Star Wars Celebration is the big show for anyone with a major hankerin’ for sparkly Lucasian action, assuming control of a vast space and filling it with all matters of Jedi and Sith-related material. It’s an astounding presentation of hot-blooded fandom, bringing together a swirl of admirers from all over the planet (perhaps a few alien nations as well) to discuss the infinite “Star Wars” universe, hobnob with aging media stars, and buy gobs of merchandise from excitable, finger-rubbing merchants. Because it wouldn’t truly be a “Star Wars” experience without an opportunity to give George Lucas your every last cent.
This year’s event marked the fifth gathering of superfans (established in 1999), held at the Orange Country Convention Center in Orlando, FL -- a second home of sorts for the franchise, with Disney World’s Star Wars Weekends bringing the convention-style force to the masses on a yearly basis. A perfect match for a tourist-infested city (10 minutes away from Universal’s smash success, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter) in its peak season, Celebration V brought out the big guns to successfully pull off such an ambitious undertaking, scooping up a sizable chunk of the complex to smoothly execute what would traditionally be a nightmarish proposition. This isn’t just some run-of-the-mill comic book convention with a few genre hero appearances to spice up the soup. It’s “Star Wars,” my dear padawans: the filet mignon of geek entertainment, with a brand name pull that requires a space roughly the size of an airport to accommodate all the Tatooine two-sun daydreaming. It’s not just a mere celebration, but a mass union of devotion; a pool of people who’ve taken the franchise to heart, embracing the fantasy, but feeling out the religion. When you’re standing in the middle of it all, absorbing that passion, the view is extraordinary.
My personal “Star Wars” story is familiar: I grew up in the shadow of “A New Hope,” developed during the “Empire Strikes Back” years, and flipped for the series around “Return of the Jedi.” I’m a proud “Star Wars” kid, even if I never exactly gorged on the available ephemera, preferring to nod appreciatively from afar than fill up on toys and games as the years passed. Prequels? Terrific fun, but understandably polarizing. “The Clone Wars?” An engaging new arena for the saga, even if I have little free time to enjoy it. “Star Wars” has been at my side for nearly my entire life and I’m tickled to count myself as a fan. If Lucas was aiming to bring his circus into my backyard, I was surely going to attend. I won’t dress up in costume (there are enough Slave Leias out in the world), but I’ll gladly join the expensive carnival.
- Finding a poetic place to begin exploring Celebration V was difficult, as the whole event tends to thwack the average attendee from all sides. With numerous panels to visit, an entire show floor to examine, and various rooms of demonstration, it wasn’t easy to take that first step. Guides are helpful, but I felt paralyzed for a moment as I stood beneath a giant inflatable Death Star hanging in the convention center lobby. Some prefer the meticulous mastery of scheduling, deftly lacing together a specific journey of information and discovery. I decided to “Han Solo” the event, using the handbook as an occasional escort when the act of people watching started to wear down my senses. I was only marginally interested in the multitude of panels and performances arranged for Celebration V, looking to just dive in and see where the experience took me.
- Right off the bat, I was amazed to observe such an extraordinary turnout from families, and not just nostalgic parents dragging around fussy tykes on leashes. I certainly wasn’t aware just how important “Clone Wars” was to the kids of today, with Ahsoka Tano as popular a character as “Star Wars” is capable of producing (chirpy voice actress Ashley Eckstein was a massive draw in the autograph area, rivaling the hordes lined up to see Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher). The wee ones eat this cartoon up, which I have to assume was responsible for the multi-generational audience at the con. “Clone Wars” is big business to Lucasfilm at the moment, introducing a new range of fans to the saga, who came to the convention center wearing their fandom proudly. It was rather heartwarming to see all these parents with excited kids, participating in the convention experience together. It added a sweet sincerity to the event that floored me, watching one generation share their enthusiasm and obsession with another. It was a sight that never got old, even after four solid days of mingling. There’s just something about a kid stumbling around dressed up as Chewbacca that makes the world right. And a few moms in Padme’s skintight, torn-shirt Geonosis battle attire didn’t hurt either.
- “Producing the Saga with Robert Watts” - While my interest in panels was limited, an opportunity to hear Robert Watts discuss his career felt like a one-of-a-kind opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Watts is primarily know to fans as a producer on the OT “Star Wars” pictures and the Indiana Jones saga, but his presence was also felt on such films as “2001,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” and a few of the James Bond pictures. He’s a kindly Brit who‘s been battling cancer for the last few years, making his first public appearance in quite some time at Celebration V. While host David Collins (a LucasArts employee) did his best to create a sense of anticipation with the criminally teeny turnout, there was a noticeable lack of spark to the conversation, with Watts running through known stories about the trilogy, marveling at the three-film miracle that came to be. Audience questions were anemic, with one t-shirted fellow asking for the differences in directorial approaches between Lucas and Stanley Kubrick (!). Watts answered diplomatically (but of course), with only a question concerning the English “tea time” coffee break traditions setting him off, bringing up genuine feelings of disgust as he waved off American concerns with the single on-set break allowed for British crews (James Cameron is not a fan of the practice). If only the same unguarded passion could’ve flowed throughout the entire conversation. Watts has seen much during his career, and I hope that one day soon he’ll feel the urge to share his experiences with the world. I’ve already reserved a few days of my life for the chapter covering the making of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
- Day One was primarily devoted to feeling out the fringes of the con, wandering around the main hall observing games of laser tag, watching endless costumed attendees maneuver their ornately decorated bodies around the mass of people, window shopping at all the merch booths, studying the burgeoning art projects positioned all over the floor, and observing the celebrity hierarchy of autograph row. It was a day of observance and gleeful escape, snuggling into a weekend adventure completely dominated by one blockbuster franchise. Sheesh, they should do this every year.