A Priest Goes to Star Wars Celebration - Episode III
Updated: Feb 4, 2020
EPISODE III - SNOWTROOPERS
Sunday dawned gray and overcast. There was a chill in the air when I stepped from my Lyft onto the steps of the church where I would participate in Palm Sunday Mass. It was the earliest Mass I could find near my hotel, and while I would have preferred to sleep in a bit, I wanted to make sure I went to Mass before I went to Celebration for the day. As I kept telling people, I love Jesus more than Star Wars.
Mass itself was a humble affair with maybe 50 of us gathered – a far cry from the crush of humanity I was accustomed to after two days at a Star Wars convention. There was no great pomp and circumstance beyond the usual liturgical ornaments appropriate to the day. Each Christian held a palm branch, evoking the excited crowd that gave Jesus a hero’s welcome to Jerusalem, throwing palm branches beneath the feet of the donkey he rode. We read the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, execution, and burial. The priest read the words of Christ, other ministers read the narration and other characters’ parts, and the rest of the faithful read the parts of the crowd. Even in the gray early morning, the cry of “Crucify him!” echoed harshly in that small church.
Coming face to face again with the juxtaposition of my religion and my Star Wars fandom, I was struck by the humility of that Palm Sunday Mass. This Sunday stands at the beginning of Holy Week, the highest holy days of the Church’s year, which commemorates the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I have been a part of many parish celebrations of Palm Sunday and the rest of Holy Week. There is always an anxious energy in the weeks leading up to it, full of preparation and planning. The nice vestments are sent to the dry cleaners, the choir rehearses music sung only once a year, and the altar servers are trained diligently for the unique jobs they will have to do during Holy Week. I expect there is a similar frenetic energy going on behind the scenes of each Star Wars Celebration. Yet in that small church with a small crowd for Palm Sunday, I couldn’t help but wonder at how different these two experiences are. A Star Wars convention is the kind of thing that is either a success or a failure. Celebration with only 40 people in attendance would be a disaster. For Mass, it’s different. Success and failure don’t really apply as categories. Even if I had been the only person in that church Sunday morning, God would have still made himself present out of love for his people. And that happens not annually but daily – every time the Mass is celebrated, Jesus Christ proves himself to truly be Emmanuel, God-with-us.
I was still thinking about this while I was having breakfast in the hotel, but then one look out the window wiped all my other thoughts aside. Snow. It was snowing in April. And not a wimpy little snow either. This was a proper snowstorm. I soon found myself in the midst of it, carefully working my way down Lake Shore Drive in order to arrive for my last day of Star Wars nerdiness. After parking on the other side of McCormick Place, I had to walk through all the empty spaces of the convention center in order to return to that galaxy far, far away.
I arrived just in time to squeeze my way into the crowd in the main exhibit hall, which was filled with people not lucky enough to get a seat in the main auditorium who now gathered to watch a live-stream of the big presentation of the day: a panel discussion with the creative team behind The Mandalorian, the new Star Wars TV series.
I admit to not being terribly excited about the idea of a show focused on Mandalorians. The bounty hunter Boba Fett from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, as well as his father Jango Fett, both wore Mandalorian armor. Since Boba Fett is one of the coolest characters from the original trilogy, a lot of material in Star Wars books and cartoons has been dedicated to fleshing out the details of the Mandalorians which has captured a lot of fans’ imaginations. Not me, however. I never really understood the appeal of the Mandalorians outside of the armor aesthetic. In fact, this particular aspect of Star Wars lore seemed played out and tired to me. That there would be an entire show based on someone from this culture didn’t exactly activate my nerd hyperdrive. Still, I was curious and wanted to see what the show would look like.
I was utterly charmed by the panel about the show. It was clear that Jon Favreau has deeply invested himself in the production and design of the show. He loved the idea of the show so much that he admitted to writing episodes scripts even on Christmas Day! The actors, Pedro Pascal and Gina Carano were also clearly excited to be part of the show, and I found myself gasping like a little kid when Carl Weathers of ROCKY fame was introduced. At Celebration, we were able to see a sneak peek at the trailer for the show along with some behind the scenes material. The tone of the show reminds me of Firefly, and if Lucasfilm can deliver on that western-in-space vibe, then I’m going to be one happy fan. If nothing else, seeing this panel gave me the sinking feeling that I’m going to be paying for the Disney+ streaming service when it starts up later this year.
I tore myself away from the Q&A section of the panel to find the podcast stage – Star Wars Minute was about to record! Along the way I ran into Tom Taylor along with his lovely family. We managed to navigate the (let’s be honest) poorly laid out floor plan of the convention center to find the rest of our podcasting friends. So many of the people I had bumped into over the last two days were there. It was almost a disappointment when the show started because it meant we had to stop chatting!
I say “almost” because the show itself was a delight. Pete and Alex had invited the team behind Hello from the Magic Tavern to analyze, scrutinize, and celebrate one minute of the special edition of RETURN OF THE JEDI. Jokes about Force lighting, horse lightning, and the value of self-imposed censorship made the whole episode fly by. It was clear that the trio of guests had excellent comedic timing and worked off each other extremely well. Sometimes a guest will have a hard time falling into the rhythm of a show like Star Wars Minute, but these three did an outstanding job. The episode will drop sometime during the summer, and I’ll be sure to include a link here once it does. (EDIT: Here it is!)
From there, I popped into a presentation by Doug Chiang, the executive creative director of Lucasfilm, who shared the creative design process for THE PHANTOM MENACE. Whatever you may think about the quality of the final product of the movie, I maintain that the design of the film has a lot of charm to it. There were so many elements of design that Chiang had to invent based on notes from George Lucas or sometimes out of his own imagination. He spent days and days making drawing after drawing, designing thousands of droids, starships, and aliens that ended up in the trash. Most of the fun of his presentation was seeing how his early designs gradually morphed into the final forms seen in the film. Hearing about his creative process renewed my appreciation for just how hard artists work. I think I fail to remember the blood, sweat, and tears that can go into a piece of art, whether it’s popular art like a Star Wars movie or one of Beethoven’s symphonies.
After a quick lunch of deep dish pizza, I met up with Tom Taylor again (his lovely famliy had a lovely time but were ready for a lovely nap by the middle of the day so they had abandoned him…lovingly) and we sat down to listen to a panel discussion with the miniature model builders of Industrial Light & Magic. We both had to pick up our jaws off the floor as the model-makers casually talked about putting together Star Destroyers and Death Star hangars, X-wings and landspeeders, podracing arenas and entire cities. The level of detail these folks put in to these models was incredible, especially considering one particular model may only be in a few seconds of the final film! My favorite part of the presentation was learning about the little props the model-makers would include in an attempt to sneak them into the film. In one of the Death Star hangars in RETURN OF THE JEDI, one artist made a scale basketball hoop since the whole set reminded him of a gymnasium. Sadly, it didn’t make the final cut of the film. However, for THE PHANTOM MENACE, a model-maker thought the grassy roofs of the city of Theed on the planet Naboo needing some care, so he made a scale lawnmower and gas can to include with the model of the city. The film crew loved the lawnmower so much they made sure to place it somewhere in the model city every time they were shooting. It’s something I’ll have to keep an eye out for when I watch that movie again!
Tom and I then wandered through the exhibit hall, taking in as much of the experience as we could. We stopped by the booth for the new Star Wars land at Disneyland and Disney World, Galaxy’s Edge, and made general fools of ourselves:
We didn’t stay for long as we quickly found that the booth was more of a walk-through advertisement than anything, and neither one of us needed to be sold on the idea of a physical manifestation of the Star Wars universe. We set ourselves a task of finding an action figure of Tom’s favorite minor character from STAR WARS: a silver protocol droid that only appears in the bowels of the Jawa sandcrawler in the first thirty minutes of the film. We found several such figures, but they were highly prized by collectors and were therefore going for at least $100. We decided that finding the action figure was just as good as owning it, so our money staying in our wallets. We looked at toys, T-shirts, scale models of lightsabers (one of which I came dangerously close to buying), and a lot of cool art in the Artists’ Alley. After several hours of walking around the entire hall, we decided it was time to head out, but not before I got one last picture.
We met up with Eric and his friend Charlie, and the four of us drove to a meet up for Star Wars Minute. Fortunately, the snow which had been falling all day and could be seen making life miserable for drivers through the huge windows of McCormick had lessened to a light flurry, making the drive much more tolerable. When we arrived, Pete and Alex along with almost twenty fans of the show commandeered the two largest tables in the restaurant. We had a rollicking good time. We swapped stories, heard about all the things we missed at Celebration because we were busy doing other cool things elsewhere in the convention, and envied those who were going back for the last day of Celebration on Monday. I talked and laughed so much that I woke up with a sore throat the next morning!
If there are any Star Wars fans reading this who haven’t been to a Celebration before, I highly recommend the experience, especially if it’s close to home like it was for me in Chicago. However, I also highly recommend having good friends with whom you can share the experience. This has been the biggest take away for me after my time at Celebration. The panels, the sneak peeks at games and TV shows, the merchandise – all that I have a harder and harder time remembering the more time passes since the show. But the scavenger hunt with Joe and Ginger, having bangers & mash with Jennifer and Remi, and trying on stormtrooper helmets with Tom? These things I have no trouble remembering. When I was a kid in middle school, becoming the Star Wars nerd I am today, I wanted to be friends with Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca because I wanted to have great adventures with cool people. Star Wars delivered that through its stories, of course, but as I get older, I’m grateful that Star Wars has brought me new friends and new adventures who have a distinct advantage over Luke Skywalker by being real people and real adventures. God is not proud, and he will use just about anything to put people together in the right place at the right time. I’m grateful that Star Wars was just such an instrument in divine providence.
Now if God in his providence could make lightsabers a real thing I would also be grateful for that. Friends are great, don't get me wrong, but, you know, lightsabers are pretty cool....