A long time ago, what began as a spirited, youthful insurrection gradually grew into a vast, all powerful empire, a now inescapable cultural juggernaut that continues to dominate our imaginations and drain our wallets. More than 40 years ago, Star Wars
was just a weird little space opera, a wild tangle of ideas that only made sense to George Lucas; an idea that his Hollywood friends thought he was crazy to attempt, yet now his creations are hung in the Detroit Institute of Arts, under the same roof that houses Van Gogh, Renoir, and Ancient Greek pottery.
Created in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institute and the Lucasfilm archives, Star Wars and the Power of Costume
is a traveling exhibition of more than 60 original, screen-used costumes, props, fabric samples, and tons of concept sketches and storyboards from the original six-film saga, and even a few pieces borrowed from the current Disney film series for good measure. The dynamically presented exhibit is loaded with fun, interactive touches; little hidden panels that guests can lift to reveal secret items, video clips, special lighting effects on the walls and floors, and buttons to push which fire up lightsabers or make Chewbacca roar.
Up close, the costumes — which range from the colorful regal raiments of galactic royalty, to the functional, drab grey work uniforms of Imperial goons — all display a striking amount of detail, with real substance and weight. Lucas had a vision of a real, practical, lived-in universe, which a small army of designers and craftsmen labored to create, and the results are impressive.
Taking a close look at say, Boba Fett’s armor, there’s real weathering, scuff marks, and dirt, which elevate the costumes beyond mere cosplay. It is a little disconcerting, though, to see C-3PO disassembled, right down to his black spandex midsection, with random bits of wire glued on.
Seizing on its eternal mission to educate, the DIA staff has highlighted how works from its own massive collection relate to the Star Wars
lore, with asides that tie movie fantasy to historical artwork and myth. The eye-popping displays are accompanied with fascinating background info, like an explanation of how Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala sported gowns drawn from various classical styles from Japanese, Mongolian, and European courtesans, resulting in a uniquely regal look. Also revealing are the ample helping of concept sketches, from Ralph McQuarrie’s famous ’70s originals to Ian McCaig’s ’90s prequel designs for the evil Darth Maul, which ranged from a nightmarish goth, something Juggalo-esque, to an ornate renaissance clown.
Detroit Film Theater curator Elliot Wilhelm, whose tenure at the DIA predates even the original Star Wars
film by a couple years, says he is thrilled to see such a major attraction that is centered around film, and has built a DFT calendar to cash in on the excitement. All summer long, the museum will run family-oriented programming at 3 p.m. each afternoon: all influences on the original Star Wars
. Included in the mix are newer sci-fi films like Interstellar
and I, Robot
, along with some of Lucas’s stated favorites: Metropolis
, The Hidden Fortress
, Adventures of Robin Hood
, and of course, 1930s Flash Gordon
serials, which will run, in order, before each screening
Wilhelm, ever the film historian, sees the direct link between a “scruffy nerf herder” like Han Solo and Gary Cooper in High Noon
, or Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
. “These were smugglers and rouges like Han Solo, and would do anything for a buck, but they have to decide if they’ll do the right thing or not,” he says. “That’s what the whole Star Wars
saga is about: Free choice. It’s not about the force compelling you to do something evil, you decide if that appeals to you more than not, and that struggle is what the whole thing is about.”
Maybe the most impressive trick of this whiz-bang art instillation is that manages to entertain while informing, instead of just being a marketing gimmick,
However, it’s impossible to remain cynical, when you see Yoda, that most mystical Muppet, sitting entombed in Plexiglas like a venerated saint. For just a moment that childhood magic feels real again — and then of course, you exit thorough a gift shop, fully stocked with Star Wars
Star Wars and the Power of Costume opens on Sunday, May 20 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900; dia.org; Tickets start at $19 for adults and $7 for youth; Show runs through Sept. 30. Groups from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties receive a $3 per ticket discount,
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