What makes one person sacrifice everything to become a Jedi Knight, and another embrace the Dark Side? What goes into creating the unique personality of every person, alien, or droid in the galaxy — or even galaxies far, far away?
Those questions are at the heart of Star Wars Identities, a new exhibit that opened this week at the Montréal Science Centre. Building on the success of their previous venture, Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archeology, the team of Montréal-based X3 Productions and Lucasfilm has again put together a fascinating look at real science using props, costumes, and concept art from one of the most popular movie series of all time.
My family and I got a sneak preview of the exhibit Tuesday at a media event featuring members of the 501st Legion’s Canadian Garrison and the Rebel Legion. This wasn’t the first time we saw an exhibit built around Star Wars memorabilia — in 2005, we caught Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination at the Museum of Science in Boston. That exhibit focused on space vehicles and robots, and there are plenty of both at Star Wars Identities as well, including Anakin’s impressively large podracer. But this new exhibit delves much more deeply into the wide range of characters and species developed for the Star Wars saga, and includes videos that explain the different aspects of identity — genetics, culture, peer groups, even parenting style! — using Star Wars references as examples.
Film clips, taken from all six movies in the series as well as the Clone Wars animated TV series, showed how the characters interacted. Then, using cute infographics, the videos went on to explain what those different interactions might mean in an individual’s development, drawing on experts in the fields of psychology, biochemistry, neuropsychology, and education. At times, the analogies were strained — I don’t think Anakin’s mom was permissive in letting her son leave home to train as a Jedi, as much as she was being realistic that his other option was a life as a slave — but in general, the short videos were informative and interesting.
However, while the educational content was enlightening, my favorite aspect of the exhibit was seeing the many pieces of concept art that showed how the characters evolved in the process of going from George Lucas’ imagination to the screen. In several cases, particularly Chewbacca and Yoda, the characters started as very earthly-looking creatures before taking on their final otherworldly form. Many of the sketches and paintings, works of art in themselves, were by the great Ralph McQuarrie, who died last month at the age of 82.
While I’d guess the perfect age range for this material is 10 and up, slightly younger kids will find plenty of interesting stuff to see, as well as some fun activities where that give them a chance to invent a Star Wars identity for themselves (which they’ll get to see projected at the exhibit’s end). Kids much younger may find it a bit much; while the press preview took us about 90 minutes, last year at the height of the summer tourist season it took us a full two hours to make it all the way through the Indiana Jones exhibit and catch all the multi-media displays.
As with the Science Centre’s innovative Indiana Jones exhibit, visitors to Star Wars Identities are given a personal media player to carry around with them. Step near a display and you can hear the soundtrack of video clips and hear commentary on the movie memorabilia in front of you (in your choice of French or English).
One nice change from last year is that these devices are audio only; last year’s devices had a video screen, which meant you were sometimes looking down at the slide show on the device’s monitor, jockeying for position in the crowd to read the wall sign, and trying to catch the video clip on a screen above you, all at the same time. The audio devices also had only a single earpiece, which made it possible to make eye contact and even the occasional comment to your companions. While the system isn’t perfect — occasionally the device would pick up a transmission from the next display over — I found it much easier to use than last year’s.
Whether you’re looking for a science experience or just want to wallow in Star Wars fandom, this exhibit succeeds on all fronts. Star Wars Identities runs at the Montréal Science Centre until September 16 before moving to the Telus World of Science in Edmonton, Alberta. More cities will be announced on the exhibit’s website soon.