After nearly three decades as a passive observer, I finally joined the Rebel Alliance.
On Friday, a small group of fellow journalists and I were among the first to try out ILMxLAB and The VOID’s new virtual reality experience, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire in Downtown Disney, which is now available to the public.
We entered into a small room in Anaheim decked out in concrete slabs adorned with ancient runes — quite fitting for a Rebel hideout. We were welcomed into the Rebel Alliance, filled out foreboding “don’t sue us if you die in here” waivers and were prompted to use the force to open a nearby door to receive our mission briefing (a friendly castmember used a button to open the automatic door, but I swear I felt something when I waved my hand).
Ushered into the next room, our small group of four would-be rebels stood in rank file before a floor-to-ceiling video screen. Upon scanning our nifty new wristbands, the screen flashed to life and we were greeted by a familiar face: Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) from Rogue One. He briefed us on our mission (I won’t spoil it, but it involves collecting some precious cargo while undercover as Stormtroopers) and were ready to be fitted for our spec-ops assignment.
Rows of backpack vests and helmets hung from the ceiling in the next room, and for a moment I expected our next destination to be either a helicopter or the base of a large cliff. Instead, we suited up, were given details on how to make our spiffy VR helmets fit as comfortably as possible (no one wants to be a disoriented stormtrooper) and took our first steps into the visceral world of the Star Wars universe.
With our backpacks strapped and our visors on, my team and I stood in a small corridor that magically transformed into a docking bay straight out of an Imperial cruiser. For me, a VR novice, this was incredible enough. Clearly I underestimated the technology’s power. A door opened to our left and, lo and behold, we walked through it. Now we were on an actual transport ship piloted by everyone’s favorite Imperial-turned-rebel droid, the sardonic K-2S0, voiced as he was in Rogue One by Alan Tudyk.
To my surprise, and my cohorts, the remainder of the VR experience was not us simply sitting in this transport, as it quickly docked and we were sent on our way to collect our bounty. In what undoubtedly must look hilarious from an outside perspective, my three squadmates and I ambled from room to room (which to us were incredible vistas of lava-filled space worlds and Imperial cruisers) in clunky helmets and tight backpacks, ooh-ing and aah-ing as we gave thumbs up and peace signs to passing creatures and stormtroopers.
Then things got intense.
Shootouts broke out and, once more to my surprise, the stormtroopers in this particular Star Wars experience had much better aim than I was led to believe by nine feature length films. And when they shoot you, it hurts. It seems our fashionable backpacks also served the dual purpose of firefight immersion technology, as they rumbled and jostled whenever a laser blast struck home, which was often if you’re as bad at dodging as I am. Luckily, my teammates were better equipped for this type of high-intensity expedition.
More familiar faces pop up later on, including a cameo by a certain cloaked Sith Lord who is far more intimidating when met face-to-face than when seen on the silver screen.
Did we succeed? Did the Empire prevail? Did I accidentally walk into a wall on more than one occasion? All those questions are better left to individuals going through the experience on their own. Best of luck, and may the Force be with you.
Tickets for Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire are are on sale now at www.thevoid.com for $29.95 at Disney-adjacent locations.