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Exploring Carl Sagan's sharp critique of 'Star Wars'

In 1977, George Lucas released Star Wars, the first instalment of the franchise, although technically the fourth chronological chapter of the series. Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Peter Cushing, the space opera – which is now often referred to as Episode IV – A New Hope – grossed over $550 million upon its release. This made Star Wars the highest-grossing film of all time, holding this title until the release of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial in 1982.

The science-fiction epic was critically lauded, with Roger Ebert referring to the film as an “out of body experience” with effects comparable to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The widespread praise for Star Wars and its subsequent films has led to its status as one of the most beloved and most successful franchises ever, only losing the top stop to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, compared to the MCU, Star Wars arguably has a lot more cinematic merit, and, upon its release, the 1977 film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning six, including Best Original Score, Art Direction, Editing, and Visual Effects.

Star Wars’ influence over science-fiction and space-themed media is insurmountable. However, for all of the love the franchise has received since its release, this hasn’t been completely universal. Scientist/astronomer/astrophysicist and all-around smart guy Carl Sagan had his own criticisms of the 1977 film, which he expressed to Johnny Carson on national television. Discussing his thoughts on the then-recent space-themed flicks Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Sagan claimed that “the eleven-year-old in me loved them”. However, he goes on to state that the respective filmmakers – George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – “could’ve made a better effort to do things right”.

His first qualm with Star Wars is that it is set “in a galaxy far, far away”, yet there are people that live in this galaxy. Sagan’s issue arises with the fact that “human beings are the result of a unique evolutionary sequence based upon so many individual and likely random events on the earth”. Detailing further, he adds: “Therefore, it is unlikely that in a galaxy with completely different conditions to our planet humans would be living there.”

Furthermore, Sagan critiques the overwhelming whiteness of the characters in Star Wars, stating that this is also scientifically inaccurate: “Not even the other colours represented on the Earth are present, much less greens and blues and purples and oranges,” he said. Sagan is right – the first Star Wars film is mainly comprised of white actors.

He also took issue with the fact that everyone in charge of the Star Wars galaxy is human, stating that “everybody in charge of the galaxy seemed to look like us. I thought there was a large amount of human chauvinism in it.” Moreover, Sagan was not impressed with the lack of consideration for Chewbacca at the end of the film, he said, to much laughter from the audience: “The Wookie who had been in there fighting all the time, he didn’t get any medal. I thought that was an example of anti-Wookie discrimination”. Johnny Carson goes on to label Star Wars a “Western in outer space”, and whilst Sagan agrees, he ponders why a little bit more effort wasn’t made to “get the science right”.

Check out the full interview below.