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Monday, October 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 54.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Heart of an Empire at the 2007 Wisconsin Film Festival
Darth Vader and his minions keep order at the Wisconsin Union Theater
<i>Heart of an Empire</i>
Heart of an Empire

It was like any Wisconsin Film Festival screening. Except that in the lobby of the Wisconsin Union Theater, guys in white plastic body armor were milling about. At least I assume they were guys.

Their costumes, impressive reproductions of the Star Wars films' stormtrooper uniforms, entirely covered their bodies and faces. So it was sort of hard to tell. Darth Vader also made his wheezing presence known.

In the documentary they all were on hand to promote last night, Heart of an Empire, relatively few women are seen participating in the worldwide phenomenon known as the 501st Legion. That is the name of a club whose members wear lovingly recreated versions of the stormtrooper costumes designed for the George Lucas films by John Mollo. In remarks before the screening, festival director Meg Hamel noted that the troopers assembled that night were members of the 501st's Midwest Garrison.

In the documentary, director Jay Thompson (who attended the screening) makes a poignant case for the members of the 501st, even as he also serves up plenty of footage of television journalists who witheringly mock and humiliate the club members.

Certainly there is something unsettling about the men's obsessiveness, notes Thompson, who appears prominently in the film. However, the troopers of the 501st -- which operates with the blessing and cooperation of Lucasfilm -- devote much of their energies to good works, whether raising money for charities or visiting sick children in hospitals.

But although there is lots that is fascinating to look at -- costumed stormtroopers are variously seen riding a skateboard, typing on a computer and running a marathon -- the film suffers from a discomfiting shift in tone. That happens when Thompson turns from the 501st itself to desperately ill children, whose sad lives he documents extensively.

As Thompson in one long sequence portrays the horrifying toll leukemia takes on a little boy's body, viewers may wonder what these devastating scenes have to do with a Star Wars character on a skateboard.

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