I witnessed something special. Sitting in San Diego Comic-Con's Hall H for the Star Wars panel yesterday evening, I had every intention of taking detailed notes, reporting every snippet of news and collecting insightful or funny quotes.
But instead, I became part of a moment. It was a moment that goes down in Comic-Con history, that’s talked about for years and – as moderator Chris Hardwick aptly suggested – you end up telling your grandchildren about.
As Hardwick introduced Episode VII – The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams, president of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy, writer Lawrence Kasdan and then cast members John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson and Gwendoline Christie, there was a sense of optimism and joy nearly palpable in the room. The puppet creature Babbajo, who we first saw in Abrams’ charity video for Force for Change/Omaze, lumbered across the stage with a sack of smaller creatures on his back.
Abrams said Babbajo and 100 other creatures may remain in the background, but they “give the actors in the scenes things to actually interact with and play with and respond to.”
That established joy swelled when a behind-the-scenes featurette played, showing a lived-in galaxy far, far away. There were practical effects, real explosions, miniature crashed TIE fighters, a life-size Millennium Falcon hydraulic cockpit. There were even old Star Wars friends we’d not seen much of, like Peter Mayhew, Warwick Davis, R2-D2 and Nien Nunb (!), along with many new Star Wars monsters and friends, like Simon Pegg, for one.
It seemed that Abrams kept, naturally, repeating the word “authenticity.” He said they approached the script wanting to “tell a story that makes us feel" and by asking questions such as: “What feels right?”; “What delights us?”
Kasdan, a man who we know is of “our” Star Wars, said the new movie has a “realness” to it and that you can feel the texture of a wall when “you’re sitting in the bay of a Star Destroyer with stormtroopers drilling in front of us.” Kasdan is a man who Abrams joked would quip, “I’ll tell you what Han would say” when the director was trying to come up with a line for that famous rogue.
And speaking of that rogue, if Kasdan made the audience feel like “our” Star Wars was back, it was when Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford (in his first appearance since March’s plane accident – and don’t worry, he’s fine) took the stage that we all felt like “we’re home.”
So no, I didn’t take very good reporter’s notes, because I was too occupied being in a room with my childhood heroes and feeling like those same heroes had returned for my adulthood. To put it another way, it was like the toy store of my dreams (the one set in a magical multiplex cinema) had opened early and every toy I wanted was there for me to play with, along with news ones I never even imagined.
This felt like a rare moment in life where you’re not trying to find magic because it finds you. And yeah, you’re d**n right I’m gushing over this thing, and I even got misty enough that only a grin beaming ear to ear provided a dam that prevented tears from rolling.
That feeling of magic continued when Abrams announced at the end of the panel that everyone in Hall H, some 6,000 people, were being immediately escorted (by stormtroopers and Kevin Doyle, a man whose story is touching and representative of the heart of Star Wars fandom) to an orchestral Star Wars concert played by the San Diego Symphony. On the slow trek to the amphitheater, a surprisingly chipper crowd was made more so when the cast drove by.
Hamill himself even did a drive-by high five next to me and shook hands from his vehicles. He switched arms at one point and told a man near me he’d shake with his “robot hand.”
This field trip breathed more life into all the newly reinvigorated kids in the room and both literally and figuratively walked us to a new chapter of Star Wars. It was an amazing journey where toy lightsabers were provided to every single person and a carnival atmosphere (complete with food, drinks, sweet treats ... and beer) were available. The cast appeared again, right around sunset, to introduce the music and encourage a lightsaber salute. Then John Williams joined via a pre-taped message to tell us he’s hard at work on the new music, but for the Force to be with us always. After 40 minutes or so of hearing familiar songs played live (the Imperial March, Ewoks theme, the Asteroid Field), the whole affair was capped with a massive fireworks display timed to the main theme.
Not only had Star Wars owned Friday at San Diego Comic-Con, it might have owned every con ever to this point. I don’t say this to gloat, but to share, because the experience was too big for just this one body (or all of the bodies in Hall H) to contain.
So, did news happen amidst all this stuff I’m being incredibly sentimental about?
Kennedy revealed that Gareth Edwards begins shooting Rogue One in about three weeks. Also, Gleeson’s previously unnamed character is a bad guy, General Hux of the base Starkiller (you should remember that name). Simon Pegg has a role as an alien.
Abrams said they have a cut of the movie and are in editing. “We're in that extraordinary moment where we're doing fine-tuning."
When asked how it felt to return to the series he’s been sometimes grumpy about, Ford said, "It should have felt ridiculous.”
“That was 30-[something] years ago and I sort of grew up. And yet there I was doing something I did so long ago," Ford said. "I will tell you that it felt great."
He also called the new movie a “natural progression” and “emotional rounding” of the first three.
Gleeson called his character evil (“He’s British, so yeah”), while Driver said Kylo Ren is more right than bad in his head.
Hamill spoke about the enduring nature of the fandom, and how he’d always been “one of you,” a fan. He also joked about the only woman his character ever loved being his sister (on which Ford consoled him) and that he was “just glad I didn’t have to say I had to go to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.”
You can check out my live-tweets from the panel at @Blastr, but again, the big news out of the panel is that not only is Star Wars coming back, but it feels like it’s coming back.
Fisher called the whole return to Star Wars like a flashback and more grown up. But for me sitting in Hall H yesterday, I couldn’t feel more childlike and wanting to flash forward to December.
UPDATE: Watch the entire panel below!