There's an important secret that I've been hiding: I am a nerd. I could give you a detailed summary of the history of Middle-earth or coherently debate which of the Avengers is in fact the strongest. From childhood, however, there has always been one set of stories that has fired my imagination and captivated my interest: STAR WARS. The adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and the rest of those heroes of a galaxy far, far away drew me in from the first frame of the movie. I watched those movies over and over again, even to the point of breaking the family VCR. I welcomed Episodes I, II, and III as new Star Wars stories, even if I wasn't crazy about everything in them. For the last four years, I've listened to a daily podcast that covers the Star Wars movies one minute at a time. As I said, I am a nerd.
So it should come as no great surprise that when I learned that Star Wars Celebration - a biennial convention for anything and everything Star Wars - was coming to Chicago, I jumped at the chance to spend a weekend immersed in my favorite fictional world. I was also excited to meet in person with all my fellow Star Wars fans, to enjoy a community of people who enjoy the same things I enjoy.
My nerdiness, of course, does not begin to explain everything that I am. Yes, I was going to be a Star Wars nerd among Star Wars nerds, but I was also going to be a priest among Star Wars nerds. I made the decision to be true to my priesthood and wear my clerical collar while I was at the convention. I wanted to use Star Wars Celebration as a chance to do a tiny bit of evangelization. I wasn't going to be preaching prophetic condemnations in the middle of the exhibit hall nor did I expect to be baptizing Darth Vader by the end of the weekend. Still, I knew that people would notice the black-and-white collar. I thought it would be enough just to remind people of Jesus even while they were enjoying another galaxy.
Enough with the preamble! Let's get to the main event!
EPISODE I - THE JUMP TO HYPERSPACE
My first day at Star Wars Celebration did not begin at McCormick Place where the convention was being held. Instead, it started with me and my friend Joe watching the keynote presentation in my hotel room. No matter how large a venue Star Wars Celebration uses, there is simply not enough room in the main auditorium for everyone at the convention to be present for the keynote presentations of the day. To manage the crowds, the convention organizers used a lottery system to determine who would get a seat in the main auditorium. If, like me, you didn't win that lottery, you could still view the panel through the live stream on the Star Wars website. I was disappointed to not be in the room where it happened. Friday's keynote was especially important: a panel discussing the newest Star Wars movie due to be released in December. Seeing the cast of Star Wars on a screen didn't feel as special as being in the same room with them. Once the panel started, though, I forgot my regrets about not being there.
Stephen Colbert moderated the panel. It was an inspired choice to have him host. Not only is he a great entertainer, he's also a huge fan of Star Wars and could completely identify with the excitement of every person in the Wintrust Arena. He first brought out J.J. Abrams, the director of the upcoming movie, and Kathleen Kennedy, the director of Lucasfilm. Colbert did his best to squeeze any information he could out of them, but Abrams and Kennedy were coy. Abrams was particularly reticent, always looking over at Kennedy whenever he was asked a question. He wanted to check with her to make sure he didn't give anything away! After they dropped hints and tidbits of information without revealing anything major, Colbert threw his notes on the floor in mock frustration, saying, "I didn't realize that you wanted me here just to ask questions, not to get answers."
Then the major cast members came out on stage. Actors from the original trilogy of movies - Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) and Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian) - talked about what it was like to reprise their roles in the latest film. The young actors playing the new additions to the Star Wars roster beamed with excitement, feeling the rush of being involved in such a major franchise like Star Wars. Daisy Ridely (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico), and Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca) talked about how much fun it was to come back for a third movie. We were also introduced to Naomi Ackie who is playing a new character, Jannah, who may or may not be related to Lando Calrissian.
Two highlights stood out to me during the interviews with the cast. First, when Kelly Marie Tran was introduced, the whole panel had to wait for the wild applause, cheering, and chants of "Kelly!" coming from the crowd. Following her debut in THE LAST JEDI, Tran was subjected to horrible abuse online, causing her to delete all of her social media accounts in order to get away from it all. "Toxic fandom" has been a phrase used to describe an atmosphere of hostility between fans and creators, and Tran appeared to be a victim of such a culture. The standing ovation she received at Celebration, however, proved that such negativity was the work of a vocal minority of fans. Tran was deeply touched by the outpouring of support, and I was glad for her to receive some affirmation after such a difficult experience.
The other highlight was seeing pictures of Joonas Suotamo all dressed up as the mighty Wookiee, Chewbacca, holding his baby boy aloft. What's it like for a kid to grow up with Chewbacca as his father? It was a nice reminder of the humanity of all the people playing the various aliens in the movies.
All the talk with the cast and director was nice, but that wasn't what we really wanted to see. What we really wanted was this:
I swear I could hear the cheering of the fans in my hotel room across town.
One of the things that I love about Star Wars is its unique place within current pop culture. Unlike the Marvel superhero movies, Star Wars movies aren't based on anything. They aren't adaptations of novels or comic books. No one knows what the next chapter of the story is going to be. There's a sense of unbridled excitement about what could happen, what might be in the story. The hints of things to come in that teaser trailer get me excited: all the heroes on an adventure together! Rey and Kylo Ren's final showdown! The ruins of the Death Star! The ghost of Emperor Palpatine?! Yes, it seems so, because after the trailer ran, the lights came up on the main stage to reveal Ian McDiarmid.
"Roll it again," he croaked in the malignant voice of the Emperor. It was obvious he was trying to keep himself from cracking up while he did so.
Buzzing with excitement, my friend Joe and I left the hotel and made our way down the convention center. Even before entering the main exhibit hall, my jaw was already on the floor from the sheer amount of Star Wars around me. Everywhere I looked there was another Darth Vader, another Rey, another obscure minor character carrying what looked like an ice cream maker. We met up with our friend Ginger to sign up for a scavenger hunt later in the day, and while we were having lunch I met Grant, who recognized me by my collar and the Star Wars Minute t-shirt I had on. It was great to get to meet people in person that had only been profile pictures and posts online before.
Joe and I then took a walk around the exhibit hall and came away with nerd sensory overload. Every conceivable piece of Star Wars merchandise was on sale: t-shirts, costumes, pins, board games, lunch boxes, LEGO sets, action figures from every decade, screen-accurate replicas of lightsabers, and on and on. Artists had custom artwork for sale, ranging from loving recreations of scenes from the movies to advertisements for products of the galaxy. A live stage at the center of the hall had a non-stop show going with interviews of cast and crew from the movies, fashion shows of new clothing products, and re-broadcasts of the day's major panels. People lined up for hours for a chance to take pictures in detailed re-creations of the Millennium Falcon's interior, the hallway of the Rebel blockade runner, or beneath the wings of a full-scale TIE Fighter. I'm still washing the dirt off my chin from having my jaw on the floor. We mostly walked around in a stupor, too dazzled to take pictures or buy anything.
We met up with Ginger again to start our scavenger hunt. We were given puzzles to solve that demanded a firm grasp of Star Wars trivia. Those puzzle solutions would then give us a clue for a particular Star Wars character, each of which was tied to a specific location in the convention center. For instance, if the puzzle gave you the name "Phasma" your map told you to go to the artist's gallery in the exhibit hall. There was a scavenger hunt agent at each location. After you gave the correct name of the character, the agent would give you a stamp. Harder puzzles earned you more points, and the top five scoring teams would walk away with fabulous prizes.
Our team blazed through the first round of clues with little difficulty. The second round of clues proved much tougher. We solved four of the last five puzzles. Well, I say we, but really I mean Joe and Ginger solved them. I spent forty minutes trying to solve the single hardest puzzle and came up short. We only had enough time left to find two more agents out in the convention center, and even then were only able to get one more stamp. We could not find the last station to save our lives. We raced back to the main room with a minute and a half left to spare on our time. We didn't even come close to the top five but we all had a blast.
Joe and I then left to watch a panel about the making of SOLO, the latest Star Wars movie to be released. The visual effects supervisor of the film walked us through how they blended practical effects with digital compositing to make the movie. Speeder chases were planned out using custom vehicles on a wet runway. An exploding mountain was created using a miniature submerged in a tank of water. To get inspiration for that explosion, the ILM team looked for explosions on YouTube! It's good to know that my skills of falling down YouTube holes could easily translate to filmmaking. We also saw how they combined an actor in costume on set with digital effects to create a new droid character for the movie. Most impressive to me was the location shots they used for the movie. The first big action sequence of the movie involves a robbery on a train speeding through a mountain valley. To create that valley, ILM shot thousands of pictures of the Dolomite Mountains in Italy, then composited them together to create the valley for the movie. Even the moutain they blew up in the movie was a real mountain! However, since it was an Italian national park, ILM had to create a digital version to explode. The Italians wanted to keep the moutain the way it is.
After a shuttle ride back to the hotel and ramen for dinner, I flopped down in my hotel room, exhasuted with the kind of fatigue you get from having fun all day. I grabbed my breviary and rosary to catch up on the prayers I hadn't had a chance to say yet. That's when something happened. As I was saying my rosary, I had the sensation of coming to rest on something solid. All day I had been wrapped up in fiction, filmmaking, fun and games. Those things were good, as far as they went, but as the beads slipped through my fingers, I recognized that they weren't enough for me. I needed something that mattered. My conversation with God in that hotel room mattered more than anything else I had done that day. It grounded me in a way that Star Wars never could even for all its action and heroics.
Interestingly, this moment of reflection did nothing to dampen my excitement. I wasn't filled with a sense of regret that I had "wasted my time" or anything like that. Rather there was a sense of perspective, an awareness of what was truly important for my life that enabled me to enjoy Star Wars more. The enjoyment came from an acknowledgment of its proper place in my life: a source of entertainment, a good story to share with friends. Fortunately, I didn't need to look to the Force for guidance - as the movies show, always a difficult thing to figure out. I belonged not to the light side or the dark side but to Christ, and that's what mattered.
I'll be posting about the rest of my time at Star Wars Celebration next week, once we're on the other side of Easter. I hope you have a blessed Triduum and a happy Easter.