One week after its release, The Last Jedi has unsurprisingly been the subject of widespread conversation. Like the hype leading up to the film’s premiere, the ensuing discourse has been the result of equal passion and fervor - some of it positive, some negative. Fans, critics, you name it - we’ve all spent the last week discussing and dissecting specific moments, scenes, quotes from the movie. From the side plot where Rose and Finn visit the casino city of Canto Bight to the introduction of characters like Vice Admiral Holdo, these new additions to the Star Wars universe will likely be debated over well into the release of Episode IX in 2019.
In terms of comprehensive fan reactions to TLJ, those are a little more complicated. Director Rian Johnson made a lot of interesting and unexpected choices, shaking up the franchise in a way that’s left longtime Star Wars devotees trying to reconcile their personal feelings on this latest installment. One specific decision, however, not only gave audiences a definitive answer about the fate of General Leia Organa but finally acknowledged that her ability to use the Force was in the same league, if not on par, with her twin brother, Luke Skywalker.
Leia’s strengths as a Force user have been touched on in previous Star Wars films, but never explicitly depicted. In the Legends (or Expanded Universe) series of books that were eventually removed as official Star Wars canon in the wake of The Force Awakens, there was significant plot devoted to the exploration of Leia’s Force abilities. She spent time constructing her own lightsaber and was able to use the Force as a way of communicating with her family. Yet when it came to the films, the only thing that indicated Leia had the potential to be a strong Force user was her aptitude for sensing those she had a close relationship with - being able to tell when they were in distress, or pain. Even after it was revealed that she was, in fact, the twin sister of Luke, a powerful Jedi in his own right, the question of whether or not fans would get to see her considerable strength in the Force was consistently in the background.
Arguably, chances were that we were never going to see Leia wield a lightsaber in the movies - because that’s not the type of hero she is. Any grand display of her Force abilities would certainly wind up looking very different than Luke based on who she is as a diplomat, a politician, a general. She’d pick up a blaster if the situation necessitated one, but more often than not Leia’s power was demonstrated via her natural-born leadership and the hope she gave to others. It’s why Yoda alludes to her when Obi-Wan believes Luke to be the last one they can put their reliance in. Hope is the word, the concept that has been intrinsically linked to Leia throughout the entirety of the Star Wars franchise. Even if Luke fails, there is still another.
Either way, the potential for Leia to demonstrate her Force sensitivity has always been there. Luke alludes to it in Return of the Jedi during their conversation on Endor: “the Force is strong in my family.” Unfortunately, The Force Awakens once again relegated Leia’s powers to experiencing the ripple effects of tragic events - she notably reels at the instance of Han’s death and later shares her grief with Rey as they comfort one another with a long embrace, wordlessly mourning his passing in a mutual understanding of what’s happened. With The Last Jedi, the scope of Leia’s strength as a Force user is fully realized, though it occurs in a critical scene that briefly leaves her fate hanging in the balance.
Show Spoiler In the middle of a fight with the First Order, an explosion rips apart the side of her ship, pulling Leia and other significant Resistance command into the vacuum of space. Her life is apparently over, her body still and beginning to crystallize - until we see a small sign of movement in her fingertips. Her eyes open, and with an expended burst of power, she uses the Force to pull herself back to the broken ship and the closest airlock. She is badly injured, but she has managed to survive, and there’s no question that the Force is what helps to keep her alive even as she continues to recover in a Resistance med bay.
It was later revealed the scene came about as a result of speculation from Star Wars fans - including Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, who wanted an “emotionally impactful” means of seeing Leia finally demonstrate her full Force potential. Considering the significance of Leia’s heritage as a Skywalker, it was a long time coming - not only for the character but for the fans who wanted the acknowledgment of her power to be about more than simply feeling things. Some viewers have derided the moment, referring to it as “Flying Leia,” although it turns out there is canon precedence for individuals using the Force to survive the vacuum of space (like Kanan Jarrus in the animated Star Wars Rebels). From a visual perspective, there's a certain level of theatrics in the sight of Leia gliding through space - but there's a confidence present as well, a boldness that assures us of her strength. (Besides, if anyone could pull off a scene like that one, it’s Carrie Fisher.)
Ultimately, Leia Organa does survive to the end of The Last Jedi, but the passing of Fisher nearly a year ago means that the character’s longevity in the overall story has an unexpected end date. It also means that this manifestation of Leia’s strength as a Force user will likely be her last, as far as the films are concerned. With that in mind, this scene in particular takes on several meanings, one of them very bittersweet in the larger context of the franchise. Between Leia's instinctual call on the Force to survive and Luke projecting himself across the galaxy to aid the Resistance, The Last Jedi used the Skywalker twins to provide what they always have in Star Wars for fictional and real people alike: hope. If this is the conclusion of Leia’s legacy, at least for the foreseeable future, it’s extremely fitting.