For those of us old enough to remember watching the original in movie theaters 40 years ago, there’s an emotionally wrenching reunion near the end of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” that will likely leave you awash in tears. In a way, director Rian Johnson’s entire thrilling two hour and 32 minute addition to the “Star Wars” series builds to this moment with General Leia Organa, the steadfast leader of the Resistance.
Lots of painful (not to mention gripping) backstory has been revealed throughout the film’s preceding 120 minutes and so the stakes are sky high when the reunion finally happens.
“I know what you’re going to say,” Leia intones gravely as fan tear ducts burst around the globe. She waits a beat and adds, “I changed my hair.” Leave it to Carrie Fisher to leave us laughing through our sobs.
Since her untimely death last December at age 60 (a day before the death of her mother, Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds) after filming had wrapped on “Episode VIII,” fans have been bracing themselves during the 12-month wait to witness Fisher’s final appearance as Leia. For many of us, Leia represents a trailblazing space bad ass who forever shattered the intergalactic glass ceiling with her first appearance in 1977 as a laser gun-toting Princess who was routinely called upon to save the boys in the original trilogy.
While it was thrilling to see Leia reunited with Han Solo (and Harrison Ford!) in 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” some fans were disappointed that Leia didn’t have enough to do as the film rolled out its new generation of heroes: Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and of course, Han and Leia’s deliciously odious offspring Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
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Blessedly, Leia is at the center of much of the action this time, demonstrating she still has great aim with a laser gun and at one point, slugging Solo-esque flyboy Poe and telling him, “Get your head out of your cockpit!” During a particularly cuticle gnawing sequence, Fisher also barks at certain gold-plated worrywart droid (and perhaps us the audience as well) instructing, “Wipe that nervous expression off your face, C-3PO!”
There’s also a heart-stopping scene that’s only heightened by our awareness that Fisher the actress is now gone. In fact, our entire film-going experience ends up influenced by this. Lines of dialogue and certain scenes now take on fresh poignancy and weight they otherwise mightn’t if we knew Leia would continue in the series.
Leia’s influence in the galaxy is also felt elsewhere in the film. Fisher’s real-life daughter Billie Lourd returns as Lt. Connix, Kelly Marie Tran debuts as the quick-thinking, kick ass Rose Tico, Laura Dern brings the gravitas as Vice Admiral Holdo and Veronica Ngo as Paige Tico bravely and thrillingly kicks off the action at the film’s open. And of course, there’s Ridley’s riveting performance as Jedi-in-training Rey, who has the unenviable task of convincing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to forsake his solitude to return with her as a member of the Resistance.
Forty years on, Fisher and Leia have had a profound and progressive effect on the “Star Wars” universe. Leia is no longer alone in a solar system of testosterone. And like 2015’s “Force Awakens,” Johnson and executive producer J.J. Abrams make sure that “Star Wars” fans of all colors, faiths and ethnicities see themselves represented — and have someone to cheer for — onscreen.
For us veteran fans, Johnson’s screenplay imaginatively weaves in reunions with beloved characters (and even a playful nod to Leia’s original holographic message stored inside R2D2 from 1977’s original film) while introducing us to Porgs, Crystal Foxes called Vulptexs and a series of captivating set pieces, including an eyes-between-your-fingers, universe-altering climax on the planet Crait.
But in the end, “The Last Jedi” doesn’t belong to the title character (whoever that might be…) but to Carrie Fisher and Princess-turned-General Leia. A reason her final scenes resonate so deeply is the audience’s inability to separate the actress from the iconic role.
Fisher explained her own plight with this in her 2016 memoir, “The Princess Diarist”: “Am I Princess Leia or is she me? Split the difference and you’d be closer to the truth. I don’t think you can think of Leia without my lurking in that thought somewhere.”
Things indeed look dire for the Resistance near the end of “The Last Jedi” and at Monday night’s press screening of the film, even the craggiest critic in the theater was wiping away tears when Leia delivers the devastating line, “I’m just glad you’re here at the end.” It’s almost as if Fisher is comforting grief-stricken fans one last time.
A warning: fans who remain in the dark during the end credits as you emotionally pull yourself together may want to smuggle in a few extra napkins from the concession stand. Right after the cast names appear, the following emerges on screen: “In Loving Memory of our Princess, Carrie Fisher.”
May the Force of triple-ply tissues be with you.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.