The shock death of Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher in late 2016 was a terrible blow to both her loved ones and her millions of fans worldwide – and alongside the tragedy came the sad knowledge that Fisher would never be able to resolve the storyline of her character Leia, who was apparently set to take a central role in the upcoming Star Wars Episode IX.
“The minute she finished [The Last Jedi], she grabbed me and said, ‘I’d better be at the forefront of IX!’” Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy previously revealed.
“Because Harrison [Ford] was front and centre on VII, and Mark [Hamill] is front and centre on VIII. She thought IX would be her movie. And it would have been.”
Now, that plan wasn’t to be realised – but when he took over the project, director JJ Abrams came up with another way to include Fisher’s General Leia, digging out footage he’d shot from 2015’s The Force Awakens.
“We desperately loved Carrie Fisher,” Abrams said in July. “Finding a truly satisfying conclusion to the Skywalker saga without her eluded us. We were never going to recast, or use a CG character.
“With the support and blessing from her daughter, Billie, we have found a way to honour Carrie’s legacy and role as Leia in Episode IX by using unseen footage we shot together in Episode VII.”
So how well does this actually work in the finished movie? Well, reasonably if not seamlessly. Without giving away too many plot details, Leia plays a significant if not massive role in Rise of Skywalker, more comparable to her presence in The Force Awakens than her large The Last Jedi appearances. Total, she has around eight minutes of screen-time.
Generally speaking Fisher’s old footage is re-inserted into scenes solely within the Resistance base and spliced alongside new performances, most notably from Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Fisher’s real-life daughter Billie Lourd and Greg Grunberg’s pilot “Snap” Wexley.
This sometimes makes for an awkward watch, with Fisher’s dialogue often appearing crowbarred into a script and requiring the other actors to set her up with some very specific lines to ensure what she says make sense.
At its best, it’s not too bad and many viewers might not notice, but at its worst it’s a bit like the scenes from Home Alone where Kevin plays old movie clips to have a conversation with adults, or the episode of South Park where Isaac Hayes’ Chef character is written out using intentionally awkward prerecorded lines.
It rarely feels natural or organic, and generally there’s a sense that there’s a lot unsaid, too much held back and unexplained in every scene Leia appears in.
Visually, the effect is less noticeable, and certainly stands up better than the recreated Peter Cushing of Rogue One, though keen-eyed viewers watching on bigger screens may note that Leia seems in a slightly different focus to many of the characters she’s with, and often stands conveniently in middle distance while other characters move around her.
Also, despite Abrams’ assurances, it’s fair to say that a fair amount of CG and body double usage is included in this film to help facilitate Leia’s storyline, at least based on what we see her doing on-screen.
As for what that is, I’ll be giving no spoilers for the moment – though I will say that earlier plans for the character revealed by Fisher’s brother Todd aren’t completely abandoned, even if they are massively stripped back.
“She was going to be the big payoff in the final film,” he previously told Yahoo, noting that Fisher was to have her own lightsaber in the movie.
“She was going to be the last Jedi, so to speak. That’s cool right?”
Overall, the return of Leia doesn’t quite work in Rise of Skywalker. It’s a little stilted, a little sad and sometimes feels awkward – but I really don’t think there’s anyone to blame here. Abrams and his team faced a horrible proposition, did the best they could and did find some way of honouring both Leia and Fisher’s legacy, and I can’t really imagine anyone finding a better way of doing it.
“Rey… nothing’s impossible,” Leia tells Daisy Ridley’s young Jedi early in the film. But maybe, in this case, something was.
Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is in UK cinemas now