A Force for Good The Franklin Institute invites "Star Wars" fans to engage with the future, even hitch a ride in the Millennium Falcon.

Posted: February 08, 2008

More than ever, museums are cohabiting with commercial interests. You know this must be true when the venerable Boston Museum of Science hops into bed with Lucasfilm Ltd., the force that made Star Wars a sustained business model for several decades.

And maybe in a galaxy far, far away there's a science museum able to create a show that's a natural fit for Star Wars - some way of really connecting the futurism of the movies with real science.

You can't escape the feeling, however, after seeing "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination," that the search continues.

That said, this show, which opens Saturday at the Franklin Institute for a three-month run, is an hour-and-a-half series of uninterrupted thrills: coming face to ship with a model of the Millennium Falcon, maybe four feet by three and detailed like a space-age FabergĀ egg; costumes for Princess Leia, Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader; Luke's Landspeeder; Darth Maul's double-bladed light saber.

Here lies the evidence of one of the most meticulously developed fantasy civilizations in all moviedom, and fans ranging from hard-core nostalgists to the moderately interested will be deeply grateful to walk among it all.

Even 7-year-olds and others too young to have seen the movies are likely to be unable to resist the lure of blasting spaceships, robots, and a world that seems no less futuristic today than it did 30 years ago. The centerpiece adrenaline rush is a five-minute "ride" in a full-size replica of the Millennium Falcon's cockpit.

For all of its polish and allure, however, this show doesn't quite make the jump to science, lightspeed or not.

Often the links seem contrived. Many visitor stations feature video interviews with the filmmakers, explaining where sound effects came from or how models were made and used in shooting. They impart about as much information as the most vestigial, self-congratulatory DVD bonus feature. One such segment, "Living on Hoth," tells us a lot about the fantasy world of snow and ice, but the only connection it makes to real science is some text explaining that Norway and Antarctica are also very cold.

Really? Thanks. Steer me back to the models and costumes.

Connections between the movies and real-life technology are sometimes more successful.

Even inspired.

Blasting off in the Millennium Falcon, your host is C-3PO (the voice of Anthony Daniels), who points out the sights and sounds of our galaxy. With vibrations under our seats and a 180-degree view of outer space, we hurtle past the paths of Voyager I and II, barely miss a passing comet, and learn a bit about planets orbiting stars other than our local one.

Especially moving is the way Daniels creeps right up to the emotional edge of what we know to be true and what we hope to be true, stirring up mystical feelings (with help from soundtrack composer John Williams) and questions about existence.

Watch your pocketbook on this journey, though. The going rate for a ride in hyperspace is an extra $5.

Interactive experiences are interspersed throughout the show. You can build your own primitive robot. A magnetic track teaches the basics of magnetic levitation, with nearby video screens showing the practical application in trains.

The show comes with related experiences, including "Far, Far Away: The Worlds of Star Wars" in the Fels Planetarium, an exploration of our solar system for extreme climates such as the ones found in the movies.

Here in Philadelphia, in addition, the Franklin Institute has created a live show that looks at whether light sabers "can be designed and used in the real world."

You have to wonder, though, why that might be a good idea.

Of all the ancillary aspects of "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination," the highly curated gift shop promises the most enduring takeaway.

Understanding science better? That might be among the last things with which you'll leave, even if you're having too much fun to care.

Contact culture writer Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/artswatch.

From a Galaxy Far, Far Away

"Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination," opens Saturday and runs through May 4 at the Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St. Tickets are $20.50 for adults, $15.50 for children 4-11, and $16.50 for seniors. Cheaper rates apply for members, and on evenings Wednesdays through Saturdays. Information: 215-448-1200 or www.fi.edu.

philly.com

To view a video by Inquirer staffer Robert Moran on "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination," go to http://www.philly.com/inquirer/multimedia/15395072.html

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