Nearly 30 years after the debut of "Star Wars," the force is stronger than ever. More than 30,000 "Star Wars" fans from as far away as Japan have gathered in Indianapolis for the four-day "Celebration III," the largest official "Star Wars" convention ever held.
Interest in the convention is at a fever pitch as fans prepare for the May 19 release of "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith," the final film in George Lucas' prequel trilogy. Media outlets around the world have sent representatives, and downtown hotels are booked solid.
The star attraction is creator Lucas, who on Saturday made his first appearance at a fan convention since 1987.
But fans also are basking in the chance to snatch up movie action figures and watch the Stormtrooper Olympics or the "DroidYard 500," a race and obstacle course featuring robotic figures modeled after the beeping, affable character R2-D2.
"It is the ultimate Sci-fi," said Amanda Johnston of Detroit.
The convention, which opened Thursday and runs through Sunday, is the only U.S. "Star Wars" convention sanctioned by Lucasfilm, said Lucasfilm spokeswoman Lynn Fox. The first was held in 1999 in Denver, followed by Celebration II in Indianapolis in 2002.
Celebration II was promoted by Gen Con, a company best known for organizing gaming conventions, and drew roughly 26,000 people. This year's Gen Con production looks to be even bigger, thanks to the pending release of "Revenge of the Sith."
The event is so popular that fans from Mexico, Japan and Europe have chartered jets to Indianapolis, said Steve Sansweet, director of content management for Lucasfilm and head of fan relations.
The international fans include Leonel Salinas, 32, of Guadalajara, Mexico, who said attending a "Star Wars" convention was his lifelong dream, and Marc Lorch of Stuttgart, Germany.
Lorch traveled to Indianapolis with nine other men to attend his first U.S. "Star Wars" convention, complete with his own stormtrooper costume.
"There's so many people from all over the world," he said.
Stefan Breen of Detroit, who was 8 when the original film was released in 1977, says there's no simple explanation for the films' far-reaching appeal.
"Somebody enjoys action movies, will go see all the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies or the Sylvester Stallone movies — you know, it's just something you enjoy, that you're into," he said.
"If it's something that sparks your interest somehow when you first see it, and then it continues on and you like it, you just keep following it."
Theresa Bortolotto, 49, of Toronto caught the Star Wars bug years ago.
"I just like the idea of universal peace and tranquility and everybody's doing the right thing," said Bortolotto, who wore a Jedi robe. "They're looking for universal peace, and it's the good guys always trying to do the right thing, to try to defeat the bad guys," she said.
For some, "Star Wars" is a family affair.
Brent Carroll of Honolulu and his son Hunter, 7, turned heads Thursday with their TIE fighter pilot outfits, which the elder Carroll cobbled together from store-bought and homemade pieces.
Carroll, an Army captain, said he planned the father-son outing because he is scheduled to deploy to Iraq in October. The trip turned into a family vacation 10 days ago when his wife, Shari, and daughter, Haylee, decided to join them.
"I said, 'Forget it, this is too much fun. I wanna go too,'" Shari Carroll said.