The Phantom Exhibit

The Force is not with the Art of the Starfighter show.

Star Wars: Art of the Starfighter
The show's best exhibit -- this Naboo Starfighter -- can be glimpsed from the lobby.
The show's best exhibit -- this Naboo Starfighter -- can be glimpsed from the lobby.

When a company that charges people $5,000 to launch a spoonful of their cremated remains into space can stay solvent in this economy, it's safe to say that we live in a country with a jones for spaceships. So there's a good likelihood you'll feel at least a little twinge of excitement when you walk into the lobby of the Western Reserve Historical Society and find yourself standing in front of a gleaming 35-foot spacecraft.

If you're familiar with the Star Wars films, you may recognize this particular fighter from Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And if you happen to be a member of the George Lucas generation, you may find shivers of delight running up your spine when you spot the domed head of R2-D2 poking up from the top of the ship, like some denizen of a futuristic Whack-a-Mole game. Sadly, though, whatever amount of childhood giddiness the ship initially inspires will quickly be ripped away.

You see, a long time ago (April of 2001, to be exact) in a galaxy far, far away (the Beltway), the Smithsonian launched a traveling exhibit titled Star Wars: Art of the Starfighter. That sci-fi art show has finally touched down in Cleveland, and, thanks to both its aging status and a mindboggling lack of display pieces, it comes off as a Jar Jar Binks-level disappointment.

That's not to say that designer Doug Chiang's work isn't worthy of acclaim. Taking a closer look at the ship, it's easy to appreciate the attention to detail, like the singe marks radiating back from the twin engines. There's also much to be admired in the vehicle's chic-and-sleek design. It's an exercise in art-deco aerodynamics, an Alfa Romeo spaceship, as opposed to the big clunking station wagons of the original Star Wars. Its nearly fluid shape was inspired by, as the accompanying verbiage tells us, a '50s hood ornament and gives the hint of motion, even while it's standing still. There are no two ways about it: The ship is cool; that said, it's also the only real attraction.

Many may wonder if a Planet Hollywood-esque display of movie props really justifies the "art" reference in the exhibit title. And a cogent argument could probably be made either way. But unfortunately, it's a moot question, because people should be asking whether this haphazard and paltry assortment constitutes an actual exhibit. The Art of the Starfighter, after all, seems more like a marketing ploy to usher younger patrons through the doors, whether or not they'll actually enjoy their visit.

In addition to the big Phantom Menace ship, the exhibit includes two miniature models of spacecraft from the original trilogy, accompanied by a short video that demonstrates how Chiang conceptualized the prequel's vehicles. This, admittedly, is interesting stuff -- especially for fans -- but once you're done watching it (and reading the chat labels), you're also done with the exhibit. There are no other ships, no memorabilia, no costume pieces. And there's no mention whatsoever of Episode II -- which, having already come and gone, makes the exhibit seem not only emaciated but dated.

Technically, there are a few other elements to this exhibit, but they are the museum equivalent of seat-fillers at the Oscars, existing only to make the room look full. Case in point: two computer kiosks. One offers up a cheesy trivia game straight off; the other gives you a chance to play the lackluster PlayStation 2 title "Star Wars Starfighter," which itself is almost two years old. And since both of these are essentially activities you can do at home, it's hard to consider their value in the ticket price. (The scattered five-foot head shots of popular characters like Han Solo, Boba Fett, and Darth Maul aren't fooling anyone, either.)

But the Historical Society can't shoulder all the blame for the meager offerings here (though one may want to ask why an exhibit based around a three-and-a-half-year-old movie is hitting Cleveland now). So the question we're left pondering is: What was the Smithsonian thinking when it decided this show was good enough to hit the road? Are younger audiences going to flock to museums just because they hear there's a Star Wars exhibit in town? Chances are, they will. But will they ever want to come back to these museums when they realize they've just paid movie-ticket price to see a couple of hobby-shop models and the PlayStation game they've already beaten 10 times and traded in for the new Grand Theft Auto? Um, don't count on it.

As an exhibit unto itself, Starfighter just doesn't cut it. Luckily, it's running simultaneously with the Historical Society's far-superior Dr. Seuss show. So if you're planning on spending some time with the Whos and the Sneetches (or any of the fine standing exhibits at the WRHS, for that matter), checking out the spaceship in the lobby can be a nice bonus. But if a look behind the scenes of Phantom Menace is the only thing you're after, rent the DVD. The Smithsonian may have tried to give its affiliates the perfect way to lure in Star Wars fans, but as Yoda famously said: "Do, or do not. There is no try."

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