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Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker marks the end of the Skywalker Saga, a nine-movie series that's spanned 42 years and three generations of characters to capture the imaginations and hearts of millions of fans around the world. While it's impossible to sum up everything we love about these films, we here at SYFY WIRE are going to try.
Leading up to The Rise of Skywalker, we're breaking down and celebrating our favorite scenes from the series. Today, we look at Leia spaceflight in The Last Jedi — a moment that was a long time in the making.
We always knew she could fly. By "we," of course, I mean the '80s kids who treasured our Princess Leia Star Wars action figures. Essentially the only female character among hundreds that Kenner manufactured, Leia came in a variety of three-inch plastic variations (Bespin Leia, Hoth Leia, Endor Leia, etc.), each equipped, like her male counterparts, with a tiny blaster.
Unlike most "girl" toys at the time, Leia didn't come with a hairbrush or a sparkly piece of netting meant to signify eveningwear; she was meant for bigger things. We knew this because we'd watched her lead a rebellion on our VCRs. We'd seen Luke Skywalker tell her, "The Force is strong in my family. My father has it, I have it… and my sister has it."
It didn't matter that we hadn't actually seen her use the Force for anything except mild telepathy. If Luke could levitate C-3PO over the Ewoks' heads, if Vader could choke a man from across a room, then Leia must be unstoppable. Wherever kids played Star Wars, those plastic Leias zoomed through the air like superheroes, stiff vinyl capes flapping in the imaginary space winds.
And then it actually happened.
In one of the most daring and divisive moments of The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren's First Order fleet blasts the bridge of the Resistance flagship, sucking General Leia into space. For a moment it seems we've lost her. She is action-figure stiff, ice crystallizing on her skin. Then her fingers twitch. Slowly, her arm reaches outward. ("Reach out with your feelings," Luke will tell Rey during her Jedi instruction.)
Then her eyes open.
In one swift, silent motion, Leia glides through space, past the burning debris of her own ship, and back into the arms of the Resistance. Exhausted — whether from the effort of wielding the Force or the lack of oxygen — she collapses, awakening from her coma just in time for the film's third act.
When I first watched this scene at a press screening, the audience burst into applause. After the film's release, it became clear that not everyone was as taken with Leia's show of Force. Derisively dubbed "Leia Poppins", the love-it-or-hate-it scene immediately sparked a thousand debates. Was it brilliant or ridiculous? Did it make sense for the story? Was it even scientifically possible? (This is a question that no one should ever ask about anything Star Wars-related, which hasn't stopped them yet.)
There were exciting implications for fans: Had Leia studied to become a Jedi in the interim of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens? And there were those who refused to believe their own eyes: Leia couldn't possibly have that kind of power, so her son Kylo Ren must have remotely used his powers to fly her to safety. (If you support this last theory, we are no longer friends.)
Writer-director Rian Johnson explained the thinking behind Leia's flight in the director's commentary, likening it to "an instinctual survival thing, like when you hear stories of a parent whose toddler is caught under a car and they get superhuman strength." He added, "I knew it was going to be a stretch… I'm sure it will land different ways for different people, but for me, it felt like a really emotionally satisfying thing to see."
And this is where Johnson understands Star Wars in a way that creator Lucas perhaps could not: "Emotionally satisfying" is the whole endgame. Because of the richness of its world-building, Star Wars has always invited a certain kind of left-brained obsession, manifested in catalogs of creatures, intricate cross-platform timelines, and Wookieepedia (which is both more thorough and more accurate than actual Wikipedia). But ultimately, Star Wars fandom is about emotional connection.
It's about tapping into The Force: something bigger than all of us, "an energy field created by all living things" (per Obi-Wan), "a tension, a balance that binds the universe together" (per Luke). You can't know the Force; the only way to harness its power is to feel it. It feels like discovering a strength you never knew you had. It feels like a love strong enough to live on past death. And we feel it because Luke does, because Anakin and Obi-Wan do, because Leia and Yoda do, because eventually, even Han does. Our emotional bond with these characters is our gateway into their world.
I can't explain how Leia, aged and weary, used the Force to pull herself through space. I can only explain that it feels like destiny: the fulfillment of a promise made decades earlier, the moment that Leia became a literal skywalker. It's Leia manifesting all the strength and power that fans never doubted she had. The scene hints, regretfully, at everything we never saw: Think of what Leia might have done, it whispers, if she'd been the hero of this story. Conceived by Lucas as an archetypal damsel-in-distress, Leia became, to borrow a phrase, more powerful than he could possibly imagine. And for one glorious moment, her dormant Jedi potential was realized.
Princess Leia never got a chance to wield a lightsaber or blow up a planet-sized battle station. But she did get to walk through the stars. While the audience at the press screening burst into applause, I remembered the feeling of the Leia figure in my small hand, and I cried.