Independence Day, Aliens and Invasions

Tuning in and out of the movie ‘Independence Day’ that was being shown on one of the TV channels for what must be the hundredth time, two thoughts came to mind:  the first was “I hope Oscar Wilde was right” and the second was “how many more times will the Washington Monument, New York and Los Angeles be destroyed in a movie?”  The connection?  Well, in 1889, Oscar Wilde wrote in his essay ‘The Decay of Lying’ that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”.  If that is true, during the next extraterrestrial invasion, whilst the White House, the Empire State Building and some skyscraper in Los Angeles will be vaporised, the real furry creatures from Alpha Centuri will be stopped by day three and their plans foiled, all in widescreen, Dolby sound and the best CGI available.   They will be defeated by some maverick hero or heroine (with a laptop that never needs recharging) who will then resolve the personal arguments from a dysfunctional relationship with their dad, lover or boss (or even all three) and earn the eternal gratitude of Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover, James Earl Jones, Geena Davis or even Cherry Jones who will be the President.  After the final handshake in front of a burning White House, a couple of thousand people with jobs like ‘Second Assistant animator Lead sequence LA Unit’ will be name-checked and the world is safe, at least for a couple of months until ‘Real Furry Creatures from Alpha Centuri Two – the Revenge’ happens.

Whilst I enjoy science-fiction movies like ‘Independence Day’, the more you watch the more you realize that the plots must be the ultimate form of recycling.  The play is basically the same:  the aliens build a vast fleet of ships, travel to Earth, park over a few cities, then at some appointed hour send out either waves of fighters or some high-energy beam to destroy what is beneath them.   But their plans always go awry because they will be defeated, either by some common earth virus (War of the Worlds, HG Wells, 1898) or a more hi-tech version, a computer virus as in Independence Day (1996).   Based on this, if the depiction of alien invasions are true, it is easy to conclude that the world has nothing to fear from an extraterrestrial invasion because the real furry or scaly creatures that invade are probably the bunch of nerds and not the warriors of their solar system.  None of their commanders would have attended the equivalent of Sandhurst or West Point, they have never heard of space-suits or have any idea of military tactics whatsoever.  Their IT department may be able to get their ships across space, but have no idea of a firewall or anti-virus software and the whole alien network of computers will blue screen via the aid of a WiFi connection from our beloved un-recharged laptop that smoothly interfaces with ‘Doors 8 Professional’ or whatever the interstellar version of Windows happens to be.  Be honest:  either the aliens are stupid or the screen-writers think the audience is. 

Compare your typical ‘Alien Invasion’ movie or television series with real life.  When America or NATO goes after more oil, sorry, contributes to the promotion of world security and human rights, they spend weeks drawing up sometimes secret plans, identifying the targets based on the risks posed to their forces and the enemy’s ability to fight back.  Only then do you see the streaks of Tomahawk missiles launched from the comparative safety of an ocean a couple of hundred miles away.  In theory, the average enemy radar operator will only know about the invasion when the screen goes black, communications with Headquarters has just been cut, the runways have just disintegrated into a pile of rocks and that very strange fast moving shape crossing the sky is either a Lockheed F117a carrying a 2000lb JDAM bomb or a UGM-109E Tomahawk missile, both aimed directly at his head.  Its common sense:  shoot the man with the gun first then destroy the telephone to stop his accomplice calling for reinforcements.  Then after you have taken out the military, communications and transportation, you invade and your national oil company restarts crude oil exports, sorry, you set about rebuilding democracy and hold elections before going home just as the pre-determined exit strategy stated at the start of the campaign.

But this is not how your average alien life form plans an invasion.  Despite having the technology to move huge spaceships complete with fighters, fantastic weapons and force fields across the Universe without being noticed, they arrive and park over a few major cities.  How do they choose where to park?  There are 204 sovereign countries in the world, 193 of which are members of the United Nations, yet It’s always the same three in the US, New York (home of the United Nations) New York, Washington (the capital) but why Los Angeles?  If it’s done on size, yes, but what of Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia?  Then when we move on to the rest of the world, London, Paris and Berlin are understandable, but what of Brussels and Strasbourg, the homes of the European Community?  Go to Delhi, yes, but how about Mumbai as well?  When it comes to Russia – Moscow, is a given, but what about Saint Petersburg and Volgograd.   Notice how they never go to Caerdydd (Cardiff) as that’s the capital of Wales (home of Torchwood and everyone knows the Welsh boys really kick ass) whilst places like Indianapolis are ignored because who wants to put up with that humidity and quite frankly, what’s the point?

So your average alien conveniently chooses the target cities based on the availability of stock footage and recognisable cityscapes.  Then what?  Well, you place the cross-hairs on the most recognisable buildings or monuments, fire the big ray gun under the ship and the city disintegrates in a slow motion collage of flying cars and smashing windows.  The Empire States Building vaporises, La Tour Eiffel melts.  No matter how wide the blast radius is – often a few miles, your spaceship is safe because the damage is always confined to a few storeys and always spreads as a disc and never a sphere, so there is no risk in being right in the epicentre of the explosion below you.  Next, as a few ragged survivors fight their way out of a desolate, abandoned, crumbling and ruined city that looks suspiciously like a back-lot somewhere in Los Angeles or modern day Detroit, the aliens then….

But we never find out.  Because it’s at this point that our heroes have reached either an abandoned military base or top secret command centre, stolen some alien technology and used a captured spaceship or a laptop to disable the alien force field and attack the mother ship.  And none of the other space ships counter-attack or retreat to a safe distance to re-group and come back with a vengeance.  They remain in place until it’s their turn to be destroyed and crash with all the best CGI the animators and film technicians can produce with the allotted budget.  At least the aliens could have put up some sort of rearguard action or turned off guest access to their WiFi network first.  On top, no-one ever explains how our heroes are able to communicate with the rest of the world and defeat all of the ships in a co-ordinated attack, especially when the phone network is down and the world has been enveloped in an electro-magnetic pulse.  We also take it on faith that we can integrate our Linux, Windows or Mac laptops with the alien’s computers when most people cannot even open a Word 2007 document with Word 2003. 

Never mind,  the next time I look up into the sky and see a strange light I cannot identify, I am going to cross my fingers and hope Oscar Wilde was right.  That life imitates art and that any invasion will be defeated by someone who needs relationship counselling whilst I watch in 70mm and 7.1 Dolby.  Just in case, I have made a mental note never to live in New York, Washington, Los Angeles or any city with a distinctive skyline.