The ''Star Wars" movies are finally in the past. Let the roadshow begin.
With ''Star Wars -- Where Science Meets Imagination," Boston's Museum of Science has an exhibit that's the institutional equivalent of a US Treasury printing press in the basement. How are you going to coax people to come see Han Solo's costume, Luke Skywalker's landspeeder, Yoda in all his latex Muppet splendor? Better you should ask how you're going to keep them away.
Yet the show, which opens tomorrow in the Current Science & Technology Center on the second floor of the Museum's Red Wing and runs through April 30, is hardly the stretch last year's ''Lord of the Rings" exhibit was. That one, with its Hobbit costumes and eldritch swords, was fun for movie fans but awfully skimpy on the science, and it smelled of opportunism, if not prostitution of the museum's mission. With an estimated quarter of a million visitors trooping through to see a bunch of movie props, though, can you blame anyone for trying?
Named with happy exactitude, ''Where Science Meets Imagination" is a different galaxy entirely: A hugely enjoyable movie-memorabilia flea market that doubles as an eye-popping, hands-on tour along the leading edge of scientific breakthroughs. It's fun. You learn something. Best of all, the fun is in the learning.
For complete coverage of the ''Star Wars" exhibit at the Museum of Science, including Ty Burr's interview with George Lucas, visit www.boston.com/starwars
There are several elements to the exhibit, each better than the last, so making it all the way through is a little like successfully penetrating the Death Star. The first thing a visitor needs to tackle is the mock-up cockpit of Han Solo's famed Millennium Falcon that sits on the first floor landing. Expect long lines -- the spacecraft holds only five or six earthlings at a pop -- and expect the sensory equivalent of a carnival kiddie ride, with a little bit of rumbling and rocking during takeoff and a zip through hyperspace that's not as awe-inspiring as the one in the movie.
Once the Falcon ''takes off," though, the clipped voice of Anthony Daniels -- better known by his nom de Lucas, C-3PO -- comes over the intercom to lead us from our solar system all the way to the outer edge of the universe, where we pick up the hazy light left over from the Big Bang. It's a neat scene-setter for the astronomical and metaphysical vastnesses the exhibit covers.
The same distance is covered in far more depth in the related planetarium show ''Far, Far Away: The Worlds of Star Wars," created on-site by the planetarium staff. Here such Lucasian locations as Tatooine (Luke Skywalker's desert home planet, for you non-aficionados), Hoth (the ice planet from ''The Empire Strikes Back"), and Mustafar (the molten-lava planet where Darth Vader and Obi-wan Kenobi had their final donnybrook in ''Revenge of the Sith") are compared to various real-universe planets -- and our home planet itself at various stages of its evolution.
Even with Daniels again providing cozy narration, ''Far, Far Away" is macrocosmic in its implications, and some of them seem calculated to give younger viewers the willies. Comparing Mars to Tatooine, or Mustafar to Jupiter's moon Io, or Dagobah to prehistoric Earth is all well and cool, especially when the dome of the planetarium transforms into an alien planetscape. When we see the coast of New England slowly submerged by melting icecaps, though, or a massive asteroid smashing into an Earth city, the effect is more than a little unsettling. ''It would take an object half the size of Earth to destroy it," says Daniels, not very reassuringly. Be glad the show opens young minds to the big picture, but expect some fretful discussions on the ride home.
The meat of ''Where Science Meets Imagination" lies on the second floor, in the long CS&T exhibition hall crowded with costumes, props, and opportunities for hands-on experimentation. Statistics give a sense of the panoply: Four years in the making, the show displays more than 100 ''Star Wars" artifacts and real-world technological gizmos, 17 videos, 21 interactive stations, with 60 Museum of Science and 25 Lucas employees plus 20 additional scientific experts needed to give it birth. It's all divided into two main areas, ''Getting Around" and ''Robots and People."
In practice, the show's a lesson in pop/institutional multiple-personality disorder, with chances to learn sandwiched between emotionally resonant movie tchotchkes. ''Star Wars" droolers will be in Bantha heaven: Here's Darth Vader's helmet (all three pieces) and there's the scale model of the Millennium Falcon used in the film and over there is a war chest of lightsabers, from Darth Maul's double-edged special to Count Dooku's to Padme Amidala's. Costumes for everyone from Mace Windu to a Tusken Raider. A Wampa with a bloody hunk of meat. Three Wookiees. That intelligent floating tennis ball Luke trained with in the original. More droids than you can shake an oilcan at, including a ''naked" C-3PO, if that's how you get your kicks.
Even if those names mean nothing to you, though, the exhibit is worth attending, because the science on display is immediate, comprehensible, and fun. The chance to build your own hovercraft with Legos and magnets is heightened by the fact that the little dealie-bob actually floats its way through an obstacle course. The trial-and-error stations that allow you to create a workable robot deliver satisfaction when the critter manages to walk without falling over on its shiny face.
Interactive exhibits on robot vision and prosthetic parts are backed up with real-world science and human docents, and I'm not sure which is more transfixing: Anakin's mechanical arm or the retinal implants and microprocessor knee on display at a nearby learning stand. The show pulls from the museum's own collection -- models of experimental aircraft -- and from the skunk works of such New England companies as Segway, with a strong assist from academia.
For me, the most breathtaking bit of techno-widgetry in the exhibit is a mixed-reality virtual environment that allows users to build a moisture farm or walled Jawa village by placing cards on a table, then watching them burst into tiny, busy life on an overhead screen. It's like ''The Sims" on steroids, with added real-world lessons about cooperation. ''I designed it so you can't 'win,' " creator Nick Hedley of Canada's Simon Fraser University told me at the press opening. ''You have to learn compromise."
''Star Wars -- Where Science Meets Imagination" is a compromise, too, but it's an inspired one that lets the Museum of Science have its populist cake and eat it, too. Even for people who don't live and breathe ''Star Wars" or for those who felt let down by the recent trilogy, the exhibit is a display of old-fashioned movie magic and delightful future shock.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.