Warning: There are spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker ahead.
The first time I saw Carrie Fisher in the real world was back in 2016 at Star Wars Celebration in London. She was walking the convention floor, sans disguise, with her beloved French bulldog Gary Fisher at her side. She interacted with the fans around her, sprinkling glitter as she walked along; she seemed at home in this throng of Star Wars superfans. A few hours later, she’d be on stage with her on-screen twin brother, Mark Hamill, and their dogs, waxing poetic about the franchise one minute and throwing up double middle fingers the next. She was a walking contradiction, a goddamn delight, and every bit our Leia.
So no matter how many times the filmmakers have spoken about how they included Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, it’s impossible to know how it will feel to actually see the late actor’s scenes. Writer-director JJ Abrams has explained numerous times that because Fisher passed away before TROS began filming, he used deleted scenes and unused footage of Fisher to bring her into the last Skywalker film posthumously. Knowing that going into the movie helps, but even after experiencing the scenes in question, it’s difficult to know how to feel.
The Rise of Skywalker could not have existed without Fisher. Leia is the one person who tenuously connects the trilogy’s conflicted villain, her son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), to the light side of the Force. She’s an essential mentor to two of our heroes, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe (Oscar Isaac). And this final chapter was meant to be her story. Harrison Ford’s Han Solo had The Force Awakens; The Last Jedi was all about Luke. The Rise of Skywalker was meant to be Fisher’s time to shine. Abrams and co. were faced with an indisputably impossible task, and predictably, her scenes are not perfect.
But they never even had a chance.
There will be spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker from this point on.
Jarringly, Leia only speaks a few lines in the Rise of Skywalker’s first act. No matter how hard you try not to notice, it’s clear that her face has been digitally placed on a body double, and the actors are speaking to a stand-in. This isn’t so much a criticism, just unavoidable facts.
The actors in these films have such reverence and love for Fisher that it’s palpable in every scene she’s a part of. There’s a natural chemistry that can’t be replicated with CGI and old footage, no matter how carefully or artfully it’s done.
Fisher was a vivacious performer, especially as Leia. Even when she’s silent or staring off into the distance, there’s meaning to every brow furrow and tiny adjustment. Her split-second sighs and flicks of her wrist were laden with a thick sarcasm that was unmistakably hers. When she spoke, she was the only voice in the room. Every line Fisher uttered was a living, breathing thing.
When you strip that thing of its natural environment, and drop it into another setting, there’s something unnatural about the whole experience. Fisher’s repurposed lines in The Rise of Skywalker are essentially fireflies in a jar — they’re still beautiful and affecting, but their confinement deflates the encounter.
For what it’s worth, it seems that Abrams knew this; he limited her speaking scenes to only the parts that were absolutely necessary to finish Leia’s story. While it’s not like Leia — at all — to drop only a single line or two in a conversation, an excess of one liners plucked from the discarded Force Awakens footage would have begun to wear thinner than they are already are.
And because her words are startlingly sparse, we can instead focus on the pieces of the story that actually match our reverence for Fisher and for Leia. The moment in which Rey calls Leia “master” reveals that her Force use in The Last Jedi was no fluke — Leia has been a Jedi master this whole time. Those who read the books in the canon already know that she trained with Luke before the events of The Force Awakens, but it’s powerful to see that fact recognized in the films, especially because she’s passing that training onto Rey.
And while the transfers of life force between Jedis in this film are sure to be controversial among fans, the fact that Leia’s final act before her death is to connect to her son Ben, solidifying his return to the light side, is also quite moving. Because while major tenants of Leia’s character were her tenacity and wit, its bedrock was her heart. We saw it when she watched the Death Star destroy her home world of Alderaan in A New Hope, we saw it when she lost Han Solo in both The Empire Strikes Back and The Force Awakens, and we see it every time she looks at her young mentees. Her hope and love for her son, in spite of every unforgivable thing he’s done, is the most Leia thing about her.
But perhaps the best use of Fisher’s footage and character in this film is that fact that Rise of Skywalker ends with her in her rightful place as a member of the revered family: She stands as a Force ghost beside her brother, destined to be a guiding light in our hero’s journey, wherever it takes her after the events of this saga. And that’s one final image fans can hold fondly in their hearts.