Monday, February 28, 2011

Insultingly stupid movie physics, and things that actually make a great deal of sense.

I’m not a movie-buff by any means, but I like a good sci-fi movie as much as the next guy. As a self-proclaimed author of hard science fiction, I tend to have to cringe a bit as most TV and movies are soft sci-fi. Today I’m going to tackle one of my favorite movies of the mid 90s, a movie in which I actually have something of a personal stake: Independence Day.

This is another one of those movies that takes a great deal of criticism and honestly does not deserve a lot of it. The irony is that it gets criticized for the things it did right, and ignored over the things that actually deserve complaining about.

To start off, this is one of those movies that is often the target of “stupid movie physics” –type articles. And while yes, based on our current understanding of physics, they made plenty of mistakes. But these are not the mistakes the film gets railed on.

The first favorite is the idea that the ships somehow hovering over the cities would exert enough force to flatten the said cities without the need to fire the alien death-ray. This is a favorite, because it lets flighty physics-types feel superior for having figured out something the stupid writers missed. As a writer myself, I know better: they didn’t miss anything, and the flighty physics-types are stupid. Given their level of technology, it’s pretty obvious that the aliens have figured out anti-gravity, and it’s highly probable that their ships fly that way. As in they fly by becoming weightless. As in they aren’t exerting any force on the cities bellow because they do not weigh anything.

The next favorite is Jeff Goldbloom’s apparently magical PowerBook. Opponents of the film point out that there is no way the thing should have been able to interface with an alien ship and upload a virus. They say, mostly, that it shouldn’t have been powerful enough to interface with computers “thousands of years more advanced”. The people who say this are not IT people. When it comes to computers interfacing, its all basically ones and zeros, and the ability to generate them in the right sequence. Your computer right now is talking to computers that are thousands of times more powerful than it(the supercomputers that run THE INTERNET). Did you use Google today? Then you sent the right combination of ones and zeroes to Google’s massively powerful super-computing cluster. Congratulations, you just did basically the same thing. It’s a terminal interface, computers have always worked that way. Almost ever since there have been computers, you’ve had simpler, weaker computers talking to bigger, stronger computers.

You have to remember, the laptop in Independence Day wasn’t running the alien’s operating system, it was merely generating a signal(as is explained several times by Jeff Goldbloom’s character). All he did was write a program to send a signal that would mess with the alien’s shields. Given the differences in technology, that could actually have been extremely simple. Let’s say he found an exploit that just shuts off all the shields(which, with what we know about the alien’s technology, is very plausible), the entire rest of the virus could have been as simple as Microsoft® Word™ document that he told the aliens to open. Have you ever tried to open a file-type when your computer doesn’t know how to read it? It mucks things up for a bit, your entire system hangs trying to read the foreign data. It would not be hard to generate a file designed to do just that.

And let’s not forget what really makes computers go obsolete: bells and whistles. Underneath it’s slick exterior, Windows 7 isn’t doing much that Windows 98 didn’t do, it just looks prettier. Easily 50% of a new OS’s features are literally nothing but eye-candy designed for the soul purpose of making the thing look pretty on a store shelf. 80% of the processing power required by 7 is used for nothing other than a light show to make you buy it. The large mainframes that run behind the scenes in banks? The basic requirements for the operating system haven’t changed in twenty years. They want more storage to hold more customers and more memory and faster processors to accommodate more users.

Let’s consider IT security from the standpoint of the aliens. They’re up in their big ships, having no intention of ever contacting or letting the piddling humans so much as see their faces. They are an entire, united race, working together to make this invasion thing go off without a hitch. They probably do not have particularly strict user-rights-management going on up there. When we see the alien on the mothership manipulating controls, it doesn’t look like he needs a password or anything to open up the little ship’s window cover. In fact, given that the aliens have telepathy, they probably have some sort of neural fingerprint system—that works on the user-level. With the Powerbook sending its signal and doing it’s thing below the hardware abstraction layer gets past all that.

Finally we reach the end of the film, the fourth of July, when the aliens are finally brought down, their ships in ruins, their mothership completely exploded. Some folks pointed out that these ships now had whole armies of aliens armed with their advanced technology ready to run around free and take over the world—not so. We are shown very clearly that when the ships crash, they break open and seem to be filled with burning hell-fire. Any aliens who survived the initial crash probably burned to death painfully. Then there is the power: we learn at Area 51 that “we can’t duplicate their power source, but when the aliens showed up, everything started to turn on” implying that the alien power source is located on the mothership—the mothership that is currently raining down all over the world in a zillion pieces. The handful of survivors probably suffocated inside their biomechanical suits.

So, really, from a hard science fiction standpoint, Independence Day actually scores very highly. Of course, all the critics just ignore the decision in the final battle to attack the massive, city-sized flying saucers with very basic air-to-air missiles, the kind designed to blow up other jet fighters. Seriously, the people in the movie wondered why “we just aren’t causing enough damage!” with a puny attack like that?


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