Skip to story Cast and crew (and stormtroopers) of Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the Star Wars Celebration live panel on April 16, 2015. Screengrab/Youtube
After decades of Comic-Cons, the patterns of epic geek live panels are well established—a bit of warm up, special guests, surprise guests, maybe some theatrics, and a climactic debut of something, maybe new footage of a big, highly anticipated movie.
You know why they do it like that? Because it works.
Disney owns Star Wars, so Star Wars Celebration, a fan convention going on all weekend at the Anaheim Convention Center, is as highly controlled as any Disney experience. JJ Abrams, the director/producer/co-writer of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, hit all his marks during his panel this morning with Kathleen Kennedy. Kennedy, executive producer and the person in charge of Lucasfilm, stayed on rigorously on point, and showed off the new Star Wars T-shirt she’d bought in the convention hall the night before, when a significant chunk of the audience in the Anaheim Convention Center Arena were overnighting outside.
The energy, though! Granted, a room full of thousands of Star Wars fans is a self-selected audience, but still. When Abrams was talking about using practical sets and visual effects while shooting in Abu Dhabi—standing in for a desert world called Jakoo—he said: “Star Wars is as much a Western and a fairy tale as anything else, and one of the things you expect and want to see are real, tangible, John Ford landscapes.” The applause was profound. People don’t just want Star Wars to be good. They kind of need it to be. (One might argue that George Lucas’ vision of Tatooine owed more to David Lean than John Ford, but then one would be a pedant and a killjoy, wouldn’t one?)
Kennedy explained it this way. “We’re fans, too. Everybody inside the Lucasfilm organization are fans,” she said. “Many, many fans are inside the Walt Disney company. Everybody has a Star Wars story, and that generational experience is something that is really important, and it’s everything in terms of the future of Star Wars.” Pandering? Sure. Narratively dangerous? Absolutely, if you want to bring in a new audience instead of just people like, well, me. But it was also important. Abrams, Kennedy, and team have to energize the base before they can bring out new voters. It’s not easy. They’re trying to thread the stone needle (deep cut).
One way to get that done is, as Kennedy said, by appealing across generations. The halls of Star Wars Celebration are full of families, everyone in costume. The kids all want pictures with the grown men in stormtrooper outfits. That might explain why all the old cast is coming back. It makes sure my demographic will be crying all through the new movie. All I have to do is bring my kids when Force Awakens opens in December and, as Darth Vader would say, the circle will be complete.
So, yes, the Force was strong in that arena. When the lights went down and lightsaber blades lit up across the entire hall it looked…awesome. When Abrams and Kennedy introduced two of the droid makers for the new movie, the moment felt like it was losing some of its energy…until a working R2-D2 rolled out, beeping and whistling. It was like seeing an old friend—and for a punchline, the new droid character BB8 rolled out, too, which seems impossible. It’s a dome-like head on a multidirectional ball, but it works in real life. “If it were CG, it’d be a lot easier,” Abrams admitted.
One talking point that everyone hit involved the representation of women in the updated Star Wars universe. Like, who did Kennedy identify with in the first trilogy? “It’s an interesting question, because originally I didn’t have a lot of choices,” she said. “But I have to say that’s something that’s going to change.” She promised that in the next two decades of Star Wars movies (because that’s what we’re getting) they’d be building more women characters. That should be welcome news to the little girls in costume around the con, because as many of them were in Leia outfits as in Mandalorian battle armor.
Carrie Fisher picked up the same thread when a few members of the original cast came out. “I liked being the only one when I was 19,” she said. “But now I need some backup.” She also promised that while she wouldn’t be wearing those weird side-buns from the first Star Wars, there’d be something as good as the metal bikini she wore in Return of the Jedi. Not sure what that’s going to be about.
The moments with the original cast were charming. Anthony Daniels (C-3P0), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Fisher (Princess Leia), and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) are all returning, of course. When Hamill came onstage with Fisher, he gave her a little sideways hug and pointed out at the crowd, his finger making a little crossing motion—I’m thinking he noticed one of the two new claymore-style lightsabers from the first trailer, the one with saber-energy quillons. (That’s what the little things coming off the side above the hilt are called. Yes, sorry, I fence.) “All through my adult life I’ve felt such love from you,” Hamill said, “and you’re more than just fans, you’re family.” For real? Doesn’t matter. Totally worked.
Fisher, who’s famously ribald, put it a little differently. “It’s an amazing thing to be part of so many people’s childhoods, and be a toy at the same time,” she said. “So thank you for playing with me.” When someone in the audience shouted “I love you, Carrie,” she responded: “I love you, too! See you later.”
Oh, also, they showed a trailer.
Let’s not kid ourselves. You already watched it. But just in case, a couple of things worth pointing out: The landscape of, presumably, Jakoo, is litered with crashed spaceships. Rey, played by Daisey Ridley, scavenges the spaceship graveyard. John Boyega’s Finn ends up there, somehow, in stormtooper armor, though neither he nor Abrams would cop to him actually being a stormtrooper during the panel. Finn also eventually sports a bitchin’ leather jacket. (Talking to you, cosplayers.)
In any case, there’s running from explosions, black TIE fighters, x-wings skimming the surface of a lake (one of them piloted by a joyful Poe Dameron, who actor Oscar Isaac described during the panel as “the best frickin’ pilot in the galaxy…sent on a mission by a certain princess, and he ends up coming across Mr. John Boyega’s character, and their fates are forever intertwined.” That’s as spoilery as things got.) The Millenium Falcon runs from a TIE fighter by flying into the skeleton of a crashed Imperial star destroyer, which seems like a typically Han Solo-esque move, but we never see him flying the ship.
But the trailer also has Luke Skywalker talking about how the Force runs in his family. Someone holds the charred, melted mask of Darth Vader. A hooded Luke—going by the robotic right hand, at least—pats an aging R2-D2. Someone passes what looks a lot like Luke’s first light saber (which was Anakin’s before he became Darth Vader) into the hands of a woman. We get a lot of Empire imagery—new stormtoopers arrayed like a scene out of Triumph of the Will, in front of a new insignia banner; star destroyers in flight; and a black-armored cross between a stormtrooper and what the expanded Star Wars universe used to call a Sith trooper, an even badder badguy.
The most important shot, though, didn’t involve any spaceships or special effects at all. It was an older, greyer Han Solo, standing next to Chewbacca, bowcaster drawn. “Chewie,” Han says. “We’re home.”
It’s a classic Abrams button-push, the director working in full-on heartstring-tugging Spielberg mode. But those kind of gestures make sense here. Star Wars is home. It’s memories of first trips to the movies, handed down from parents to kids, fairy tales about magic swords and heroes who put to right a universe gone wrong. Abrams puts those moments on film for a simple reason: They work.