On Episode Nine and the Leia Problem

It’s unlikely to have escaped many people’s attention that, at the tail end of 2016, año de la muerta that it seemed to be at times, we lost the incomparable Carrie Fisher at the too-young age of sixty. Better wordsmiths than I have eulogised her far better than I ever could and I don’t intend to compete with them; suffice it to say that Fisher’s iconic Princess Leia was one of the first strong female characters I remember seeing in the movies, so she made a very lasting impression.

Fisher’s untimely passing comes only a few months after the end of principal photography on Star Wars: Episode VIII – Subtitle To Be Announced.    By all accounts, after a relatively small role in The Force Awakens, where most of the legacy character action was given to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Leia’s role will be significantly expanded in Episode VIII.   Given that the movie will now serve as Fisher’s cinematic swan song, it certainly seems unlikely that much of her work will end up on the cutting room floor, and it goes without saying that the filmmakers will aim to give her a fitting send off.

The elephant in the room, however, is that Episode VIII is only the middle film in a new trilogy and, looming increasingly large on the horizon is the spectre of Episode IX, the grand finale to the new trilogy.   As such, the filmmakers have a difficult decision to make regarding how they handle one of their most beloved characters, given the demise of the actress who so capably played her.   And none of the potential solutions are exactly what you’d call problem-free.

The first option is to do what the franchise has done very recently, to use computer-generated imagery to keep the character in play.   In the recent Rogue One, sophisticated effects were used to bring back the late Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, looking much as he did during the very first Star Wars movie back in the 1970’s.   An actor with the right build and similar facial features was cast and Cushing’s features were digitally projected onto him.   It worked reasonably well in a small role but, as I commented in my review, was hardly flawless.    The same technology was used very briefly again at the very end of the film, for a scene where a 70’s era Carrie Fisher reprises her role as the young Princess Leia.    Could that same technology now be used to recreate the older Leia for whatever scenes are required for the final movie in the trilogy?

Option number two is to write the character out completely in some manner.  An off-screen death would likely be considered a bit too on-the-nose for the filmmakers to take that route, but Leia could conceivably be sent off somewhere to lead some off-screen aspect of the Resistance’s fight against the First Order.

Option three is arguably by far the simplest, to recast the character.

Obviously right now, we don’t know what the storylines for the rest of the trilogy entail, but we can certainly make some educated guesses, and it’s hard to make any that don’t feature Leia in a pretty significant role.    She’s the founder of the Resistance and, with the destruction of the Senate during The Force Awakens, one of the few remaining politically-savvy operators in the galaxy.   She’s a natural leader and, as such, it seems unlikely that she wouldn’t be front-and-centre in forthcoming events, at the heart of those plot strands focusing on the Resistance.

While predicting specific scenes is tough, it seems all but certain that the character will have at least a couple of major emotionally-laden scenes coming up.    Firstly, at some point, there should be the reunion with her long-missing brother Luke.    The odds seem good that this scene will probably occur in the already-shot Episode VIII, so we may be okay on that one, but we’ll only find that out a year from now.   The second scene that seems inevitable is that Leia will confront her wayward son Ben, now calling himself Kylo Ren and apprenticed to the still-mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke.   That’s going to be a big emotionally-punchy scene, particularly given what happened when his father tried giving him a good talking to, and seems much more likely to have been saved for the finale.

The problem that comes immediately to mind with option one is that, while the technology used to recreate characters is undeniably impressive, it seems highly unlikely that, even with another couple of years to refine it, that they’ll be at the point where it’s good enough to carry a major role in a movie as a photo-realistic human.   Nor does it seem likely to be able to pull off the emotional requirements of what will be highly emotionally-charged scenes.   For the movie to work, the audience has to totally buy the heartbreak in Leia’s face as she faces her son after everything that he’s done.   Imagine, if you will, Mark Hamill’s epic performance at the iconic moment when he learns Vader’s true identity – the power of that scene resides not in Vader’s revelation, but in the sheer horror that Luke faces at the knowledge.   If that emotion is compromised, then a pivotal scene fails.    At some point, they’ll get there, I’m sure, but creating an acceptable replica of a much-loved actress, capable of pulling off the requirements of a major role, within the next two years, seems like a very tall order indeed.

Option two does at least sidestep the issue of the CGI, but writing the character out completely, or even a combination of options one and two, by digitally recreating the character in only a small number of scenes hardly seems like a good send-off for a beloved and iconic character.    The audience want to see their favourite characters in satisfying roles, not sidelined when the big finale kicks off.

So that brings us to the third option, recasting the character.   It’s hard to judge how audiences might react to that; certainly it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be some resistance to the idea, but, as long as the matter is handled well, it doesn’t seem to me that there’d be any greater resistance to recasting than there would be to a CGI recreation that doesn’t convince or writing the character out of the movie.   The core emotional scenes could remain intact and the story could unfold as planned, rather than being compromised by hasty rewriting.   I certainly wouldn’t envy whoever took on the role, but as long as they showed the proper respect to Fisher’s performance and didn’t try to do things their own way, I think the audience would accept it as a necessary evil to give the character a good send-off.

When it comes down to it, the filmmakers face a classic Catch-22.   Whatever they do, they’re going to face resistance from the audiences.   For me, the best option, the course of action that best respects both the character and the film overall, is not to turn to technology to bail them out, but to get out there and find somebody who can wrap up the story of Princess Leia in a way that befits the character, the actress who created her and the audiences who love her.

Later this week, the filmmakers are getting together to discuss how to proceed.   It’s a hard choice.   Let’s hope that, whatever they decide, they come up with something good.

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