Is Star Wars science fiction or fantasy? Different fans make different arguments, some even opting for a third way, claiming that the ever-multiplying stories of its ever-expanding fictional universe belong to neither genre. Back in 1978, the year after the release of the original Star Wars film (which no one then called “A New Hope,” let alone “Episode Four”), the question was approached by no less a popular scientific personality than Carl Sagan. It happened on national television, as the astronomer, cosmologist, writer, and television host in his own right sat opposite Johnny Carson. “The eleven-year-old in me loved them,” Sagan says in the clip above of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and other then-recent space-themed blockbusters. “But they could’ve made a better effort to do things right.”
Everyone remembers how Star Wars sets its stage: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” But right there, Sagan has a problem. Despite its remoteness from us, this galaxy happens also to be populated by human beings, “the result of a unique evolutionary sequence, based upon so many individually unlikely, random events on the Earth.”
So Homo sapiens couldn’t have evolved on any other planet, Carson asks, let alone one in another galaxy? “It’s extremely unlikely that there would be creatures as similar to us as the dominant ones in Star Wars.” He goes on to make a more specific critique, one publicized again in recent years as ahead of its time: “They’re all white.” That is, in the skins of most of the movie’s characters, “not even the other colors represented on the Earth are present, much less greens and blues and purples and oranges.”
Carson responds, as anyone would, by bringing up Star Wars‘ cantina scene, with its rogue’s gallery of variously non-humanoid habitués. “But none of them seemed to be in charge of the galaxy,” Sagan points out. “Everybody in charge of the galaxy seemed to look like us. I thought there was a large amount of human chauvinism in it.” That no medal is bestowed upon Chewbacca, despite his heroics, Sagan declares an example of “anti-Wookiee discrimination” — with tongue in cheek, granted, but pointing up how much more interesting science fiction could be if it relied a little less on human conventions and drew a little more from scientific discoveries. Not that Star Wars is necessarily science fiction. “It was a shootout, wasn’t it?” Carson asks. “A Western in outer space.” Johnny never did hesitate to call ’em as he saw ’em.
Fans Reconstruct Authentic Version of Star Wars, As It Was Shown in Theaters in 1977
The Complete Star Wars “Filmumentary”: A 6-Hour, Fan-Made Star Wars Documentary, with Behind-the-Scenes Footage & Commentary
Carl Sagan Predicts the Decline of America: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “Without Noticing, Back into Superstition & Darkness” (1995)
Carl Sagan on the Importance of Choosing Wisely What You Read (Even If You Read a Book a Week)
Blade Runner: The Pillar of Sci-Fi Cinema that Siskel, Ebert, and Studio Execs Originally Hated
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
Poor Sagan, he didn’t understand they weren’t human beings, they were beings who look liked we do. Those in charge of the galaxy were white because it was a dictatorship, and the rest of the being were all kind of colors. Poor Sagan, he didn’t get it was fiction. Poor Sagan.
Carl was woke before it was cool. Too bad his logic was flawed, where are the lgbtqiachrhdssfg++ and trans-alien space characters? Asking for a friend…
Who’s to say that we weren’t modeled or genetically modified by an alien species? Didn’t Carl Sagan get that going through his brain or was he so arrogant and egocentric that the universe revolves around just the earth and the human species is only unique in itself without any interference.
I didn’t realize that there were such incredibly woke fools back then!
Too bad abortions can’t be made retroactive!
I knew Sagan was smart but I didn’t realize how much he noticed. Good for him.
I wish he had talked more like this.
Way to construe the words of a dead man. Who knows if he would have changed his mind in the future. Way to disrespect the memory of one of the world’s greatest thinkers and teachers. I hope you are ashamed of yourselves.
If you are upset about something someone said in the past maybe you need a wellness check.
Race again. Will it ever stop? All americans right?
Are you fn kidding me fn race baiting on one of the greatest movie sagas of all times sick just sick
Darth Vader and Lando, both pretty powerful.
One guess what ethnic group Carl Sagan was a member of.
Wow… the time it took to read this drivel is time I’ll never get back of my life… what a waste of writing. Who gives a condescending crap about what Sagan thought of Star Wars? NO ONE… it is a fictional movie. Not a historical review. The writer here really needs to get a life.
Wow did that trigger a bunch of right-woke and gate-keeping incels.
Must have skipped the school days when the teacher talked about metaphysics and social constructs.
White-washed and mythological will do instead.