Comic-Con 2015: Harrison Ford -- and a surprise concert -- thrill 'Star Wars' fans

Fans who lined up by the thousands to get into the Hall H panel for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" on Friday came in with two major wishes: They wanted to see some new footage. And they wanted to see Harrison Ford take the stage.

The Force was strong with them because they got that and more.

In the most highly anticipated panel so far at this year's Comic-Con, Lucasfilm and Disney sought to bridge the gap between the "Star Wars" franchise's past and future, bringing out the returning stars of the original trilogy – Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Ford – along with younger cast members Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Gwendoline Christie.

The message was simple and repeated often: "Star Wars" is going back to its roots.

Abrams and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy took the stage first, joined by producer and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi." As he did in April at the Star Wars Celebration convention, Abrams established his "Star Wars" fan bona fides right off the bat, recounting the story of his mother making him a Jawa costume for Halloween when he was 13.

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For someone who grew up on the original trilogy, he said, being a part of the next chapter in the "Star Wars" story alongside some of the key players from the franchise's glory days has been one long out-of-body experience. 

"I sat with John Williams to show him scenes from a 'Star Wars' movie that he hasn’t seen yet!" he marveled. "To be writing a script with Larry Kasdan – it's like, 'What would Han Solo say?' 'I'll tell you what Han would say!' "

That said, Abrams told the crowd it was important not to get too caught up in reverence for the past – the new "Star Wars" film needed a strong story. "When you're directing a scene on the Millennium Falcon, that doesn't make it automatically good," he said. "It's storytelling 101."

Abrams, Kennedy and Kasdan repeatedly stressed that, in contrast to so many CGI-drenched tentpoles (and the much-maligned "Star Wars" prequels, which went unmentioned), "The Force Awakens" will be grounded as much as possible in old-fashioned, pre-digital effects. Abrams drew applause from the audience when he spoke of the importance of maintaining "authenticity" – and to cement that point, the first "special guest" brought out was an animatronic creature called Bobbajo that shambled across the stage.

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Abrams then introduced a new reel of behind-the-scenes footage, which again emphasized that this "Star Wars" movie is, as much as possible, kicking it old-school, showing off the film's heavy reliance on practical props, stunts, costumes and effects.

Coming to the stage, the younger cast members expressed their honor at being brought into the "Star Wars" universe.

"Working with the legends was everything we could have hoped for and more," said Ridley, who plays Rey.

Christie, who has become a fan favorite as Brienne on "Game of Thrones," spoke of her excitement at playing one of the film's key villains, a Stormtrooper leader named Captain Phasma: "I found it exciting that underneath that armor was a woman. I think it makes it more relevant than ever."

Asked if his character, General Hux, was evil, Gleeson quipped, "He's British, so ... yeah" – then let slip that the new film's answer to the Death Star is called Starkiller Base.

Fisher and Hamill took the stage to thunderous applause and spoke of the mind-bending homecoming that the new film represents for them after so many years. "It was like an acid flashback," Fisher said. "They were right about acid flashbacks. It was a bit like before, but we were more melted this time."

Finally, just when fans had probably started to give up hope, Ford was brought to the stage, receiving a huge standing ovation from the capacity crowd in Hall H. The actor, who spent weeks in the hospital this spring after crashing his plane, reassured the crowd he was feeling well and said that returning to the role of Han Solo after more than 30 years was just as moving for him as it is for the fans. 

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"I will tell you that it felt great," he said. "It was an emotional rounding of the experience of the first three films. ... I never thought it would come back. I never thought we'd do another one."

If the panel had ended there, no doubt the fans would have been more than satisfied. But Abrams had one last surprise: "Who wants to go see a live 'Star Wars' concert right now?" he asked. When the audience roared, he said, "Well, we only have room for ... all of you."

With that, some 6,500 happy "Star Wars" fans filed out of the convention center to the nearby Embarcadero for an outdoor concert of John Williams' music, waving their free lightsabers under the stars. 

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

 

 

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