Why Alien Invasion Movies Are Dumb (and yet I still love them)

Mars needs women. Or tentacles. Something!

Mars needs women. Or tentacles. Something!

Without a doubt the alien invasion story – particularly in its film incarnation – is a staple of the science fiction genre. Not a summer in North America goes by without an alien invasion or two turned back by our stalwart Hollywood heroes, to say nothing of the number of low budget invasions spawned by SyFy and others. These movies are generally financially successful. We continue to make them, and producers continue to fund them, with no signs of letting up. Even when they when the plot, acting and dialog are mediocre at best (and budgets is no guarantee of quality as fans of the genre will no doubt attest), most still turn a profit.

These movies, regardless of schlockiness, are entertaining to enough of us. We love our heroes and for humanity to come out on top despite our flaws. As the saying goes, they are a guilty pleasure – and count me among the guilty! I’m going to rant, but this post was definitely not written with the idea that these films and stories aren’t at least fun and worthwhile at some level. My tongue is in my cheek at times and I have a hope that it might encourage some writers and film makers to explore the genre in new ways. Wouldn’t that be cool?

So, anyhow, just what is my quasi-beef with them? Why have I claimed they suck in some way?

Well, it’s not a general suckage that I’m referring to, but the particular and consistent ways they are unrealistic on a few basic points. Now, why bother harping on realism in sci-fi? It’s fiction, right? Sure, but it’s science-fiction. Part of why we create sci-fi stories is to explore what the future might be like. But in the case of the alien invasion film, it seems that almost all movies have the most basic aspects of what might happen wrong.

Let’s start with the basic formula of an alien invasion movie.

  1. some aliens out there, whose technology is at a level close to ours (within a few centuries, say) decide to pillage/destroy/enslave/eat Earth
  2. the aliens arrive, usually looking for some sort of resource: water, food, a new environment (might have picked a bad planet in our case, fellas, we’re wrecking ours too)
  3. they invade – literally – they send ships and often ground troops down to the surface and proceed to kick ass
  4. at some point humans get the upper hand and in one fell swoop more or less eliminate the threat (usually this is some technological or biological flaw)

I’m not so worried about #4 – weird shit happens, right? Aliens could not foresee something just like we humans are prone to do as well. Biochemistry is complicated and they might not have great data being from trillions of miles away. If things manage to drag on for a while, blind or dumb luck might just save us.

However, there are some real problems with 1 through 3.

Let’s take #1. To be fair, this is the most complicated (and controversial). Let me ‘splain why.

First, some background. Most people who think seriously about intelligent alien life have one glaring problem they struggle with. Where is it? The ingredients for life seem to be fairly common: long-lived stars, rocky planets orbiting them, water and hydrocarbons, a few other elements (iron, nitrogen, etc.). The best current estimates tell us that could 500 million potentially habitable planets. It’s tough to guess how often single-celled life will arise, and from that multicellular life, and from that intelligent life but given that we’re talking about billions of years and half a billion shots at it, it seems damned unlikely that we are the first intelligent life to crop up.

Now, again, consider the amounts of time we’re talking about. The universe is 14 billion years old, our galaxy over 12 billion, so we’d expect to start seeing simple life over 10 billion years ago, and complex stuff a few billion years after that (it took Earth 3 billion to go from single- to multi- cellular life). So, the first civilizations could have arisen several billion years ago.

Now, what are the odds that the ones that visit us just happen to be only a few centuries more advanced? Or even only a few thousand years? Laughably small. Thousandths of a percent.

And what weapons might a four billion year old civilization have that we couldn’t even hope to understand let alone counter? Right. We’d be screwed and screwed so fast we wouldn’t even know we were being screwed. They’d kill us, kill the planet or make us into willing food before we could ask, “Do you come in peace?”

But, let’s say, for the sake of argument the invaders are close to us in technology, that we might have a chance to intervene before it’s too late.

This brings us to #2: why did they come here.

Food. The notion that a food available on Earth is so much more yummy to them than what they have o could synthesize on their planet, or, if they were advanced enough that they could travel to other stars before they all starved, wouldn’t just synthesize for themselves rather than undertake the risk and expense of an interstellar invasion… well, you get the idea. It’s just crazy.

Water. No. The amount of water on Earth is nothing compared to what’s much more easily available in things like comets and icy outer planets and moons. They would mine their solar system for water. Even if they came here, to do the same, why bother with Earth’s water? Just steal the water in our comets, icy moons, etc. We would probably detect them, but what do they care? We could do nothing about it. The water of Earth is small potatoes. Worrying about it is like worrying about a drop of water spilling from a bucket. That drop makes no difference. After stripping the water from ours, they would just go to another solar system and steal its.

Environment. I.e. they want to colonize Earth. This one, at least, holds a little water (haha). If they have just enough tech and they have trashed their planet (or it’s been trashed by an asteroid or the activity of their star), and they detected the lush Earth, and it was compatible with their biology, maybe they’d try to come and settle here. It seems more likely they’d spend the resources constructing space habitats for their remaining population – they’d save more life that way for sure. Or, of course, they could do both, with the idea that if they can conquer or work out an agreement to share the Earth then they could bring their people here. However, once they get here and see there are 7+ billion of us and that we’re already wrecking things, it should seem obvious that we aren’t going to want to share much with them, and that in the long term, it wouldn’t work out. In that scenario invasion might be a good option. On the other hand, one would hope they’d send some advanced probes which would report back the state of Earth and they might decide trying another star is a better option.

Why else might they come? Maybe they are just grumpy and rapacious. Pretty boring from a story standpoint, but worse motivations have been concocted. Now, mounting interstellar invasions when you are only just barely able to get around between the stars (remember, they can’t be too advanced or things end quickly and badly for us) is going to be a huge economic drain. But, hey, it’s not like humans are great at long term planning or even economics at all, so maybe they are just crazy enough to do this simply to sate their lust for violence. (At this point one might wonder how they managed to be social and patient enough to develop interstellar travel at all – another chink in this motive.) How many times are they going to be able to do this before their economy collapses? I just don’t see a lust for destruction explanation as tenable.

The final reason, and it seems to me to be the best one, would be simply to wipe us out. They don’t want anything except to end us for their own survival. They want to do this because we could be dumb and warlike (err, perhaps ‘could’ is not the best word to use here), or we could do something stupid like unleash some sort of self-replicating robots (or worse, artificially intelligent robots) on the galaxy that would eventually overcome all the biological life. This latter possibility is not so far-fetched: there don’t seem to be any good reasons for a mechanical civilization to respect organic life, and, of course, dumb (albeit sophisticated in their own way), self-replicating robot simply wouldn’t care. These aliens might make a habit of wiping out other intelligent species when they crop up.

As an aside, this might be why the galaxy isn’t teeming with civilizations. One of the first ones that arose took out the others and continues to do so – perhaps because of a painfully learned lesson about AIs or self-replicating robots. This civilization could be billions of years old. Haha, puny humans, see point #1!

So, point #3. The invasion.

I’ll just categorically state that committing ground troops, or putting your navy in the atmosphere where it can be attacked by human planes and missiles, when you are the undisputed master of space in the conflict, is not going to happen. Only a complete and utter moron would do such a thing. It would be like the US invading Iraq but only using its ships, tanks and planes as transportation to the front lines and then all getting out to fight on the ground. Such gross incompetence/arrogance is kinda mind-boggling.

No, you, interstellar invasion command, you sit up in orbit and start deflecting asteroids onto Earth. The size would vary according to the need. Small rocks or chunks of metal with simple guidance systems could take out small targets – tanks or planes, etc. Then larger ones for power plants and military bases, and still bigger ones to take out cities or hardened bunkers. There’s also the option of a few dozen high altitude nuclear weapons to take out most if not all the electronics on the planet. Probably you have excellent remote sensing tech and will, in the relative absence of electrical and electronic activity easily detect any thing you missed and can drop a few rocks to take care of it.

Welcome to the new Stone Age Earth, it’s yours for the picking. Harvest all the humans and water you need!

Don’t need humans? Engineer a few super-viruses (a few, so as to overwhelm the human capacity to synthesize a cure or vaccine) to kill them all and rapidly decompose the bodies. No need to worry about propagation, you will spray it over the whole planet from space. Wait a few weeks, send in the clean-up crews, and phone home to let them know the planet is ready for colonizing.

Of course, if your goal is simply to sterilize the planet, things are super-easy. You sling a few giant asteroids at the Earth (more than we would have a chance to deflect) and it’s good night Irene. Check back in a couple billion years and repeat, or rig a few asteroids to check for signs of advanced civilizations and drive themselves into Earth (or Mars or Venus) when it arises. No sweat.

So, there you have it: all the ways I could think of off the top of my head how alien invasion stories get it wrong.

To be fair, there are some stories/films that get aspects of this right (and I may cook up a list of those for a later post), but none get them all right. And, well, there’s a good reason for that: at least at our current level of technology, it would make a very short and unsatisfying story!

Finally, just to reiterate, I love alien invasion movies, stupid premises and all. I look forward to watching many, many more of them.

Now, where’s my copy of Independence Day


6 responses to “Why Alien Invasion Movies Are Dumb (and yet I still love them)

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  3. Great blog. Just wanted to add, dropping rocks on earth would be way too much trouble. Aliens can simply use powerful neutron or other particle beams from space to wilpe out all human life and keep infrastructure intact. Yes there is no chance in hell humans can beat back any advanced alien invasion. It’s like 17th century wooden warships going against modern US navy, and that’s probably way understating it!

    • It would definitely not be easier to sterilize the planet with particle beams. First, you have to haul complex machinery across the stars – that’s expensive and you risk it getting trashed a long the way by debris. Second, your talking about a LOT of energy to sterilize the planet with such weapons – maybe you hauled giant fusion reactors with you for this purpose, but really, that’s kinda crazy expensive too. Next, neutrons are difficult to accelerate since they have no electrical charge. But, if you use protons or electrons, they don’t stay focused since they repel one another. Either way, the vast majority of the particles will interact in the atmosphere – high energy particles have large interaction cross sections. This means getting close and exposing your equipment at least to potential defenses.

      Given all those difficulties, if I wanted to sterilize a civilized planet but wanted the infrastructure relatively intact I’d opt for a virus. If I was willing to accept some damage and waiting out whatever nasty climatic side effects it would cause – or I sucked at genetic engineering, I’d use a couple large asteroids or comets and just accept that the infrastructure near the impact sites is going to be annihilated. GE requires gathering samples, which might alert the locals that something is up, but kicking a couple comets down onto a planet is child’s play for an interstellar civilization and can be done from tens of billions of miles away.

      As an aside, it occurs to me that any smart and paranoid civilization would have self-replicating robots running around doing this to all stars near them: cruise by the Oort Cloud, attach some steering rockets to few comets, aim them at any potentially habitable planets/moons, find some rocky objects to mine for replication, go to the next two stars…

  4. I THINK the reason the Galaxy is “quiet” is because of something called the “Great Filter/Fermi Paradox”… I do believe there are many sentient and intelligent beings in the cosmos/galaxy + universe. However due to the great filters, many will not last long enough for Advanced Space travel/Faster than light travel and get off the cradle of their home planet in a major way so 10’s of Millions of more from their home planet!

    Lets go with your Figure of 500 Million Earth Like planets in the Galaxy (I assume this is the milky way galaxy and excludes our Satellite Galaxies):

    500,000,000 = Total Earth Like Planets
    10,000,000 = 2% Has Life
    200,000 = 2% of “Has life” Has Intelligent/Sentient Life
    4,000 = 2% Reach Industrial/Tech Civilization
    80-200 = 2% to 5% Has Adv space Travel/Interstellar

    Now the question is why (up to 200) Advanced Space Travel/Interstellar Civilizations not contacting us. I heard Radio Signals are not that great and actually weaken after about 0.5-1 light year also there is a lot of background Radio Noise in the Cosmos. Hi-Tech Civilizations maybe using Non-Radio Technology (EG – Advanced Lasers or Tachyons etc..), also they may have a “Prime Directive” meaning leaving less Advanced species to figure it out by themselves…
    Personally I think the Human Race will not make it big into space. Our Elites are too focused on the quick $$$ rather than the long marathon which brings int he $$$ but over a longer period of time. This is why I do not see us colonizing the Solar system in a big way. I would say for at least the next 100 years (unless something major happens) we are going to be largely a Single Planet Civilization….

    • Well, the Fermi Paradox isn’t an explanation of why it’s quiet, it’s just an elaboration of the problem. The filters are a possible explanation, but not the only one, and of course, they may be any number of filters we haven’t thought of. But, this is really tangential to the point of why someone might want to and how they might go about taking over a planet with a non-space-faring civilization. (Both of which most movies fail badly at explaining.)

      All else being equal (thinking of stuff like the opacity/absorption of any intervening matter, how focused the transmission is, etc.), the inverse square law is what governs signal strength vs distance. We are actually very good at sorting out radio signals from background noise. Also, at certain frequencies the majority of the galaxy is more or less transparent and it seems reasonable that any civ that gets to the point of doing radio astronomy at our level or better is going to figure these details out quickly. So, unless they hide themselves (thereby allowing only a relatively brief window–a few decades, maybe a century during which their signal is detectable) we ought to hear a few of them at least. (Back to the Fermi Paradox!)

      I agree that there’s no good reason for us to expect space colonization any time soon. We’ll go big into space as soon as it economically attractive to do so or there is a proximate existential threat to motivate us (though not TOO proximate!). When that will happen is impossible to predict. It could very be centuries, but it could be only a few decades too. Regardless, as soon as we find something valuable enough in space or something in space becomes valuable enough, it could happen fairly fast. No amount of vision is going to override the mathematical economic logic beyond the current level of exploration and near Earth use of space. Hell, we have trouble funding parks. Large scale space colonies? Haha.

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