Of all the events and experiences which took place at the 2015 San Diego Comic Con, the one moment in time which must be captured and explained was the Hall H, Star Wars panel. As Chris Hardwick, moderator of the panel, said in the beginning, you’ll be telling your grandchildren about the Star Wars panel of “ought-15” at the San Diego Comic Con.
I’ll spare you the trials and tribulations of getting into the 6,500 seat Hall H (an interesting stand-alone story) but myself and a friend found ourselves in San Diego Convention Center hallowed ground just as the Game of Thrones panel was ending. We settled down, far from the stage but front and center on one of the massive broadcast screens within the room. (One does not get close to the stage without 36 hours of camping prior to the event.)
Social media rumored the Con was going to be rather flat this year with the absence of several major movie studios so a single panel dedicated to the upcoming and highly anticipated Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens looked to be a port in the storm. Making it a priority, we got in.
The Star Wars panel, scheduled to begin at 5:15pm on Friday, didn’t actually start until about 5:40pm. The crowd, eager to get down to business, began a staccato slow-clap a number of times in an effort move the event along. The room broke out into a random attempt at a wave, seemingly an attempt to dispel the nervous energy in anticipation of whatever the next hour would hold. Many of fans in the room had camped for 24+ hours waiting for this very panel so adrenaline was the only thing keeping the room fueled.
Chris Hardwich (Talking Dead, The Nerdist) started off moderating the event and offered the warning this particular panel would resonate well into the future. Thinking this was a healthy sprinkling of hyperbole, I blew off the comments as typical Con excitement. Hah, how wrong I was.
J.J. Abrams (director: Super 8, Star Trek, Star Trek II) came on stage, flanked by two other exec’s from the film. J.J. Abrams began by taking the time to assure the audience he was taking the Star Wars legacy very seriously. He talked of his personal affection for the franchise and also his desire to do it right while using tangible sets, props, and locations to further the story. If they needed a desert scene, they went on-location to a desert. If they needed the Millennium Falcon, then they built the thing. No detail was overlooked, no element out of place and a stark contrast from Star Wars 1, 2, and 3 set largely in green screen environments. Abrams actually spent some serious time on the topic, driving the point home and was left with the distinct feeling he really understands and appreciates the fan base. J.J. Abrams hammered the point home by showing the following video:
At some point the current cast was introduced including John Boyega (Finn), Daisy Ridley (Rey), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), Domhnall Gleeson (General Hux), Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma) and the audience was allowed a few nerd questions. Harmless and at this point standard fare for the Con; however, the entire place was looking for something more.
It came with the introduction of the legacy cast starting with Carrie Fisher (Leia Organna), then Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), while the biggest ovation was reserved for the introduction of Harrison Ford (Han Solo). The assembled fans lost their ever-loving minds. The roar was deafening, the energy insane, and the pay off had arrived. Few had seen the ensemble cast together and this was a unique moment in Con history. Certainly fantastic but hardly the promise Hardwick had offered in the opening minutes.
Then it happened.
J.J. Abrams began saying he’d introduced the entire cast but there was one cast member missing from this particular group. I leaned over to my friend and whispered, “Stormtroopers” thinking about the new helmet design but Abrams went on to explain the missing cast member was the music, casually asking the crowd, “Do you guys like Star Wars music?” A deafening roar of approval gave voice to our answer. Abrams smiled then casually asked, “Do you guys want to go to a Star Wars concert… right now? I mean right now!”
The question hung there while the room responded in shocked disbelief. Gasps. Screams. High-fives. Applause. Cheering. You name it, you heard it but what was Abrams asking? Was there going to be a concert in Hall H? A symphony of some kind? What the hell…? But Abrams continued as a number of Stormtroopers filed onto the stage and took up positions behind him. Abrams told us we were going to leave Hall H, follow the Stormtroopers to a nearby location for our own, invitation-only, Star Wars symphony concert. Like a bar of soap in the tub, I was having trouble finding a hold on the moment.
Abrams commented he could not believe the city of San Diego allowed him to do this but, on cue, the side doors opened (fortunately near our seating position) and the assembled masses stepped out into the light of day. Clearly rehearsed, the path to the concert was already cordoned off and we were all handed a unique Star Wars badge/lanyard for admit-one entry to the concert. True to his word, this was happening — and right now. I could see various members of the media outside the barrier trying to get quick interviews with Hall H badge bearers as we filed past. More cheers, yelling, high-fives, and other stunned pandemonium. As for me, I could not stop grinning.
We followed the Stormtroopers west behind the convention center and passed all the celebrity vehicles. Winning the Good Timing Award, Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) popped out from behind some privacy curtains, waving to the crowd, and gestured to his eye, formed a heart with his hands, then pointed to us. Clearly he was buzzing as hard as the crowd.
The procession weaved behind the convention center, southwest toward Embarcadero Marina State Park, a large grassy promontory. We were ushered through the main gate and into the grounds. To the extreme west, I could see a large stage under a sign which read, “San Diego Symphony,” the members of which were watching the slightly bewildered masses crowd in. The grounds included bags & coat checks, food & drink vendors, bathrooms, and even a large stand for the media and other VIPs. Clearly, nothing had been left to chance. As we arrived, we exchanged the bottom “Admit One” portion of our badges for a plastic telescoping light saber (which lit up) then crushed into the grass in front of the stage. The scene was set.
It took about an hour for the 6,500 Hall H attendees to press in but early arrivals were entertained by a DJ playing classics, hip-hop, and contemporary up-tempo hits. The energy rivaled any concert I’d ever attended. There were more high-fives, smiles, selfies, while light saber battles broke out left and right. The energy was electric, the anticipation palpable, as we waited for the concert to begin. The DJ began saying her farewells, and handed the mic over the main event.
JJ Abrams returned to the stage holding an identical light saber. The crowd surged and roared approval and when he turned and looked out over the view from the stage, he simply uttered, “Wow” into the microphone. The ovation doubled while a forest of light sabers greeted the director. Abrams reintroduced the cast and each came out, holding a light saber and some dueled the front row of the crowd as they entered the stage. John Boyego (Finn) gave the introduction, wished us well, and the concert kicked off in earnest.
The initial music was the classic Star Wars Imperial March met with thunderous cheering and a sea of light sabers danced to the melody. A live orchestra was playing legendary music and I was standing not 30′ from the stage. There were three large screens left, right, and one centered behind the orchestra. The screens initially showed clips of the musicians playing which transitioned into scenes from the films. Interestingly, whenever the screens showed clips from Star Wars 1, 2, or 3, the crowd booed, while original footage was met with cheers of approval. The first time the crowd booed, I and several people around me began to laugh at the absurdity. Clearly, the prequel films appear to have earned universal disdain.
The concert lasted about an hour and though a handful of people left, the bulk of the crowd remained. The decision to stay paid off. Darkness fell as the San Diego Symphony played the main Star Wars theme and as the music began, fireworks began to explode in the sky to our left. I don’t mean pop-crack-fizzle, I mean full-out, crash-bang-boom. The fireworks lit up the faces of those around me, the crowd roared again, and it was simply magnificent.
To my right, the San Diego Symphony was playing iconic music from Star Wars, in front of me the sky was lit by thundering fireworks in time to the music, around me were 6,500 of my closest friends and in that moment, I don’t mind telling you, I had a lump in my throat. It was an event, an experience, a moment in Con history I will never forget.
Here is a quick look at the event from the perspective of IGN. This about sums it up, hitting most of the high points.
The organization and undertaking of this event must have been massive, not to mention tedious. I just want to thank everyone, from J.J. Abrams all the way to the staff checking us into the event at the main gate. You left me speechless.