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Jabba the Hutt

An X-Wing Fighter

Bobba Fett

Imperial installation

Darth Vader's helmet

A production painting by
Ralph McQuarrie


Fans outside the museum
Space Invaders
by Ned Higgins

"Star Wars: The Magic of Myth," Apr. 5-July 7, 2002, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11238.

To the delight of science-fiction fans, Star Wars has landed in Brooklyn. Delivering props, models, costumes and design paintings from the legendary saga, "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" is on view at the Brooklyn Museum from Apr. 5-July 7, 2002. The BMA is the final U.S. stop of this touring exhibition that debuted in 1997 at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

What made Star Wars so memorable? For the kids who saw the film in 1977, it was the most breathtaking escape from reality imaginable. Everything about it -- the inhuman majesty of Darth Vader, the bickering Jawas who sold faulty droids -- was strange, terrifying and new. The film played to children's imagination without condescension. Its all-or-nothing inventiveness, from the metallic howling of the speeding TIE fighters to John Williams' pounding score, won over a generation.

To humor adults, Star Wars offered the familiar with surreal twists -- two suns orbit Luke's home planet. And familiar things were housed in the forbiddingly alien, such as the trash compactor in the Death Star. This satirical side (best remembered in the cantina scene) balanced out the labored discussions of the Force.

Now, more than 20 years later, we have a museum exhibition. Ostensibly, the show explores themes that are common to myths throughout the world -- the youthful hero's separation from home, the navigation of a dangerous maze, the triumph over evil and the rescue of a maiden. George Lucas readily admits that he was inspired by Joseph Campbell's scholarly tome, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Sprawling through several darkened galleries on two floors in the museum, accented by spotlights and several monitors playing clips from all four movies, the exhibition is not without its awards. The soot-smeared starship models, the lifesize suits of futuristic armor, show real care in their craftsmanship. C3PO, R2-D2, Yoda, they're all there.

Ralph McQuarrie's crisp production paintings show how dramatic architecture (catwalks, 'greenhouse' windows) complemented the outlandish characters. And the gadgets all look functional. The inside of Darth Vader's helmet is both sinister and mechanically bewildering.

Clearly, it's easy to criticize the show as Hollywood kitsch, an unfortunate shotgun wedding between the entertainment industry and a renowned cultural institution. But in fact there's nothing comparable to this bizarrely anthropological exhibition. The artifacts of this imaginary culture are more real to some people than anything from history.

The source material -- Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, westerns, King Arthur, Flash Gordon -- isn't included in the show, as it is in the catalogue. Which is too bad, because it would have given the exhibition some breadth (a few glimpses of High Noon and Seven Samurai are snuck into the "Making of Star Wars" documentary).

Sometimes, unfortunately, the artificial presentation underscores the work's artificiality. After the initial buzz of recognition, some of the creatures start to die on you. Imprisoned behind glass, the armored costumes come off as relics from a tomb. Up on screen, in motion, they were hypnotic.

Obviously, the exhibition wants to get us riled up for the latest installment of the Star Wars saga, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, which opens May 16. Seduced by the dark side of self-promotion, the final room provides rubber masks (leashed to a counter) for kids to wear. Next door in the museum shop lies the arsenal of Star Wars toys, not to mention some Star Wars cookbooks. The Jedi Knights, unlike the film's merchandisers, had some restraint.

NED HIGGINS is managing editor of Artnet Magazine.