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Science fiction in a hallowed hall of flight

The Wookiees, Stormtroopers and Master Luke have made a galactic leap from pop culture icons to historic figures.

Star Wars, once just a movie with really cool special effects, has now been deemed such an integral part of our cultural identity that it has earned its own Smithsonian exhibit.

At the National Air and Space Museum, Jabba the Hutt, C-3PO and Princess Leia will spend a year down the hall from a space shuttle, a 1903 Wright Brothers glider and a piece of the moon.

"Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" opens Friday, as part of the movie's ongoing 20th anniversary celebration. It is sure to be one of the most popular exhibits ever at the world's most popular museum. A similar exhibit here devoted to Star Trek drew more than 900,000 visitors from February 1992 to January 1993.

The new Star Wars exhibit contends that the characters and special effects from "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" had a huge influence on real-life space exploration. The forces behind the exhibit think the Star Wars characters have earned their place in the same building as displays honoring Alan Shepard and Chuck Yeager.

"For over 100 years, science fiction stories and films have stimulated the imaginations of many scientists in the forefront of discovery," says the printed text at the entrance to the exhibit.

Whatever impact Star Wars has had on real scientific explorations, it surely has had a powerful effect on movies. It also serves as a reference point for two decades of pop culture observers.

And the series has made more money than you could spend in three lifetimes in the spaceport city of Mos Eisley.

The films in the trilogy were re-released this year, making Star Wars the highest grossing movie of all time. It has pulled in more than $460-million _ and that doesn't include the earnings of the two sequels or of the Chewbacca dolls and Han Solo lunchboxes.

In the restored versions, director and writer George Lucas added some scenes and sharpened the picture and sound quality. Even using the best in movie technology, though, he could not improve Mark Hamill's whiny, callow acting.

Looking back at the movies with fresh eyes, many of the performances seem sophomoric (one critic called it the "Ricky Nelson school of acting"). The dialogue is often more laughable than dramatic. And those cool special effects now look a little cheesy.

But the story endures as one of the most beloved of all time. On the Internet Movie Database, people have ranked Star Wars the second best movie of all time, with The Empire Strikes Back at No. 10 and Return of the Jedi at No. 28.

Lucas has a simple explanation for the continuing popularity of the trilogy: It involves a good, basic storyline. The movies are based on myths and character types that are as old as storytelling itself.

"It does have psychological roots that go back thousands of years," Lucas said Wednesday at a preview of the exhibit. "I have translated that into a modern palate, but it's still the same basic story."

Others who worked on the movies think viewers are hungry for stories that show us good and evil, flawed heroes, redemption.

"There's a great longing for order in a chaotic world, and the mythology (in the Star Wars trilogy) helps give us that," said Frank Oz, who was the voice of Yoda. (Oz himself is about two Yoda's tall).

Speaking of everyone's favorite 900-year-old, Yoda and other characters are showcased at the Smithsonian exhibit, as well as early sketches of their characters.

Before he developed into the huggable green Jedi Master, Yoda was more angular. His skin was less wrinkly, but he showed his age with wart-like bulges that covered his face.

Originally, the adorable Ewoks were supposed to be furry Wookiees _ shorter versions of Chewbacca. Then the designers thought they should be more sinister. Finally, Lucas pointed out that 3-foot-tall creatures should be sweet and cuddly.

"Dare to be cute," he told the designers.

The audiotape tour _ narrated by Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones _ describes Jabba the Hutt as "the most repulsive character in the galaxy."

One of Jabba's creator's tells of the inspiration for the grotesque noises he makes: the sound of sticking your finger in a cheese casserole and squishing it around.

R2-D2 is here, waist-high and dusty; a sketch of Luke Skywalker shows that his original design was pudgier than in the Mark Hamill portrayal; a model of Han Solo looks just as cocky as the actual character, its hip tilted and thumb hooked through the belt.

The exhibit and all the hoopla surrounding Star Wars are reminders that the movie's influence has not dwindled.

Lucas now is working on three films, the first of which will come out in 1999, that are set in the years prior to the original Star Wars. The "prequels" will explain how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.

There already is tremendous interest in the films, with rumors circulating on the World Wide Web about twists and turns in the plot.

"I'm sure the films will do fine," Lucas said with a grin.

Fine? That seems a bit of an understatement from a man who created movies that are part of the nation's collective consciousness.

Yes, Mr. Lucas, the new movies should do fine. The Force is with them.

How to get tickets

Tickets are required for the exhibit. Each day, the museum will distribute free same-day tickets, on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets can be purchased ahead of time from ProTix (1-800-529-2440) for a service charge and handling fee.