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Fans out in force

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Even though she’s bundled up in a furry Chewbaca costume, Chantel Davila is shivering as she waits with her husband, Bryan, and several friends Thursday outside the Century Rio 24 theaters to see the first showing of “The Force Awakens,” the new “Star Wars” film.

It’s about 3:30 p.m. The movie will not start until after 7, but Chantel, 26, and Bryan, 27, have been here since 10 a.m.

“We came early so we could get good seats,” Chantel explained. No problem. There are only 25 or so people waiting, but Chantel, Bryan and their friends thought there would be more.

“For Episode One (1999’s ‘The Phantom Menace’), the line was around the corner,” said Gabriel Curley, 38, another early arrival.

The sun is shining, but the temperature is in the cold 30s and a sharp breeze makes it seem more fiercely bitter than that. The Chewbaca costume Chantel is wearing belongs to Bryan. Chilled to the bone, she borrowed it from him to wear over her X-Wing fighter pilot uniform.

“It’s like Hoth out here,” Chantel said.

Hoth is the icy planet in the 1980 “Star Wars” movie “The Empire Strikes Back.” In that film, the injured hero Luke Skywalker is saved from freezing to death when he’s stuffed into the body of a dead tauntaun, a furry, white biped with downturned horns that serves as a mount for the movie’s good guys.

“Hey, here’s a joke,” Chantel said. “What’s the inside temperature of a tauntaun?”

Everybody shrugged.

“Luke warm,” Chantel said.

Everybody laughed.

“The Force Awakens” is the seventh installment of the epic space opera that was launched in 1977 with “Star Wars,” a movie that these days bears the subtitle “A New Hope.” That movie initiated a monster franchise that has made characters such as Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader part of a modern American saga and the storyline a classic study in good vs. evil, the rebellious forces for right vs. the Dark Side.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone among the two dozen people at Century Rio 24 on Thursday afternoon who had not seen all six previous “Star Wars” films.

“I keep coming back for the lightsaber battles,” Bryan Davila said.

John James, 43, who grew up in the small Lincoln County town of Corona, many miles from the nearest movie theater, first saw “Star Wars” movies on TV in the late 1980s. Perhaps that’s the reason he is now hooked on the series’ big-screen special effects.

“I’m interested in the advance of the technology in movies,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do with the new technology.”

Brian Francois gets out of his customized Stormtrooper Hummer H2 in the parking lot of the Century Rio 24 theaters on Thursday. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Brian Francois gets out of his customized Stormtrooper Hummer H2 in the parking lot of the Century Rio 24 theaters on Thursday. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Brian Francois, a 39-year-old Army veteran, has made “Star Wars” technology personal, customizing his 2006 Hummer H2 into a Stormtrooper-mobile filled almost top to bottom and back to front with an immense audio system that looks as if it could blast the popular John Williams’ “Star Wars” theme music to a few of the closest planets.

He said he spent three years building his Hummer into a rolling, serenading tribute to his favorite movie series.

“I was born in 1976,” Francois said. “‘Star Wars’ started in 1977. I grew up on ‘Star Wars.'”

The fan frenzy has begun in Albuquerque for the latest installment of the "Star Wars" franchise movie "The Force Awakens." Liz Kemp,left and her friend Katie Gonzales try to stay warm inside matching Star Wars sleeping bags at the Century 24 theaters. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

The fan frenzy has begun in Albuquerque for the latest installment of the “Star Wars” franchise movie “The Force Awakens.” Liz Kemp,left and her friend Katie Gonzales try to stay warm inside matching Star Wars sleeping bags at the Century 24 theaters. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Best friends Katie Gonzales, 19, and Liz Kemp, 19, both Eldorado High School graduates, lean to the Dark Side. Forget those goody-goody Jedi Knights. Give them the cunning and devious Order of Sith anytime.

They showed up at Century Rio 24 at 10:30 a.m., dressed top to bottom in “Star Wars” black – caps, T-shirts, sweatshirts, pajama bottoms. Finding it too cold for comfort, they went to a store, bought sleeping bags featuring Kylo Ren, a dangerous and unpredictable dark warrior in “The Force Awakens” film, and returned to hunker down and wait.

They are interested to see how Kylo Ren handles his especially formidable lightsaber without cutting his own arm off.

The very first person in line on Thursday was Elfego Piñon III, 49, an aerospace engineer with a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.

He arrived at the theater at 9:30 a.m. to save seats for a party of 10 – his family and a few of their friends.

But he is a big-time fan himself. His favorite of the series is “The Empire Strikes Back.”

“The writing and the dialogue was really good in that movie,” he said. “A lot of the fans consider that the best one.”

He said the fact that Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the screenplays for “The Empire Strikes Back” and 1983’s “Return of the Jedi,” is one of the screenwriters for “The Force Awakens” and that actors from the early films – Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Peter Mayhew (Chewbaca) – appear in the movie is a big reason a lot of people are looking forward to this latest entry.

But there’s more to it than that for Piñon.

“Because I’m an aerospace engineer, I just like the idea of being out in space,” he said.

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