Everyone knows the original Star Wars trilogy is far superior to the prequels, and my one-day visit to Brussels only reinforced that. I was in the Belgian capital with Tim, another student in my Amsterdam-based program, to see Star Wars: The Exhibition. We knew little about the show other than its existence, but our unflagging geekdom compelled us to buy 45€ train tickets in the spirit of investigation.
At first, it seemed as if we had made a mistake. Though the full-sized Naboo Starfighter near the exhibit’s entrance was cool, the mall where it was displayed was mostly deserted and not especially Star Wars-like. The first displays in the show itself did little to bolster our confidence. They were all from the prequel trilogy, and the magic missing from these films was equally lacking in their props. Sure, Darth Maul’s outfit and a big pod racer were technically impressive, but they failed to evoke any sort of sentimentality. Monitors throughout the gallery looping scenes from those CGI-encumbered movies only magnified the underwhelming qualities engendered by the physical items in the gallery.
Then, around one corner, I caught a glimpse of a tag reading “Hoth,” the ice planet from the opening of The Empire Strikes Back. From then on the exhibition was pure geek bliss. Concept sketches and storyboards revealed delightful details. (For example, the shot in the wampa’s ice cave where Luke pulls the lightsaber into his hand with the force was actually filmed by yanking it out of his hand with a wire and playing it in reverse.) The snow-speeder models were amazing works of craftsmanship, and seeing the extra large AT-AT leg that crushed Luke’s speeder offered a moment of insight into the brilliance of Star Wars‘ groundbreaking special effects.
The show only got better from there. One room contained Han Solo frozen in carbonite, the full Boba Fett costume, concept models for Jabba the Hutt, and Leia’s slave bikini. Can anyone offer me a better description of nerd heaven? Then, the next room featured a life-size forest speeder, an Ewok outfit, and models of several Rebel star fighters. This all built up to the stunning finale, a final room containing the man himself: Darth Vader. Even today, examining all the costume’s finer details up-close, it still looks amazing. His leather gloves are sinister yet functional and his chest-panel doesn’t look tacky and glued-on like I expected it too. Vader’s costume is intimidating.
The same room also featured perhaps the most striking prop in the exhibit: a large, detailed model of a Star Destroyer’s bridge. It’s inspiring to imagine a team of men working to make each crevice and window, lavishing care on the delicate geodesic radar domes, and perfecting every centimeter of the ship’s big guns.
Knowing how much passion went into these effects is part of what makes them so remarkable, and it’s a big reason why the original films movies are still impressive. Objectively, they may look worse than a computer-generated simulacrum, but the human agency behind the old visuals gives them far more life than a rendering can impart. It’s no big deal to see the props from the newer films, however exquisitely-crafted they may be. Any errors or imperfections could quickly be scrubbed away digitally. With the old movies, almost everything you’d see on the screen needed to be rendered as a physical reality. After seeing these constructions up close, I’m certain that this physicality is what makes the galaxy far, far away so convincing.