Dressing in style on the Galactic outer rim
by Gordon Campbell
We know that New Zealand is merely a branch office of the global economy. What may be harder to accept is that we are also just a tiny outpost of the Galactic Empire, the rulers of the known galaxy both here and far, far away. What they lack in numbers, Outpost 42 in New Zealand makes up for in its love of the universe that George Lucas has created.
The club members take an obvious pleasure in dressing up in strapped industrial strength ABS white plastic, blasters at the ready. It may just be role play, but they play it hard. As we speak, Shane Cornwell, 40, is the unofficial regional commander of the Wellington squadron of Outpost 42. He is also the Dancing Stormtrooper in this extremely cool video.
I know, you’re probably thinking that stormtroopers are the elite guard of the Galactic Empire, and so that means they must spend their time doing cool stuff like defending Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, or in putting down rebellions. Some do, but many more are involved in the humdrum work of projecting the imperial presence out on the Galactic Rim, in far flung territories like New Zealand. Where they can be seen with increasing frequency at movie premieres, corporate functions, Santa parades and at children’s birthday parties, high-fiving the kids.
Nationwide, there are currently about 45 active members in Outpost 42, which leaves it hovering just short of the 50 members required to give New Zealand full garrison status. Some 20 or so are in Auckland, 3 in Wellington and the rest in Christchurch or scattered elsewhere through the Southern Command. The entry point to this world is the uniform. It needn’t always be the classic white stormtrooper outfit.
Cornwell himself began with a Boba Fett uniform that he made himself after buying the helmet. For some reason, stormtroopers remain the most popular, readily recognizable visual element in the Star Wars universe. The 18 piece body armour is usually bought from the US. After assembly, it needs to be checked out by Outpost 42 as being ‘screen accurate’ to the required Lucas films’ standard of fidelity. After that, the new entrant is officially registered with the 501st Legion in the US, and given his or her lifelong trooper number. Cornwell is Trooper TK 2822.
So far, he has spent about $NZ2,500 on his costume. The basic suit can be got, he says, for about $650. The helmet can be more expensive. It can set you back anything up to $1,000 depending on the quality of its comms gear, the internal cooling fans and foam padding etc . Since Cornwell is on the smallish side – 173 centimetres – he has chosen to invest in the RT-MOD helmet. The larger and roomier F/X helmet is more the standard for people closer in height to the 183 centimetres ( and up ) size of the troopers featured in the Star Wars movies. Then there’s the outlay for the blaster, the strapping, the undersuit.. It all adds up.
“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” Princess Leia Organa to Luke Skywalker, disguised as a stormtrooper during her escape from the Death Star.
To an outsider, the passion and investment outlay can be a bit puzzling on several levels. For one thing, stormtroopers are the imperial enforcers. They’re definitely the bad guys – and their masters are wiped out, you will recall, when the Death Star is destroyed by Luke Skywalker, Later on, Vader also comes to a sorry end, as does ( in Return of the Jedi at least) Boba Fett, the template from which much of the early stormtrooper force was cloned. Point being, why would anyone choose to be a bad ass – and a loser to boot – when one could just as easily role-play as a Jedi Knight, and swing one of their nifty light sabres?
Well, Cornwell says, that’s the nature of the club. “We’re all 501st Legion, and its nickname is Vader’s Fist. So we’re like, his minions. We’re definitely the Empire’s troops. There is a sister club [in New Zealand] called the Rebel Legion. That’s where all the Jedis and all the good guys hang out.” Not everyone feels the need to specialise. One Auckland member, Cornwell explains, owns a Vader costume, a Jedi Knight costume, a stormtrooper uniform, and a 300 uniform from that movie about the Spartans – thus leaving him with plenty of options, depending on how he feels on the day.
For Cornwell though, it was a no brainer. ‘The storm trooper was my favourite character from when I was a kid. I had the recorded album on vinyl as well, the picture book..It was a big fan thing for me. Like, I suppose you’ve seen the first Star Wars film. There’s a big blast through the door and guys run in through those doors in masks, and they’re armed troopers in white. That had a big effect on me as a seven year old, so that was the costume for me.’ Since then, he’s seen the Star Wars movies about 40 times Could be more, though he lost count after 20.
At first, the stormtrooper suit had seemed too pricey. However acouple of years ago, he went to the Cuba St Carnival in Wellington and saw a character in the armour. There was Darth Vader, Boba Fett and a lone stormtrooper all together, he recalls. “Anyway, I got a close-up look at him and thought, that’s it. I’m sold. Made a few phone-calls straight away, to find out where and how I could get the outfits.”
And being Vader didn’t appeal quite as much ? ‘Vader was cool and everything, but the white armour stood out, I thought.” The height factor also told against playing Vader. “I’m only just breaking in the boots. I’ve got a bigger heel in my boots, just breaking in as a stormtrooper… But’– he grins – ‘I still get the comment that aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper.”
No, a Darth Vader costume would not automatically outrank a stormtrooper within Outpost 42. The costumes don’t create the hierarchy, Instead, the Outpost hierarchy is democratic, and is voted on annually by the membership. Cornwell has recently been nominated for the post of overall Garrison Commander in the next round of Outpost elections, that are due in January.
Wearing the uniform is not all plain sailing. The ABS plastic from which it is constructed is as light as it possibly can be, and the fans inside the helmet do their best, but the costumes are still very hot to wear after the first hour or so – as hot as the planet Tattoine in summer, some say. Which raises an important question regarding the undersuit mentioned earlier – what does a stormtrooper wear under his or her uniform ? ( Yes, there are several female members in Outpost 42.)
“That’s a good question,” Cornwell says.” You can have your basic one piece jump suit made of lycra. Or you can go to the extent that I’ve gone. I’ve got scientific technology underwear, the same material as the kind that the All Blacks wear. Its an intelligent material, so if its cold outside it warms you up and if its hot outside it will cool you down. Its $280 for the top alone, and about the same for the pants, but I got them on sale for about $150 each. The lycra is about $60 – so its really up to you how much you want to spend.
Like the early batches of stormtroopers in the films, the members of Outpost 42 do wear out. They find other things to do in life, and can lose their enthusiasm for trooping, over time. So recruitment is always an issue. Even so, the capacity of the Star Wars universe to retain its grip, down through the generations appears to be limitless. In recent years, the timeline for the original movies has been extended by Lucas, both backwards and forwards in time from the core events depicted in the first few movies. That has introduced a whole new raft of characters and plotlines.
Lucas and his colleagues have even resurrected Boba Fett, last seen in Return of the Jedi falling to his apparent death within the Sarlacc, which was a kind of vagina dentata hole in the ground. Fortunately, Fett’s Mandalorian armour saw him right, and he has re-emerged to fight again in subsequent Star Wars story lines. Videogames and a torrent of officially sanctioned novels have helped to expand the framework – always under close monitoring by Lucas and his writers, to ensure that the integrity and continuity of the cosmic narrative is maintained.
“I don’t think its peaked.” Cornwell says. “ I know where you’re coming from with that question, because I’ve watched it all my life. With the release of the Clone Wars, the clone movies and so on its opened up another doorway into another generation. A lot of the young ones are really big on the clones. We’ve got a whole new troop of clones coming through…We’ve just taken in a few new members who are about 18. And they’ve all come in clone outfits.” Most excitingly for him, there is talk that Lucas is thinking about making a television series, which would really bring the saga back to life.
When he’s not in costume, Cornwell cuts hair for a living. A long time student of various Asian martial arts, he also did a little bit of stunt work on the upcoming Avatar movie by James Cameron. Overall, do he and his fellow troopers feel they undergo a personality change when they put on the uniform ?
He laughs. “ The first time I put it on, I felt really nervous. Because I hadn’t time to practice, I felt a bit self-conscious. Now when I put it on, yeah..I don’t know if everyone does this… but in Wellington we’ve got a nice tight little group and we get right into it. We always high-five each other before we get into the formation. I always like to play a little Star Wars music, in the background just to get us psyched in. We have a lot of fun with it. Its all about having fun, at the end of the day. We’re just smiling from here to here, underneath the helmet.”