Star Wars Celebration: Tears, droids and J.J. Abrams open the Anaheim fan convention

April 16, 2015 | 2:12 p.m.

J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy made bold promises for the “Star Wars” universe on Thursday morning, speaking to thousands of the most dedicated fans of the sci-fi franchise at the Star Wars Celebration expo in Anaheim. Asked how he can possibly please all “Star Wars” fans with his upcoming film, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Abrams hunched his shoulders and said, simply, “Well, we will.”

Judging by the reaction of the 2,700 attendees inside the showcase auditorium at the Anaheim Convention Center, the director is hitting the right notes.

A "Star Wars" fan dressed as a red Stormtrooper attends the Star Wars Celebration expo at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Richard Shotwell / Associated Press)

A fan dressed as a red Stormtrooper attends the Star Wars Celebration expo at the Anaheim Convention Center on Thursday. (Richard Shotwell / Associated Press)

A second teaser for the December film was unveiled near the end of an hour-long panel — which started the four-day convention — featuring Abrams, Kennedy and multiple generations of “Star Wars” cast members. The new clip featured some old favorites such as Han Solo (Harrison Ford), a voice-over from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and a burned and scarred mask of the fallen Darth Vader. The short clip was shown twice.

Star Wars Celebration: Trailer unveiled | Watch the live stream | Fans gather | Preview

“Oh my gosh, I cried when I saw the trailer,” said Lennie Scales, 40, from Dallas. “Both times, like tears rolling down my face. Whenever I saw Harrison Ford, that’s when I started bawling.”

Though few, if any, plot points were shared, Kennedy, the  president of Lucasfilm, said fans should get ready for some changes to the “Star Wars” universe – namely, more diverse characters. Joined on stage by franchise newcomers Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, Kennedy assured fans that the upcoming sequels and spinoffs will boast more roles for strong women.

Cast members old and new applauded the move.

“I liked being the only one when I was 19 and that was possible, but now I need some backup,” said Carrie Fisher, who reprises her role as Princess Leia in “The Force Awakens.”

“There’s really strong women, not only in ‘Episode 7’, but the conversations we have moving forward,” Kennedy echoed. “There’s going to be a lot of wonderful new characters.”

“The Force Awakens” is the first episode of a new trilogy and seventh installment in the core film series. Also in the works are three spinoff films. The Abrams-helmed story will be the first “Star Wars” film in a decade and the first since Disney purchased Lucasfilm.

Actress Daisy Ridley said her character is "completely self sufficient." (Lucasfilm / Disney)

Daisy Ridley said her character is “completely self-sufficient.” (Lucasfilm / Disney)

Little is known about Ridley’s character Rey, but she appears to be one of those bold female roles  Kennedy mentioned.

“She is a scavenger in, like, a ship graveyard,” Ridley said. “She’s completely self-sufficient and does everything herself. She’s very solitary.”

That was about it in terms of story points unveiled Thursday morning. The new trailer showed plenty of striking images – a downed Imperial ship among them – and boasted a Skywalker speech that echoed Luke’s words from “Return of the Jedi,” but it raised more questions than it answered.

A new Stormtrooper, outfitted in chrome, was shown, and early fan favorite BB-8, a small roller ball of a droid, was glimpsed apparently cowering in fear.

John Boyega in a scene from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." (Lucasfilm / Disney)

John Boyega in a scene from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” (Lucasfilm / Disney)

Oscar Isaac, whose character of Poe was described by the actor as “the best freaking pilot in the galaxy,” tried to give some story hints, making it clear that his path will cross with that of Boyega’s Finn. Boyega, for his part, refused to say whether his Stormtrooper-outfitted character is good or evil, but Isaac’s words may lead some to believe that Finn isn’t at least all bad.

Said Isaac of Poe, “He’s been sent on a mission by a certain princess and he ends up coming across Mr. John Boyega’s character and their fates are forever intertwined.”

Still, it was the showcase of familiar faces – and props – rather than the new ones that had fans buzzing after the panel. Boyle Heights resident Freddie Luevano, 37, said his favorite moment from the teaser was the appearance of the Millennium Falcon and some of the original cast members, including Ford.

“It was pretty emotional, because I grew up seeing the original,” he said. “It hits a soft spot for me.”

Luevano said he had hoped the filmmakers would reveal more details about the new film than they did during the roughly hour-long presentation.

“I was actually hoping for more,” he said. “But seeing the Stormtroopers brought back good memories.”

Early-risers make their way to the Anaheim Convention Center on Thursday morning. (Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times)

Early risers make their way to the Anaheim Convention Center on Thursday morning. (Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times)

Mostly, though, fans didn’t seem to mind that the teaser skimped on plot. The trailer drew raves in its   final moments, when Solo turned to his faithful, furry companion Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and said, “Chewie, we’re home.”

“It ended perfectly. We’re home! That’s what we needed. I feel like I’m home,” said Brandon Kling, 22, from Tucson. “Sixteen hours of camping out, eight-hour drive, more than worth it. I would do it all again to see just what I just saw.”

Many fans spent the night sleeping in a concrete hall inside the convention center to get inside the morning panel. Doors opened to the Anaheim Convention Center last night at 6. Those who slept over received a surprise dinner of pizza from Abrams and Kennedy.

“That was totally awesome,” said East Los Angeles resident Liz Ruiz, who saw “Star Wars” for the first time when she was a junior in high school. She camped out on Wednesday night to ensure she would have a seat for Thursday’s panel. “I appreciate J.J. and his crew reaching out to the fans, and feeding us last night.”

Still, Ruiz was operating on just three hours of sleep. But she said it was all worth the effort.

Ruiz said that she loved the teaser, in part because it had “elements of the original.”

Some in attendance hoped to share their passion for “Star Wars” with their family. Long Beach resident Mike Diaz, 42, brought his children Andrew, 6, and Leila, 3.

Diaz, dressed in a “Star Wars” shirt, said that he was 6 when he saw the original 1977 film – a viewing that he said was transcendent. He hopes his son, Andrew, can have a similar experience when the new movie bows.

Andrew, shy around a reporter, said the teaser was “good,” but offered little more.

But the teaser moved Diaz to tears, wholly living up to his lofty expectations.

“The whole thing — wow, it was amazing,” he said, as Leila napped in the seat next to him. Diaz said that Leila managed to stay awake until just before the trailer but then nodded off.

"Star Wars" fans wait in line to enter the Star Wars Celebration expo at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Richard Shotwell / Associated Press)

Fans wait in line to enter the Star Wars Celebration expo. (Richard Shotwell / Associated Press)

Fans generally applauded what Abrams and Kennedy had to say. Abrams, for instance, said he initially turned down the project but was talked into it by Kennedy. In taking over the franchise, he said he wanted to emphasize physical sets and real-world locations rather than the CGI that marked the George Lucas-helmed prequels.

That’s why, for instance, BB-8 was crafted from scratch as a working droid, though a computer-generated prop may have been an easier route, said Abrams.

“We knew it would be better for the film – for the actors, for the sets, for the look of it – if it performed,” Abrams said.

“’Star Wars,’” he added, “is as much a Western and a fairy tale as it is anything else.”

Not in attendance was Ford, but Kennedy assured fans he is recuperating from a recent plane crash on a Venice golf course and will be promoting the film this holiday season.

“The amazing thing about Harrison,” she said, is that he “is the only person who can make an emergency landing on a golf course in front of two doctors.”

While Ford’s good health was a relief for many fans, Fisher said they should expect one major departure for her Leia come “The Force Awakens.”

“The buns are tired now,” she said of Leia’s trademark hair style. “You’re probably not going to have a futuristic bun. But I think we’re going to have an alternate thing you’re into, which is not a metal bikini.”

— Todd Martens and Daniel Miller

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