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Star Wars Celebration V

Star Wars Celebration V

by Brian Orndorf

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.

DAY ONE

- 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.

DAY TWO

- A morning visit to the pungent 501st Legion room seemed mandatory to fully grasp the franchise devotion of the entire experience. A fan-based costuming organization with membership "garrisons" all over the world, the 501st lives for events like Celebration V, where these enthusiastic guys and gals are allowed to strap on their armor and mingle with civilians. A unit built for charity and goodwill, the 501st is an extraordinary organization that gives gentle purpose to a pastime few would regard as meaningful, spreading their message of community wherever they can, often under stifling layers of plastic and rubber. However, despite their endearingly peacocking ways and patience with numerous photo requests, the group has a tendency to lash out toward the uninitiated when they don't get their way, but more about that on Day Three.

- I made a valiant effort to visit the "Mark Hamill: Return of the Jedi!" interview hour, understanding the rarity of such an opportunity. Mr. Luke Skywalker is not one to open up about "Star Wars" with any regularity, making this break from his autograph commitments ($125.00 bought fans some face time and a signature) a treat for those who crave answers to questions about blue milk, moisture vaporators, and the expiration date on Carrie Fisher's raconteur abilities. While handed the largest room in the joint for his sit-down, Hamill still drew roughly 50% of con attendees, making those willing to spend hours in line the lucky few allowed an audience with the rambling actor and his hazy memories as the boy farmer who aligned a galaxy. With everything there was to do just about everywhere, it didn't make sense to portion out a good chunk of the day to stare at a wall waiting. I decided to take the next train.

- That next train turned out to be actor Warwick Davis, the once and future Wicket the Ewok, who sat down with host Jay Laga'aia (a bit player in the prequels, seen recently in "Daybreakers") for a "Film Giant" hour of reflection. Filled with clips and anecdotes from Davis's extensive career (he was only 11 years of age when fitted for fur in "Return of the Jedi"), the actor showed off his colossal charisma, beaming with pride on his walk down memory lane. Davis even had kind things to share about his experiences making the "Leprechaun" pictures, despite Laga'aia’s crude invitation to trash the kooky horror franchise. Obviously, this being a "Star Wars" convention, the crowds wanted to hear Ewok stories (Davis obliged, telling how Carrie Fisher fed him milk and cookies whenever she could to keep his spirits up), but there’s was a certain energy in the room for the his work on the "Harry Potter" films. Seizing a rare opportunity, Davis walked over to the edge of the stage and conducted a mass charms class as Professor Flitwick, helping muggles with a Wingardium Leviosa spell. Davis returned to his couch to plug some upcoming projects, show off his autobiography (out now in the U.K., due in the U.S. in 2011), and ended the hour recreating the climax of "Phantom Menace" with Laga'aia, a few plastic lightsabers, and some volunteers from the audience. It was a hilarious, enchanting hour with an actor I've always enjoyed (big fan of "Willow"), but now have an entirely new appreciation for. Warwick Davis is a highly rehearsed fellow, but a total class act.

- Also ushering in some considerable cool was a LucasArts booth that allowed attendees to play demos of the upcoming games, "The Force Unleashed 2," and "Lego Star Wars III." Being a rabid fan of the Lego video game series, I couldn't help but stare at the screens for an unreasonable amount of time, watching keyed up kids step forward and try out a difficult board from the release, which is "Clone Wars" themed for this installment (due February 2011). Can’t wait.

- To end the day, I parked myself inside the "Digital Theater," home to less popular panels, but also a makeshift movie theater that rolled out all six "Star Wars" feature films over the weekend. While the projection quality was marvelous, the sound bounced all over the joint, making dialogue a struggle to hear. It was a prime moviegoing opportunity lost to common convention limitations. Still, it was a chance to watch a portion of "A New Hope" inside a room teeming with fanatics, who applauded and hooted for their favorite characters, recited lines along with the movie, and booed anything smelling of Lucas tinkering. The whole volatile "Han Shot First" argument takes on a special life when projected inside a near gladiatorial environment.

DAY THREE

- The biggest day of the con was Saturday, leaving the crowded afternoon an ideal choice for "The Main Event," an hour-long conversation between beloved comedian Jon Stewart and not-really-all-that-funny George Lucas. Having King George sit down in front of fans and answer their questions is not an everyday occasion, leaving organizers fearful of the astronomical turnout. The solution? Fill the main auditorium with devotees willing to camp out for hours just for the opportunity to breathe the same air as Baron Papanoida, while the rest of the halls are serviced via big screens, giving every last warm body a shot at viewing this clash of the titans. Obviously, I couldn't sneak into the big house, but I found a spot in the next best room, joining an electrified audience giddy for a chance to stare at George.

Stewart's a hilarious fellow, and his role here was one of jester, to help pry Lucas away from his habitual long-windedness. Opening the show by comparing Orlando in August to Dagobah, Stewart knew exactly how to play to this tough crowd, riding that line between silly and geeky. Sadly, despite Stewart's gift of improvisation, it was apparent from the get-go this wasn't going to be a spontaneous grilling the fans might've hoped for, but a polished chat, crammed with rehearsed bits and handpicked questions. Ah, well.

Even with a predetermined path of engagement, Lucas managed to reveal significant bits of his personality. What struck me so clearly was the man's awareness of all the prequel hate, which he swept aside as a generational thing, but still addressed the ripples those three pictures caused in the overall peacefulness of "Star Wars" fandom. Lucas is no fool, and despite his world of yes-men and bottomless bank accounts, the supreme leader is well aware of franchise discontent. I just don't think he cares, or at least stopped trying to please anyone but himself after "Star Wars" proved its muscle at the box office. It's not an ideal situation, but to hear Lucas vaguely explain his creative decisions was fascinating. And, for the record, there wasn't a single question concerning the preservation of the initial OT cuts. I think Lucas will be avoiding that sticky query for the rest of his life.

Lucas and Stewart provided fun banter, though I could slap the comic for even bringing up the term "mythology," which always gives the filmmaker a chance to ramble on for 10 minutes about crap that's already well-established (take a shot whenever he brings up Joseph Campbell).

Outside of a few rough patches, the "Main Event" went smoothly, even taking time to present Stewart with his very own action figure and semi-announce the "Star Wars" Blu-ray set, due out next year. To help with this reveal, Mark Hamill strolled out for a few jokes before introducing a deleted scene on the "Return of the Jedi" disc -- a brief introductory moment for Luke that led to gasps and cheers from audiences all over the con. Carrie Fisher also made an appearance, showing up to make jokes about porn in front of a visibly uncomfortable Lucas. Oh, boozy, inappropriate Princess Leia, what won't you say!

- Attending the "Star Wars Store Displays" panel was an opportunity to catch the flipside of the con, taking a chance on the average guy with something to share about the highs and lows of collecting franchise minutiae. Boy, was this ever a mistake. Hosted by gurus Todd Chamberlain and Will Grief, the panel was an utter bore, with the pair glacially working through a static PowerPoint presentation exploring the nomenclature of the display collecting game, followed by a few examples of "Star Wars" toy displays found throughout the years.

For some reason, I thought this would be a high-flying event that would scratch nostalgic itches while passing along interesting information on a fringe pastime. Instead, the men robotically lurched through the colorless show, almost afraid to slap it awake. Couple the dry panel with a sweltering room, and there's a recipe for drowsy agony. Even worse, most people were on the hunt for these little faux cereal boxes, handed out to attendees after every collecting panel as a way of guaranteeing packed rooms. It was a sneaky move to prey upon the fanatic mindset, but also a lousy way to treat the panels, with roughly 70% of the space filled with folks just there for a box -- a fact Chamberlain and Grief acknowledged repeatedly as they quickly lost confidence in their own presentation. With the room boiling, the hosts droning on, the guy on my left texting rabidly, and the guy on my right assembling a "He-Man" toy he purchased at the con...let's just say the panel was the low point of the weekend. I was ready for a nap afterwards. But I did get a cereal box. A useless cereal box.

- Day Three closed out with an assembly of the available 501st Legion, chaotically gathered to take a group picture. Of course, the community picked the busiest area in the Convention Center to achieve such a complex shot, hoping to employ the inflatable Death Star as an ornament to beautify the photo. Sensing an opportunity to capture the moment on my camera as well, I positioned myself carefully, respectfully on a staircase nearby the "pro" hired to take the photo. Instead of a jolly atmosphere where a costumed community pulled together to document a special moment, I witnessed the 501st "guards" screaming at attendees to clear the area, pushing their weight around to secure their interests. I was personally growled at by a few of these lunatics, which soured the con some, revealing a distasteful sense of entitlement from the 501st collective.

There was no need for such rude, deafening behavior, especially from individuals getting their rocks off on a false sense of power (a Death Star commander outfit doesn't make you an actual commander). I would like to believe the 501st is primarily an organization of kindness and generosity, but this display of childish behavior was ridiculous, especially when there were scores of alternative locations around the Convention Center to carry out the massive task with some sense of privacy and space -- it's tough to bake a cake in the middle of a freeway is all I’m saying. To scream at people for getting in the way is just absurd. Their Sith Lords would be proud.

DAY FOUR

The dreaded last day of Celebration V wasn't spent hunting down events (though Carrie Fisher canceling her chat freed up the schedule some), but simply stalking the floors and halls, taking one final glimpse of this amazing layout -- a superb day spent crunching on some serious eye candy.

- My favorite booth of the con belonged to toy masters Hasbro, who deviously drummed up achy nostalgia by running classic "Star Wars" toy commercials on a loop during show hours, making me stand there like a tool and long for the advertising of old, when ads showed kids playing with their figures and vehicles in natural, backyard environments, not twirling in front of cheapy green screens.

Hasbro played up their "Star Wars" history the best they could, displaying prized figures and weapons most fans would love to own (or already did at one point in their lives), but the finest achievements were the three major dioramas set up on the floor.

Highlighting the wars of Hoth and (I believe) Geonosis, the gifted madmen of Hasbro erected massively detailed battle zones -- plastic storytelling on a startling scale, with pockets of insider surprises and figure articulation waiting for anyone who took the time to scope out all four sides.

The dioramas were a huge hit with attendees, with many smooshed up against the glass to take in the meticulous construction. A third diorama, covering the carbonite freezing chamber, was also available, but a little less epic in scope. Still, damn cool work all around, bringing the pegwarmer world to dramatic life. Is it too weird to want to live inside of these things?

- Speaking of mind-boggling construction efforts, nothing topped the work of the Belgian 501st Garrison, who shipped their collection of life-sized vehicles and environments to the con so everyone could have a chance to sit inside a Snowspeeder, lounge in Jabba's Palace, or hang out around the Millennium Falcon. By far the greatest set of photo opportunities Celebration V had to offer, it's shocking that these exhaustive creations didn't emerge from the Lucas archives. Instead, they were crafted by the miraculous hands of devoted Belgian fans, who wanted to pass along their own brand of magic to the masses. Their work was flawless. You really haven't lived until you've had your picture taken underneath a realistic, slap-yo-momma-sized replica of a Tie Interceptor. Those Belgians know how to party.

Four days are gone and I'm not quite ready to go. Star Wars Celebration V was a magnificent escape into a galaxy far, far away (well, at least Orlando), supplying the righteous square footage needed to fully feel around what the franchise means to people. This event is a blast, making its rarity all the more cruel. Still, we are three years away from the 30th anniversary of "Return of the Jedi." Gives me time to save up, work on my line-fu, and figure out how to pull off a Lando costume without coming off racist.

For all Star Wars Celebration V photos, please click here (Days 1 & 2) and here (Days 3 & 4).

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