In a dark corner, Obi-Wan Kenobi pauses, then stops to talk to a passerby as a Storm Trooper marches past. Next to a Jawa Sandcrawler, a Jedi knight with a light-saber hanging from his waist scans the crowd intently, looking to assist those in need.
No, they're not scenes from a "Star Wars" movie. Instead, it's the third floor of the California Science Center, where costumed volunteers from a fan-based "Star Wars" organization called the 501st Legion, Southern California Garrison, will be on hand during the weekends to greet visitors and help them through the center's newest exhibit, "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination."
The 10,000-square-foot show, which opened Sunday, features more than 80 props and costumes spanning all six episodes of George Lucas' space epic. Among the items on display are a never-before-exhibited model of the Rebel Blockade Runner from the opening scene of the first "Star Wars" movie (Episode IV), Luke Skywalker's full-sized landspeeder and Darth Vader's costume in all its imposing glory.
And oh, yes — there's a little science mixed in as well.
" 'Star Wars' is such an important and well-known part of pop culture that it's a real hook for getting people to come in to just see the movies manifested in the exhibit," says Ken Phillips, the center's curator of aerospace technology. "And while they are here, they'll also get to learn about some real scientific breakthroughs."
Like all exhibitions at the science center, "Star Wars" incorporates a strong learning component. Developed by Boston's Museum of Science in collaboration with Lucasfilm, the exhibit, which premiered two years ago in Boston, has been divided into two major theme areas: "Getting Around," the future of transportation, and "Robots and People," the future of robotics.
In coming up with the themes, "what we were trying to do was find examples of technology that were featured in all six films and, at the same time, are fairly ubiquitous in the real world," says Museum of Science exhibit developer Ed Rodley. "Clearly, this is not a 'making of "Star Wars" ' exhibit; instead, what we really wanted to do was get people to think about technology and its applications by using the movies as a jumping-off point."
To that end, each theme area has a big introductory "Star Wars" prop — Luke's landspeeder for the transportation section, and Princess Leia's white dress costume alongside R2-D2 and C-3PO for robotics — followed by more movie artifacts, film clips and video interviews with filmmakers.
Just as important, the theme areas also include interviews with working engineers and roboticists and examples of "Star Wars"-type technologies as applied to the real world. "If visitors are interested in the prospects of interstellar travel, frictionless vehicles that ride on the air or the latest in transplant medicine, it's all there," the center's Phillips says. "In some cases, like with prosthetics, the real-world technologies really are on the heels of the 'Star Wars' technology."
In addition, the exhibit has 21 interactive engineering-design activities, including the chance to build your own small-scale landspeeder with magnets or put together a robot like R2-D2, and then program it to move and interact with its environment. Visitors can also climb aboard a hovercraft that rides a cushion of air less than an inch thick, or hop into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and take a 4 1/2-minute ride (à la Star Tours at Disneyland) to the edge of the known universe.
For more passive visitors, the exhibit has a sit-down robot theater. Inside a replica of a rusted-out Jawa Sandcrawler, an animatronic C-3PO, voiced by actor Anthony Daniels especially for the exhibit, debates an MIT robotics engineer, Cynthia Breazeal, on the merits (or the lack thereof, according to C-3PO) of R2-D2.
"C-3PO doesn't think much of R2-D2, but in terms of the real world, he's way beyond what we can commonly produce," Rodley says. C-3PO and Breazeal "have this wonderful back and forth about what makes a good robot, the design characteristics that R2 embodies, and what robots in the real world look like and what they can do," he adds.
Though it's significantly smaller in scale than the typical traveling "Star Wars" exhibit — last year, 250-object exhibitions toured Asia and Europe — Lucasfilm archive collections manager Laela French says that the show at the California Science Center is nonetheless the first comprehensive "Star Wars" exhibit in the Southern California area. (In contrast, a show two years ago at the FIDM Museum & Galleries focused primarily on the costumes of "Star Wars.")
French is quick to note that the center's exhibition, though relatively small, features some of the archive's best pieces, including a painstakingly detailed model of Han Solo's Millennium Falcon that measures more than 4 feet in diameter.
"The Millennium Falcon is probably the premier piece in our collection," French says. "All the skills, processes and preparation that went into designing 'Star Wars' really come out in that one object."