Note: This article contains major spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
The Star Wars franchise – at least in its original, non-prequel form – has always stood on the shoulders of three main characters. Without either Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia or Han Solo, the original trilogy would not have boasted the same heft, sense of fun and, ultimately, heroic catharsis. While it was Mark Hamill's nascent Jedi who received the central thrust of the 'Hero's Journey' plot structure, Han and Leia were as crucial to turning that relatively simple story into one of the most enduring cinematic behemoths of all time.
As such, it's entirely logical that the sequel trilogy of Star Wars – born of the $4bn Disney purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012 – was crafted in at least some way around those three characters. The Force Awakens focused heavily on Han Solo and his struggles to reclaim the soul of his estranged son, Kylo Ren, which ultimately led to his death in a shocking act of patricide. The Last Jedi, meanwhile, saw Luke Skywalker grapple with the effects of the three decades since he helped bring balance to the Force, leading eventually to his own sacrifice via Force projection from Ahch-To to the scene of the climactic battle on Crait.
With those two movies in the can, it seemed like a certainty that General Leia Organa was likely to play a huge part in the film that would become The Rise of Skywalker. Obviously, when Carrie Fisher passed away tragically and suddenly in December 2016, it became clear that Leia's story could no longer be executed as originally planned. In a recent interview with Yahoo, Fisher's brother Todd said Leia was “going to be the big pay-off” in the third movie, adding that she would have been “the last Jedi, so to speak”.
But rather than junk everything planned for Leia and go in another direction, J.J. Abrams – brought back into the Star Wars fold after directing The Force Awakens – decided to find a way to get Leia on screen and complete her arc. Abrams declared that a trove of unused footage from The Force Awakens had been unearthed, which would allow Leia to show up in the new film. This announcement was a shock to many, not least because Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy had originally announced that Fisher would not appear in Episode IX and Rian Johnson had revealed that, although all of the physical footage of Fisher for The Last Jedi had been shot, she had been unable to record ADR and so some audio trickery was required to complete her part.
It has since emerged that Abrams was working from eight minutes of footage in constructing Leia's role in The Rise of Skywalker, and it's fair to say that the scarcity of the material really shows in the finished product.
Leia's scenes in the first act of The Rise of Skywalker are almost incomprehensible. Fisher's dialogue feels stilted and wooden and is performed while standing almost stock still in one place, interacting with Daisy Ridley as Rey. Ridley's role in the scenes is to exist as a sort of effervescent Catherine wheel of energy, compensating for the fact Fisher is – for obvious and unavoidable reasons – not as verbally or physically expressive as you would expect her to be.
But the problems go beyond a simple lack of energy. Due to the rather sparse supply of footage, General Leia essentially serves as a sort of action figure in this movie, with just a few “action phrases” she can say whenever the cord in her back is pulled. This leaves the script around her to explain everything she is saying when she emits a bizarre non-sequitur, seemingly entirely unconnected to the scene. It's like an improv performance in which the rest of the cast is desperately making up for one star who doesn't quite understand how the format works. When film journalist Mark Harrison recently compared the scenes to an interaction with Lassie, he hit the nail right on the head.
Something to discuss later that I've not seen anyone else get cross about - I would have preferred if Leia wasn't in The Rise Of Skywalker at all, rather than insert other characters into Carrie Fisher's deleted scenes and fucking explain what she means like she's Lassie.
— Mark Harrison (@MHarrison90) December 20, 2019
Later in the movie, Leia is shown to die after using her last breath to reach out through the Force to her son, distracting him for long enough that Rey can best him in their lightsaber duel. Later, after the newly renamed Ben Solo sacrifices himself to revive a mortally wounded Rey on the Sith homeworld of Exegol, Leia achieves the same peace and oneness with the Force previously seen in the dying moments of Jedi masters Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and Luke Skywalker as her body fades away. Her only other appearance is in a flashback scene in which she is shown – in digitally de-aged form – wielding a lightsaber and undergoing Jedi training under the tutelage of her brother, years before the events of The Force Awakens. It's a de-aging effect that somehow seems to have regressed from the technology that facilitated her brief appearance in the final moments of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story just three years ago.
These scenes are quite simply the worst of both worlds when it comes to providing one of the most significant characters in sci-fi with a proper send-off. Leia in The Rise of Skywalker feels like nothing – a glorified cameo akin to Bill Murray showing up for a few scenes in the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot before being chucked out of a window. The fact that some of the last moments on screen for arguably the most iconic female character in Hollywood history consist of her muttering non-sequiturs while the rest of the cast largely ignores her is a very sad thing indeed.
But what could Abrams and Disney have done? They worked with what they had and pieced together a story around it.
Well, the answer is quite simple. They should have kept Leia off screen. Fisher's death was a tragedy and it would've been sad to see her not provided an on-screen goodbye in the franchise. However, there were plenty of ways that Abrams could've provided a heartfelt farewell to General Leia without forcing the square peg of her already filmed material into the round hole of The Rise of Skywalker.
If Leia had died in the time period since the conclusion of The Last Jedi, it could've been the galvanising event that solidified the remaining figures of the Resistance in their fight against the First Order. In the final moments of Rian Johnson's excellent film, the sacrifice made by Luke Skywalker appeared to ripple through the galaxy, capturing the attention of those living under the thumb of Kylo Ren and his minions. If the death of a beloved military figurehead was piled on top of that, then the climax of The Rise of Skywalker – in which the biggest fleet Star Wars has ever seen suddenly arrives to save the day purely on the basis of how nice Lando Calrissian is – would have been far more logical and indeed poignant.
In fact, the use of Leia in The Rise of Skywalker serves as a sort of microcosm for the approach of Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio to the film as a whole. It seems to be a case of story first, character second. The film, and in particular its final act, is a swirling maelstrom of revelations, reversals and twists that is as muddy and nonsensical as it is wearying and infuriating. It's a film based on a list of “wouldn't it be cool if...” ideas, thrown together without any sense of whether they're in any way consistent with the characters and what we know about them. On social media, it's already almost a cliché to say that the movie feels as if it was made by committee on a Reddit thread, but it's a common sentiment because it's true.
The Rise of Skywalker is a Star Wars movie that feels more like someone playing with action figures than a creative team telling a coherent story. Rian Johnson has repeatedly said his decisions in The Last Jedi were driven by the desire to force characters into the hardest possible position for each of them. Alternatively, The Rise of Skywalker seems driven solely by wrong-footing the audience, regardless of logic.
The use of Leia seems to play right into that idea. Her inclusion is entirely motivated by a desire to play to the crowd and deliver dollops of fan service, rather than out of any genuine sense of character-driven storytelling. It's a sad and flimsy send-off for a character who deserved much better and it's symptomatic of a film that concludes one of cinema's greatest franchises with a whimper rather than a bang.