When Carrie Fisher died in late 2016, it posed a big story concern for the ongoing Star Wars saga. The actress had returned as Leia Organa (former Princess, now a General) in The Force Awakens and had filmed the character's reportedly bigger role in The Last Jedi, but her death obviously meant she wouldn't be able to appear in 2019's Episode IX.
The immediate fan assumption was that she’d be brought back with CGI a la Peter Cushing in Rogue One. Leia had already been digitally recreated in a younger form for that film (with Ingvild Deila providing the body), so it seemed like the natural continuation. Lucasfilm were quick to quell this talk (the Cushing effect and to lesser extent young Fisher had been divisive amongst fans), saying they weren't considering using any computer trickery to extend Fisher’s role. Making the picture even more unclear, it later transpired that not only were they not going to fabricate a performance, but Leia's part in The Last Jedi wouldn't be altered to spread it over two films.
Now Carrie’s brother, Todd Fisher, has revealed that she may in fact be in Episode IX; he and niece Billie Lourd have given permission for Lucasfilm to use footage deleted from the previous two movies in Colin Trevorrow’s untitled ninth entry. From a fan standpoint this is very good news, meaning that the story will get to continue naturally and, as Todd stated, strengthen Fisher’s legacy. However, that reaction is eclipsed by the question of how exactly it will be done.
How Will The Carrie Fisher Footage Be Used?
There’s a long history of bringing actors back from the dead in movies. Typically this is when a star dies mid-production (although sometimes it can be decades later like Cushing in Rogue One or Marlon Brando in Superman Returns, which repurposed unused Jor-El footage). As such, there’s a lot of proven methods for how Lucasfilm can go about this.
Oliver Reed’s role in Gladiator was completed using smart shooting and body doubles. Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law played alternate versions of Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (and The Dark Knight Rises presumably changed to avoid Joker). Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s role in Hunger Games: Catching Fire was a mixture of composited doubles and repurposed scenes. Perhaps most effective, Paul Walker in Furious 7 was a combination of all these. Definitely most ridiculous is Peter Sellers in Trail of the Pink Panther, which made a whole new adventure entirely from deleted scenes. Each of these has their positives and negatives, and the choices tend to come from the prolificacy of the actor in the film in question.
With all that in mind, things are more complicated with Fisher. Obviously CGI is out of the equation, which would seem to mean Trevorrow’s methods of addition to the footage recovered is a mixture of physical stand-ins and voiceover actors. However, he could take a leaf out of Francis Lawrence's book, who transplanted real footage of Hoffman into Hunger Games scenes filmed after his death to increase his presence. This comes in a similar tampering region as VFX, but has a more organic, wholesome feel.
Although even if CGI was used it wouldn’t address the real problem: story. What makes Leia different to the likes of Plutarch Heavensbee or even Brian O’Connor is how far-reaching her legacy is; the former was a supporting part and the latter standalone as a character, but General Leia is an icon essential to the wider Star Wars story. Her removal can’t be done casually and neither can it occur without having a massive impact on the series. This is likely why she’s going to get a proper send-off in Episode IX, but doesn’t make executing it any easier. Based on what Todd Fisher's said, her part in that movie will be made up of scenes from VII and VIII that were filmed specifically for their respective plots, with nothing of greater substance held back. We’ve seen Lucasfilm repurpose footage before – like Red and Gold Leader in Rogue One – but never in such pointed, specific ways.
How Will Episode 9 End Leia's Arc?
Leia was set to have a key role in Episode IX paying off her sequel trilogy arc, which will now obviously not happen. Of course, quite what that arc was to be is unclear. Leia was the least elaborated-upon original trilogy character in The Force Awakens – she had considerably more screentime than Luke, but her presentation was more simple with less prominent intrigue. We saw her risen to the position of Resistance General, which presumably leaves her as leader of the First Order opposition now the New Republic has been destroyed, although her personal story is the desire to redeem Kylo Ren. Her ultimate driving force in Episode VII was the belief there is still good in Ben Solo, which has several potential avenues to explore in the future; his murder of Han may have affected her thoughts, and because Snoke seems to be wanting Kylo to brutally remove all elements of personal attachment could even put the crosshairs on her. How much of this is already covered in The Last Jedi, and what the next film will and won’t get to achieve we won’t known resolutely until December.
Episode IX will undoubtedly be Carrie Fisher’s last appearance in the franchise (barring a similar Rogue One de-aging in a future anthology film), so the big question is whether to kill off Leia or not. First, there is the outside possibility she dies in The Last Jedi, an event that would make this entire discussion moot and all of the reporting an attempt on Lucasfilm’s part to maintain the mystery. That factor makes it very unlikely though - while a movie studio wouldn’t want to just spoil one of the most anticipated movies of all time after an outside incident, it would be insensitive to actively mislead in such raw circumstances. It also renders the sequel trilogy as a gradual killing of the original heroes that feels a little too methodical (that is assuming Luke doesn’t make it out of Episode IX alive).
Presuming she makes it through Episode VIII, then, it would make a lot of sense to have her die in an emotionally fitting cap to her story. However, in the context of the production and Trevorrow dealing with limited footage, it may not be feasible or even possible to do respectfully. In lieu of that, they may instead construct a way to end her arc and give fans a goodbye more in line with Paul Walker in Furious 7, which had Brian driving off on a separate road to Dom Torretto. Especially given the real-life tragic circumstances, having Leia retire happily may actually be stronger.
Indeed, if the plan with Star Wars' post-2019 future is as fairly believable rumors suggest, Episode IX will be eventually followed by a fourth trilogy. There will be the standard generational-gap between IX and X, which provides a natural way for Leia to die off screen.
The loss of Carrie Fisher is quite possibly the biggest death of an actor during the production of a cinematic story, and given her stature definitely one of the most upsetting. As such, it poses a conflicting set of narrative and personal interests. Thankfully, Lucasfilm have so far appeared incredibly sensitive to all of these, going to great pains to respect Carrie Fisher as the saga continues without her.
We don't know much about what's in The Last Jedi, let alone what has been cut, so discerning what Colin Trevorrow has to play with and how suitable it will be is impossible at this point. But, that Todd Fisher and Lourd have allowed footage to be used must mean they feel the filmmaker and studio have an idea fitting of the legacy of Princess Leia and her actress.
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