Regardless of what level of Star Wars fandom you subscribe to, it's quite clear that what George Lucas originally intended as a fairytale has become more than he could possibly imagine. I was reminded of this while attending my first Star Wars Celebration in Chicago this past weekend. Being a lifelong fan of the movies (and pretty much all things related to them), I've always wanted to attend a convention solely dedicated to Star Wars. Overall, it was a full and rewarding experience, confirming that real life is so much better than internet life.
In case you weren't aware (if so, I envy you), a certain faction of online Star Wars fandom has become toxic since J.J. Abrams brought back the Skywalker sage in 2015. Outraged from so-called fans could be found online due to the presence of a black stormtrooper and the focus on a female protagonist. Other complaints and bemoaning could be found online, some directed at the two "A Star Wars Story" movies, "Rogue One" and "Solo," but the good news is I found none of that negativity in the five days I attended Star Wars Celebration.
There were signs warning against harassment all over the convention floor and that was mainly due to non-consent advances that cosplayers have received in the past. I can truly attest that all my conversations, either with colleagues or regular attendees, were filled with fruitful Star Wars conversations revolving that were constructive and enriching. Any disagreements were rare and drowned out by a bountiful love for what Lucas created and what others have developed and maintained.
That in and of itself was certainly one of the highlights of the long weekend. It confirmed not only the differences between online and real life interaction, but it also reaffirmed that passion and enthusiasm far outweighs cynicism and apathy. The fervent fandom I encountered at and in-between panels or walking the exhibit floor, confirmed acceptance, respect and the desire to include others instead of ostracize them.
The people I engaged with were as diverse as the panel presentations offered at the WinTrust Arena or the ones across the street at the McCormick Place West Expansion. The biggest events were presentations for "Episode IX" and "The Mandalorian," and panels that offered a look at a new entertainment venue for Star Wars, updates on existing properties, and behind-the scenes information on the making of some of the movies.
The panel titled "Bringing Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge to Life at Disney Parks" helped promote and detail the work that has gone into the Star Wars theme parks the House of Mouse will be opening in May 31st at Disneyland in Anaheim and on August 29th in Orlando. The idea behind it all is for visitors to basically walk into and interact with a Star Wars environment. Buoyant host Josh Gad came out on stage and brought out Imagineers (a patented Disney term) Scott Trowbridge, Chris Beatty, Doug Chiang, Asa Kalama, Margaret Kerrison, and Matt Martin, to discuss the creativity and authenticity that went into bringing the environment to life.
As many already know, a life-size Millennium Falcon has been built for each location, parked at the Black Spire Outpost located on the planet Batuu. It's a brand new location for Star Wars, yet it will feel familiar and be considered canon in relation to the universe. There's already books out there pertaining to the location, and this summer Marvel Comics (owned by Disney) will release a Galaxy's Edge comic. They even got the vocal talents of Jim Cummings, Paul Reubens, and Frank Oz involved, playing some deep cut characters and a recognizable one, respectively.
Galaxy's Edge will be a place where you can participate in the story at every turn, with each decision bringing you closer to The Resistance or the First Order (which means it takes place post "The Force Awakens"). No doubt, the big draw will be flying the Falcon, which will require six people in the cockpit - two pilots, two gunners and two engineers. The state of your ship afterward is dependent on how successful your mission was. If you took on damage, it will be visible. You'll smell and see smoke when you exit the same Falcon corridors you entered, adding to the visceral experience.
I attended this panel with a modicum of trepidation, knowing the parks will be astronomically expensive and that the presentation would have the propensity of being all hype. In a smart move, Disney made it so attendees of Star Wars Celebration can be part of Galaxy’s Edge at the convention by recording a statement in a booth (what Star Wars means to you or what about the park you are looking forward to the most) on the show floor, which will then be added to a holocron, which will be on display at the park. Bottom line: this is likely to be an amazing experience for fans, but there's no doubt it will be crazy crowded the first year it opens.
Two highly-anticipated video games were announced as well, both of which will be released this year. On Friday afternoon, there was a presentation for "Vader Immortal: A Star Wars Series - Episode I," which was created by ILMxLAB for the Occulus Quest and Occulus Rift VR game systems. The designers, writers and producers of the game were brought out on stage, and they discussed how the story of the game is considered canon as well and has ties to the comics and films, specifically "Rogue One."
Set between "Revenge of the Sith" and "A New Hope," the game finds you playing a smuggler who is hired by Vader (voiced by Scott Lawrence) to carry out a special job. You'll have a droid named ZOE3 (Maya Rudolph) to assist you and offer some levity to a game that's quite dark, with most of it taking place on the molten lava planet, Mustafar, home to Vader's lair. Aside from the 40-60 minutes of the game storyline, there's also a demo that occurs in a lightsaber dojo where you can test your skills as you feel the heat and vibration of a Jedi's weapon.
Saturday afternoon came the presentation for EA and Respawn's new game "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order," a single-player Jedi fantasy story. It occurs after the events of "Revenge of the Sith" and follows a Padawan named Cal (played by Cameron Monaghan using performance capture) who managed to survive Order 66 - which branded all Jedi traitors to the Galactic Republic and targets for execution by the Grand Army of the Republic’s clone troopers - and is now hiding in plane sight. Of course, that won't last long, and soon Cal is being pursued by an elite Inquisitor and a new type of stormtrooper (designed specifically for the game). With the help of assistant droid BD-1 (veteran Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt gave life to the character) and the mysterious Cere (Debra Wilson), Cal will work his way through what appears to be a compelling story arch. During the panel, an exciting trailer and informative behind-the-scenes clip was shown, which confirmed that this is more up my alley than a VR game. The game will be released on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC on November 15th.
The most memorable panels for me had to do with the talent that made the fantastic visuals of Star Wars possible. On Friday afternoon, there was a presentation called "The Creatures, Droids & Aliens of Star Wars" in which award-winning special effects and make-up artist Neal Scanlan came out and discussed his work. Scanlan has been working on Star Wars movies since "The Force Awakens" and had plenty to talk about, from the changes the Chewbacca costumes has undergone to the development of the new droid D-O for "The Rise of Skywalker." He also had a fully-functioning head model for Six Eyes, aka Argus Panox, the cheating alien who played sabaac during Han Solo's first card game with Lando Calrissian in "Solo." The fact that Scanlan and his crew are responsible for convincing viewers there are living and interactive beings apart from humanoids in these movies is impressive.
Another talented artist, Doug Chiang, led two presentations, one on Saturday and one on Sunday, and both provided a revealing look at how the look of Star Wars vehicles and characters are developed. I've long admired Chiang's work, starting with his designs for "The Phantom Menace" and on to his work on "Rogue One." He led a class called "The Art and Techniques of Designing for Star Wars" and also delivered a tutorial "The Evolution of Star Wars Design - Designing Episode I," in which he provided valuable examples of his work. He humbly described what it was like when he began working with Lucas in the mid '90s and how his artistic approach has developed over the years. Hearing from this extraordinary concept artist/production designer and meeting him was a personal highlight for me.
The panels I attended were energetic, fun and often enlightening, but there's more to Star Wars Celebration than these presentations. One could easily get lost for hours on all that the convention floor has to offer, but what struck me the most in the five days I attended was the obvious passion and camaraderie I witnessed from the fans. There's been 12 of these conventions within the last 20 years and it's clear they've become a place where fans from all walks of life can commune around something that has impacted their lives in a meaningful way.
Star Wars Celebration is a place where you can talk all things Star Wars with anyone there and not get a weird look in return. It's a place where you can feel understood and accepted, which is something needed considering the toxic vitriol that tends to surface online when it comes to Star Wars fandom. I left the Celebration quite fulfilled and inspired, with a renewed appreciation for all things Star Wars.