In 25 ABY, Chewbacca died on Sernpidal when Dubido, the planet’s smallest moon, crashed into the world. Moments before his death, Chewbacca had heroically saved the life of Anakin, the youngest child of Han Solo and Leia Organa Solo. Having been caught in high winds due to the impending disaster, Chewbacca sprang into action to save the teen, returning him to the Millennium Falcon. But more winds picked up, this time knocking Chewbacca away from the Falcon. With Anakin at the controls of the freighter, Solo stood on the ramp scanning the area, seeing his Wookiee friend in the distance. Anakin though, recognizing the peril they were in, made the difficult but necessary decision to pilot the Falcon away, leaving Chewbacca on the surface of Serndipal, howling in courageous defiance, as Dubido crashed into the planet.
Depicted in the 1999 novel The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime by R.A. Salvatore, the death of Chewbacca was the first major loss of a main character from the Original Trilogy films to take place in Star Wars. It was as shocking as it was unexpected, a heroic but tragic end for the beloved Wookiee. As an adolescent Star Wars fan, only 14-years-old at the time, it was difficult processing Chewbacca’s death. This was not because death was a foreign concept to me, or because I was naïve in thinking our heroes live forever. Rather, it was because his death felt like the loss of a close friend. Chewbacca may have been Han Solo’s loyal companion, but he felt like MY loyal companion as well, and the unexpected loss of the Wookiee left a hole that was, at the time, difficult to fill.
To the intensity of Chewbacca’s death was added the emotional turmoil it exacted on the other characters, particularly Han and Anakin. Almost immediately, even before the Falcon left the Serndipal system, Han blamed Anakin for the death of Chewbacca, a rift opening between the father and son. Anakin justified his decision, pleading that he had no choice, there was no way to save Chewbacca and escape the unfolding cataclysm. Plus, he would remind his dad, they had refugees from Serndipal on-board, they were responsible for these lives and had to get them out of harm’s way. Han was unconvinced, unable to process the pain of his dear friend’s demise, he would continue to lay blame at Anakin’s feet for the remainder of the novel, and while healing the rift between father and son would begin by books end, healing the inner turmoil each felt would not abate. In the next book in the series, Dark Tide I: Onslaught by Michael A. Stackpole, Anakin would continue to question his actions, convinced he had caused Chewbacca’s death. And Han, in his only appearance in the novel, is disheveled and obviously drunk, trying but failing to cope with the Wookiee-sized hole in his heart.
Shocked by his death I wished that Chewie would miraculously return. Yet, I also knew Chewbacca was not coming back from the dead even though he could and would still appear in stories prior to the cataclysm on Sernpidal. And appear he did in a unique form almost immediately. Published a couple months after Vector Prime was released, the Dark Horse comic series Star Wars: Chewbacca offered unique, in-universe tributes to the recently deceased Wookiee. These stories allowed the most memorable characters like Luke, Leia, and Han to reminisce and offer personal reflections on Chewbacca’s life. Likewise, those who did not feature in the Star Wars films, such as Chewie’s wife Mallatobuck, offer tales which expanded on the Wookiee’s exploits, further illuminating his already remarkable narrative.
While the Chewbacca comic series offered a moment for characters and fans to reminisce on Chewbacca’s life, the fact remained that he was gone. At least, that was the case until Disney wiped the slate clean, removing Vector Prime and the death of Chewbacca from the Star Wars canon. Relegating the Expanded Universe to the realm of “Legends” in 2014, Disney/Lucasfilm chose to resurrect Chewbacca with the introduction of a brand-new storyline. Admittedly, this was an unsurprising move on the part of “the House of Mouse,” one that was even understandable. With new films on the horizon in 2014, the powers-that-be needed to ensure that fans who only watched the Star Wars films did not need to play catch-up on the galaxy, reading and learning about events/characters spanning decades “in-universe.” Thus, if Chewbacca were to die once more it would be under different circumstances, which brings us to a rather jaw-dropping moment in The Rise of Skywalker.
The “Death” of Chewbacca
Having just been captured on the desert planet Pasaana by a couple Knights of Ren, Chewbacca is loaded onto a transport to be whisked off to a First Order Star Destroyer. But as the transport lifts off the ground, it is caught in the middle of a struggle of wills between Kylo Ren and Rey. Seeing the transport with Chewie moving away, Rey reaches out with the Force, stopping the vessel in mid-air. Kylo Ren also reaches out with the Force, attempting to snatch the transport away from Rey. Digging deeper and deeper into themselves and their connections to the Force, Rey suddenly taps into something hiding far beneath the surface: the Dark Side of the Force. Force-lightning shoots from her fingers, hitting the transport and killing all on-board, Chewbacca included.
The scene is stunning, a prime example of a “holy shit” moment that made my jaw drop. Not only has Rey, the heroine of the Sequel Trilogy, used the Dark Side, her action also results in the death of her friend, her co-pilot, and a beloved Star Wars character. The implications are far-reaching and gut-wrenching. Going forward, her other friends – Finn and Poe – must be exceedingly cautious around her, wondering if Rey will be set-off again, perhaps even killing them! Rey, too, must question the same, struggling with having killed Chewie and considering the threat she poses to the others. As an audience, we too must tread lightly with Rey, the death of Chewbacca serving as the beginning of her turn to the Dark Side of the Force, her premonition of sitting on the Sith throne, which she describes to Finn, now a very real possibility.
Except, none of that happens. Even though The Rise of Skywalker provides an unquestionable “holy shit” moment on par with other “holy shit” moments in the Star Wars franchise, the film goes out of its way to reassure us that Chewbacca is not dead. Exactly two minutes and six seconds after the electrified destruction of the transport we discover out that Chewbacca is now a prisoner on-board a First Order Star Destroyer. Although we initially saw Chewbacca being loaded onto a First Order transport, and we hear Finn emphatically declare that Chewbacca is on the transport which Rey in turn destroys, as an audience we get to breath a collective sigh of relief that our favorite Wookiee has not met his demise because he was, in fact, on a different transport.
Additionally, while the audience discovers right away that Chewbacca is alive, slightly more time will pass, fourteen minutes and nine seconds in film runtime, before Rey discovers that she did not kill her friend. When the aforementioned Star Destroyer arrives in orbit above Kijimi, the planet the Resistance heroes travel to following Pasaana, Rey will sense Chewbacca’s presence, knowing in that moment he is still alive. That Rey can sense him here and now and could not do so right after she “killed” him on Pasaana is a point the film conveniently ignores. Regardless, knowing that he is on the orbiting vessel, the group set out to free their friend, infiltrating the Destroyer and rescuing the Wookiee from his temporary First Order captivity. Although doing so will waste valuable time in their quest to save the galaxy, another point that is otherwise ignored, the rescue mission will end successfully, bringing Chewbacca’s non-death story-arc to its finale.
What begins as a “holy shit” moment in The Rise of Skywalker ends up being nothing more than a narrative bait-and-switch which happens at lightspeed. In all honesty I’m not sure why the movie so rapidly reassures us that Chewbacca is not dead, undercutting the shock of his death just as we begin to process it. It’s as if writer/director J.J. Abrams did not trust the audience to struggle with the emotional turmoil of Chewbacca’s loss, at least not for more than the two minutes and six seconds we believe he is gone.
Additionally, just as I fail understand why we were reassured of his survival so quickly, I likewise find it difficult to grasp why his death was not permanent. As I explained, his death would have added long-term ramifications to the narrative beyond the immediate shock value it provides. Moreover, Chewbacca should have stayed dead because after he is rescued, he has no real utility for the remainder of the film, being given very little and often peripheral screen-time. True, he does momentarily mourn Leia’s passing when he is told she has died, and at the end of the movie he is given a medal by Maz Kanata, an obvious call-back to the medal ceremony in A New Hope (I will address this topic in a separate post). Otherwise, after Chewbacca’s survival/rescue, he is really just along for the ride, offering little but his presence to the plot.
Perhaps most importantly, though, maintaining Chewbacca’s death would have served as a reminder to audiences that death is something we must all face, as terrifying as that may be. I certainly do not begrudge those who were relieved, like Rey, Finn and Poe, that Chewbacca survived in The Rise of Skywalker. I get it, I really do. It is hard to encounter death, especially the death of a beloved character. It can cut you to the core. And discovering they are still alive is a blessing and a huge relief. When Chewbacca became the first Original Trilogy character to die in the Expanded Universe it ripped my 14-year-old heart out. I was in disbelief that the Wookiee was no more, I wanted him to still be alive, but my disbelief and all of the accompanying emotions were necessary parts of the grieving process. I was in denial but, deep down, I knew, just like Han and Anakin did, that Chewbacca was no more. In this way, Chewbacca’s heroic but unexpected demise in Vector Prime reminded me, as I am sure it reminded so many other Star Wars fans at the time, that death, as Yoda would go on to say in Revenge of the Sith, is a natural part of life.
In her book A Short History of Myth, author Karen Armstrong notes that myth “is nearly always rooted in the experience of death and the fear of extinction.” We are, Armstrong points out, “meaning-seeking creatures,” and a great many of the myths we have told for millennia have attempted to find meaning in the reality of death. In this vein, Vector Prime and the stories of The New Jedi Order served then, and still serve today, as a continuation of the modern-day myth that Star Wars was always meant to be, forcing us in this particular case to confront and wrestle with what it means to be mortal. Chewbacca’s death in Vector Prime is a mirror in which we are meant to see ourselves, our fragility, our own extinction. Like Chewbacca, we cannot escape our finite existence, but what we can do is face it, face it with the same howling defiance of a mighty Wookiee.