? Kennedy assured Vanity Fair that, unlike in Rogue One,they won’t use C.G.I. in Episode IX to construct a digital Leia: “We don’t have any intention of beginning a trend of re-creating actors who are gone,” she said. Confirming that not even archival footage of Fisher would be used in the next installment, Kennedy said: “We had not written the script [for Episode IX] yet, but we regrouped and started over again. Sadly, Carrie will not be in IX.”
Though there’s no definitive word, yet, on the Leia plan from Lucasfilm, a popular theory is that there will be a significant time jump between The Last Jedi and the final film in the trilogy. Leia’s death could simply play out in that film’s opening crawl with Poe, having learned a valuable lesson from both Leia and Holdo, stepping in as the leader of the Resistance. If indeed that final, hope-filled shot of Leia and Rey on the Falcon—a passing of the generational torch if ever we saw one—winds up being the last we see of Fisher, it will very much be the send-off she deserves.