Undeniably, one of the most debated moments in The Last Jedi centers around General Leia Organa-Skywalker-Solo-Amidala surviving the attack on the Raddus by the Supremacy. The bridge of the ship explodes when Kylo Ren’s wingmates take advantage of Ren’s own hesitation and capitalize on the opportunity to take out the Resistance’s leadership. The camera shows us Leia’s every move as she realizes the danger, as the explosion occurs, and as she is sucked into the vacuum of space.
Criticism has abounded about the next few moments of the film. The audience is led to believe that she is gone. Then, we see her hand, slowly crystallizing amidst the black coldness of space, and we see her begin to move. With outstretched hand, she pulls herself back to the bridge of the Raddus where Resistance members haul her back inside and whisk her to the medical bay. The focus of the criticism is predominantly two-fold:
1) There is something visually unappealing going on here. I have not yet been able to put my finger squarely upon what the issue is (until home viewing is available so I can watch it another dozen times) though it might have to do with a digital recreation of Carrie Fisher in space as she crystallizes. It straddles the line between realistic and cartoonish and might have been something amazing and astounding back when Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was released, but not so much nowadays. I do not intend to focus this entry on this issue since the second issue is much more interesting.
2) Leia has, to this point in the films, never demonstrated any real aptitude for using the Force, no real Force sensitivity. Empire Strikes Back shows her hearing Luke’s calling her name at Cloud City, and she claims to have “felt” that Luke was not on the Death Star II when it exploded above Endor in Return of the Jedi, but she does not appear to demonstrate active manipulation of the Force. Some of the new canon does demonstrate this (novels detail how Luke educated her on breathing techniques and some psychometry, etc.) but nothing as extreme as on display on the screen, to this author’s awareness.
One caveat to all this: recreating a film is not one of my favorite hobbies. Filmmakers spend months and years crafting and recrafting a film so that the final product should reflect the best efforts of everyone in the credits. Of course, nearly no film is perfect (after all, even The Godfather has its critics) so there may unavoidably be things that the filmmakers would desire to change, but for the layperson to Monday-morning quarterback how a film was made feels slightly disingenuous for lack of subject matter expertise. Basically, I’m no movie-maker, so I’m willing to allow that Rian Johnson’s creative talents are (far) superior to my own.
So why pick on this scene? Why bother review this one fifteen second piece of a two-and-one-half-hour adventure?
Because we almost watched Leia get killed on screen. This was meant to grab our attention. The fact that it feels ‘off’ is problematic.
But then how to solve? How do we, as but humble nerds, contribute in a positive and constructive manner to something we know nothing about? We tinker!
If you consider the different elements that go into what you experience in the film, they boil down to the visuals, the dialogue, the sound effects, the music, and the context of the scene within the scope of the film as a whole. Visually, I do not have anything to offer on this front (see above). There is no dialogue and there are no sound effects. Contextually, there is no other addressing of Leia’s ability to use the Force elsewhere in the film (that is, Poe never exclaims, “General Leia, when did you have time to learn how to do that?” and Leia never answers, “Well, my young and hunky friend, let me tell you the tale…”). While it could perhaps have been handy to have some sort of acknowledgment of this new development to Leia’s toolbox, Chekhov’s gun be damned I suppose. That leaves us the music.
When the music swells around the action, it is a new version of Leia’s theme. This makes a degree of sense, her being the character on screen at the moment anyway. A strong string section reminds us that this is more than just the general of the Resistance, but it is the same Princess of Alderaan who later learned she was offspring to the most powerful Jedi of the old Jedi Order and brother to the inheritance of that same Order.
But, as we know, there is no contextual addressing of Leia’s Force sensitivity. Leia’s float-back to the Raddus requires the viewer to piece together that throughout the years, Leia received some sort of training from Luke in order to use the Force. We know the Force is strong in her family, that has been made clear in the prequels, in Return of the Jedi, and (to a lesser degree) the trailer for The Force Awakens, but this is our first opportunity to apply all of that information to Leia individually, as well as separate and apart from how we have applied it to Luke. It is a stretch to be able to put that all together in the limited amount of time given; the movie simply picks up, moves on, and expects you to catch up. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
However, there might be another solution that would help sell the moment, something that could subtly tie all of it together so that the viewer can make the appropriate connections in the short amount of time that the scene allows. If they had used Luke & Leia’s theme from Return of the Jedi, we could have made the connection that much stronger on screen. Leia’s theme stands for her royalty, her innocence in the Rebellion, and her fantastical nature. However, the theme for Luke & Leia is what ties the two characters together in Return of the Jedi. It is a not-up-to-that-point-used musical cue (within The Last Jedi) that shows the difference in relationship between Luke and Leia. Perhaps a plaintive, less bombastic version of that theme than using Leia’s theme sung by a chorus of strings sawing their hearts out could have demonstrated that Leia has followed in her brother’s footsteps and learned (some) of the ways of the Force.
In fact, when Luke visits Crait to stand in the gap between the Resistance and the First Order, that very theme plays when Luke and Leia have their moment. This would have tied the two moments together: Leia channels her brother’s abilities at the beginning of the film and then Luke channels their sibling relationship at the end of the film, and it would be the musical motif that ties them together. The ultimate question is whether this would have been strong enough to make sense to the viewership as a whole. Luke & Leia’s theme is honestly not the most popular piece of music to come from the Star Wars saga under John Williams’ conducting baton though it should stand in contention as one of the most important pieces. Tying Leia to the Skywalker family tree had grand implications on both her personally and the gang of heroes corporately. It cleared the way for Han to no longer consider Luke a romantic rival for Leia’s affection; it gave Leia a real sense of family and connection to the beings who contributed to her personal biology; and it made the sacrifice of Bail and Breha Organa by adopting the second-born child of Darth Vader all the more tragic. All of this is codified within Return of the Jedi by the use of a brand new theme. Not Luke’s theme, not Leia’s theme, not the Force’s theme, but all of them together in one. A solo french horn sings to us the song of family and destiny, met in one, on the balconies of Endor. Had The Last Jedi gone this route, perhaps the average viewer may not have been able to put it together at the moment, but by the end of the film they could sewn all these threads together into the tapestry of the Force and family.
Movie audiences do not deserve to have every aspect of a film explained to them. We are not entitled to everything being laid out plainly in expository dialogue. Audiences should, from time to time, be expected to work out for themselves why things happen based on the information provided on screen. While this change does not make it explicit what occurs on screen, it does create a link from the beginning to the end that provides confirmation of what we are supposed to figure out on our own. It creates bookends not to just the film but to Leia’s character within the film. In the quietness of the music, we can find the one voice that truly speaks for the film.