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The Sciences

Depth Change: What Do the “Battleship” Aliens Want From Us, Anyway?

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Seth Shostak is Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute in California, and the host of the weekly radio show and podcast “Big Picture Science.” 

Join Seth and 50 eminent scientists and sci-fi experts at SETIcon, to be held June 22-24 in Silicon Valley: www.seticon.org.

Battleship
Battleship

Battleship is not a film that Francois Truffaut would have made. Nor would any of those other namby-pamby European directors. Nope, this picture eschews that Continental obsession with small stories, set in quaint towns filled with pockmarked folk doing their banal things. Who cares?

No one, not when the fate of the Earth is in question. I’m proud to note that only the American film industry has the guts (not to mention the computer graphics horsepower) to fill the screen with a tale of ill-mannered aliens bent on incinerating the planet.

Consequently, Peter Berg’s film is pleasingly free of pretensions. It doesn’t waste your neural cycles exploring the uncharted labyrinths of the protagonists’ psyches, or anything overly Greek like that. It’s bad guys versus good guys, and the good guys win by being smarter, braver, and, in most cases, better looking.

The plot is exposed even before the main title settles in: NASA has found a planet that’s in the “Goldilocks” zone of its star—which is to say, it’s not too hot and not too cold for liquid water. It’s what astrobiologists would call a habitable world. Having found a possible home for E.T., the space agency beams up a signal that presumably informs any residents that Earthlings are friendly, and our planet is open for business.

Alas, what follows is a bummer of a reaction—thanks to NASA’s chutzpah, the aliens now know where we live, and quickly send a squadron of interstellar battlewagons our way. This awkward consequence of broadcasting into space is something that even people extremely excited about space exploration, like physicist Stephen Hawking, have warned us against (and in case you think the film’s opening gambit is goofy, note that NASA did broadcast the Beatles song, “Across the Universe,” to Polaris, the North Star, in February, 2008).

Thanks to a fortuitous, international naval exercise being conducted close to where the aliens splash down, a fight to the finish ensues. It’s straight out of World War II, when naval battles were conducted by ships lobbing ordnance at each other across miles of ocean.

You will be stuck in your seat like a strapped-down toddler. The visuals are stunning (check out the corners of the frame, and you’ll see amazing attention to detail even there). The weaponry is intriguing (I particularly like the aliens’ rotary weapon that chews through our military hardware like an an angry, escaped flywheel). And then there are the enigmatic aliens themselves, who appear to be the result of breeding experiments between the iconic “grays” and the hapless occupants of a retirement home.

Now there’s a lot you could say about the science in this film, most of which isn’t exactly precise. As an example, how did the invaders get here so fast? After all, the NASA hailing signal was supposedly transmitted in 2006, and this film is set close to now, judging by the fact that some embedded news footage shows Obama as president. Planet G, which is the moniker given to the aliens’ home turf is, I figure, a reference to an exoplanet found last year, Gliese 581g, one of the first worlds discovered in the habitable zone of another star. But Gliese 581g is 20 light-years away. Even if the aliens have faster-than-light rocket ships (for which they’d be up for the Nobel Prize, if extraterrestrials are eligible), there still isn’t enough time for them to get NASA’s ping, fire up their engines, and arrive in the waters south of Hawaii before 2017, which is the latest that Obama could be in office.

Then there’s the nagging question—left unanswered in “Battleship”—of what’s motivating a visit by these water-borne beings. Hollywood usually guesses that extraterrestrials would only be interested in one of three things: (1) They want to breed with us, because their own reproductive machinery is on the blink; (2) They want Earth’s resources; or (3) They want the Earth. All of it.

Two years ago, at a meeting of the British Royal Society, I listened as Canadian astronomer Stephane Dumas went down a carefully prepared list enumerating all the things that might attract extraterrestrials to our planet. These ranged from our precious metals to our precious selves. None of it seemed worth the trip.

Really, there’s nothing we have that’s of much commercial or strategic value. About the only things that are unique to Earth are our biota and our culture. If aliens ever come here, they’d most likely be either biologists or music fans. Neither one has much reason to antagonize our armed forces.

Image: Universal Pictures

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