Star Wars Celebration: Tears, cheers and awe for 'Episode IX'
For a lifelong, 40-year-old fan of "Star Wars," Friday's event presenting the first footage of "Episode IX" -- now known as "The Rise of Skywalker" -- felt like the beginning of the end, an end that we have earned as followers of George Lucas' beloved franchise.
Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy and "The Rise of Skywalker" director J.J. Abrams held court with 6,000 fans at Wintrust Arena, adjacent to the Star Wars Celebration convention at McCormick Place in Chicago, and gave us an experience we won't soon forget, culminating in the teaser trailer for the new film. The title is exciting enough, a nod to the franchise's beloved past and the promise that maybe, just maybe, sequel-trilogy hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a Skywalker after all.
But even before we saw the title, we heard that laugh.
The craziest rumor I kept seeing repeated about "Episode IX" was that Emperor Palpatine, the saga's most diabolical villain, the old, twisted man who gave Darth Vader orders, would be returning -- nevermind that he was thrown into the Death Star's core by Vader at the end of 1983's "Return of the Jedi."
But that laugh confirmed it -- and then Ian McDiarmid, the Scottish thespian who has played Palpatine in five movies, stepped on stage and implored the production staff to "roll it again" in that evil, unforgettable voice.
With the return of the Emperor, a voice-over from Luke (Mark Hamill), Lando (Billy Dee Williams) back at the helm of the Millennium Falcon and the final appearance of Leia (Carrie Fisher, whose posthumous performance was created with unused footage from 2015's "The Force Awakens"), this two-minute peek at December's grand finale has already convinced me that Abrams and Kennedy will deliver. Seeing that trailer with that raucous crowd was a thrill like no other, as a "Star Wars" fan.
And that was after Abrams brought out cast members Ridley, Williams, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran and Naomi Ackie. And R2-D2 and BB-8. And showed off gorgeous stills and behind-the-scenes photos that make "The Rise of Skywalker" look like both a happy family reunion and a gritty, fantastic space Western. And did I mention the host for the 80-minute presentation was Stephen Colbert?!
Aside from the geek-out moments, the highlight of this panel came courtesy of the audience, who embraced Tran's return to the public spotlight with a lingering standing ovation that brought her to tears. Tran endured harsh criticism, to put it lightly, in the aftermath of her appearance in "The Last Jedi," the polarizing 2017 installment that introduced her character as love interest to Finn (Boyega). Tran abandoned her social media accounts because of it, and this young actress who seemed so overwhelmingly grateful to be in the "Star Wars" universe disappeared from the public eye almost as quickly as she entered it.
But today, she's back. Just like the wonder, the thrill and the joy that is "Star Wars."
The love of family was a constant theme in Friday's event, exemplified by a teary-eyed Suotamo, who inherited the role of Chewbacca from Peter Mayhew -- as he talked about bringing his son on set, the audience saw a picture of Suotamo in full Chewie regalia lifting his son, Simba-style, followed by one of Ridley cradling him in her arms.
Emotional connections like that are why "Star Wars" endures. They are why Abrams' "The Force Awakens" felt like coming home, like a warm embrace. I think Abrams is going to embrace us all again in December.
• Follow all of Sean's live coverage from Star Wars Celebration on Twitter at @SeanStanglandDH.