I actually watched Independence Day, back around July 4th. It was made in 1996, but I still hadn’t actually seen it. I’d just heard about the flying saucers.
It was a mildly entertaining, and occasionally uproariously hilarious parody of the alien invasion story. In fact, it went far enough as…
Wait, what’s that? You mean, it wasn’t a parody? It was supposed to be serious? And believable?
Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale
While I’m sure there are other movies that are worse… there aren’t that many. And there are so many things, I’m going to have to break it into smaller bits.
Invisible Flying Saucers
As happens in other movies, the aliens pretty much pop out of nowhere. People on Earth first notice them when they catch some of their radio transmission, while they’re still about as far away as the Moon.
Thermal and visual detectors would pick them up much further out than that. I mean, we can see asteroids that are only tens of meters across at much larger distances from Earth. The big mothership is 500 km across; that’s a little bit smaller than Vesta, a main-belt asteroid so large that it was discovered in 1807.
Plus, assuming they’re coming in from outside the solar system at some large fraction of the speed of light, they’ll have to be firing some kind of thrusters, or otherwise expending a lot of energy to slow down. Which will make them very, very bright.
There’s no good reason to not see them coming. Unless they can teleport, which introduces all kinds of other issues.
Saucers and Satellites
There’s this interesting scene where an uncaring flying saucer runs into a much tinier satellite, destroying it. The problem? Actual orbital speeds are fast, typically around a few km/s, so there should be a similar difference in velocity between these two objects.
Not km/h. That’s kilometers per second. Around 3600 km/h, or 2200 mph. That satellite should have been in the frame and then smacked in a fraction of a second. Boom. But slow is more dramatic, I guess.
Intangible Flying Saucers
Aaaaaand they have antigravity. Or at least, something that magically allows a 15-km-wide flying saucer to hover over New York without squashing it flat. Which is really quite odd, since any normal means of propulsion would have to exert a downward force on something to hold it there. Like, say, the air. Which would then also push downward. (This isn’t so much a problem for, say, airplanes, since that force is very broadly distributed by the time it gets to the ground. But the turbulence caused by flight is just one reason why planes don’t fly too close to each other.) Ground effect is a related phenomenon, where aircraft get more lift when close to the ground because the air gets compressed, and that extra pressure pushes the plane up… but also pushes down on the ground.
And let’s not even get into the shields. Or the laser beams.
Immensely Massive Mothership
So… the mothership is about 500 km across, and has a mass about a quarter that of the Moon.
Think about that for a minute. Now remember that the moon has a radius of about 1740 km. It has a density of about 3.3 g/cm^3, typical of rocky solar system bodies. The Earth’s density is a bit higher, at 5.5 cm^3, typical of planetary bodies that are a mixture of rock and metal, like Earth’s nickle-iron core, and are big enough for pressure to compress things a bit.
Assuming that the mothership is actually a solid sphere 500 km in diameter (larger than its stated size, which isn’t spherical, plus we’re shown that it’s quite hollow for all the aliens to live in there), then we get a density of about 1000 g/cm^3. The densest normal element listed on Wikipedia is Osmium, at just under 23 g/cm^3. Now, at 1000 g/cm^3 this isn’t quite as dense as the material in a white dwarf star or that most absurdly dense of materials, neutronium, but more dense than the core of the sun. It’s nuts for some future-tech alloy to be more than 50 times denser than any ordinary metal.
Remember Vesta, the asteroid that’s about the same size, in terms of diameter? It has <1% of the Moon’s mass.
But hey, at least they got the distance from Earth to the Moon right.
Alien Antivirus Software
So you’ve got your space ships, your frickin’ laser beams, and your massively superior technology. So, clearly, you make your computer system so user-friendly that a bunch of the people whose you’re invading can take a crashed ship, reverse-engineer it, fly it into your mothership, hack all your systems, shut down your shields, and set off a nuke.
What. Come on, guys, they have super-shields and super-tech; why don’t they have super-cryptography as well? And that’s even overlooking the fact that it’s hard enough to figure out computer programs and systems made by other humans, much less aliens systems with different designs written in
Seriously, this is about as bad as the biological virus that kills the aliens in War of the Worlds (in all its versions).
You Just Walked Into Another Cliché
Skipping over all the references to Roswell and Area 51…
… there’s another cliché (or two) that really just bugs me.
They manage to catch a live alien, and lug it to Area 51 for study. The scientist and medical-ish support think it may have died, since it hasn’t moved for several hours prior to coming in.
And there are no guards in the room when they start to take off the alien’s biological armor.
The instant I saw there were no guards, I thought, “These people are all going to be killed by the alien.”
And then they were. Too easy.
For bonus points, based on the bodies recovered from the original Roswell crash, the aliens have ears but no vocal cords. The immediate inference is that, obviously, they use telepathy. Which, of course, they do have, which leads me to a problems.
Why is telepathy the first guess? Real telepathy has never been demonstrated, and there are other possibilities. Maybe they use some other organ to make sound to talk. Maybe they use sign language/clapping/snapping/strategic joint-cracking, what-have-you. It’d make more sense. Yeesh. Why are the aliens always telepaths?
Instant Pilot, Just Add Coffee
Because that’s all that’s needed to turn a drunk washed-up former pilot of decades ago into a competent fighter pilot on modern aircraft.
Practice time, simulator hours? Nah.
… this would not work in real life. It seems like a piloting equivalent of the omnidisciplinary scientist.
Penicillin Is Not A Panacea
A kid who is sick with a mystery illness doesn’t have his meds due to the invading alien crisis. He develops a fever. The stop-gap solution? Penicillin. Because “it’ll bring the fever down.”
No. No, it won’t. Penicillin is an antibiotic, for killing bacteria, not some kind of fever-reducing drug, called an antipyretic. Like, say, some other fairly easily recognizable drugs. Like Tylenol. Getting this right would have been so easy that I wouldn’t have even mentioned it in a review. But… they didn’t.
Was SETI Ever In NM at the VLA?
This film makes it look like the SETI Institute runs the Very Large Array (VLA, a large radio telescope array), located in New Mexico.
SETI is actually located in Mountain View, CA.
And, although some SETI-related work has happened there, VLA is actually run by the NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory).
And so far as I know, this was the case even in the distant year of 1996.
Oh, About That Thing You Blew Up…
So, you destroyed something in Earth orbit, which had a quarter of the mass of the Moon. At the end of the film, we get to see a few bits coming down and burning up in the atmosphere, as “fireworks” for Independence Day. Except… that’s a lot of mass coming in, guys. We don’t see it, but the incoming pieces are probably dense enough to not burn up completely, and big enough, to, well, cause problems similar to having a lot of large asteroid impacts. Oops.
I am not impressed. I think the filmmakers started to do the research, and then got bored and decided to just make up the rest.