By Taylor Marvin
[Oblivion spoilers are marked below]
Last weekend I saw Oblivion, a new entry into the venerable Hollywood alien invasion genre. With stunning visuals and occasionally impressive acting, I found the film enjoyable, and despite its plot holes entertaining.
I’ve previously discussed how difficult it is to invent a plausible motive for an alien invasion of Earth. Unfortunately, Oblivion’s script isn’t particularly inventive in this department — the film’s writer is mostly content to recycle old tropes under a gleaming facade of modern CGI and gorgeous cinematography (seriously, Oblivion is beautiful). But since alien invasion stories in general are such an interesting topic of discussion, reflecting on the Oblivion’s plausibility is a fun exercise.
Of course, discussing alien invasions stories is inherently a discussion of aliens themselves, and speculating on any aspect of aliens’ behavior — especially the plausibility of their Hollywood invasions — is inherently dangerous. But as I wrote in a recent discussion of Cowboys and Aliens, aliens broadly similar to us — in economics if not physiology — would face enough universal limitations that informed speculation is possible:
“The only thing we can assume about alien civilizations is that, well, they’re alien. It’s very difficult to make any assumptions about how an alien civilization would be organized, what they would value, and how they would behave. But we are able to identify universal constraints, and extrapolate which of these constraints aliens’ incentives are bound by. No matter how alien, there are certain limitations that we can assume all technological civilizations are bound by…. The galactic scarcity of certain chemical elements is also universal, as is some degree of natural selection within and between species.”
Unfortunately, Oblivion mostly disregards these questions of plausibility. Of course, this doesn’t make it a bad movie per se, or even bad science fiction; the protestations of science fiction fans who use “hard” as a synonym for “good” aside, plausibility is overrated. But it does suggest interesting questions.
First, Oblivion’s opening minutes establish that humanity successfully defeated the invading aliens with nuclear weapons. This is a welcome departure from the frequent nukes-didn’t-work trope, but it is difficult to think of a plausible way that nuclear weapons would be particularly helpful in a contemporary conflict with aliens. While nuclear weapons are often discussed as plausible weapons in space combat (though in the vacuum of space a nuclear device has a much smaller destructive radius than in an atmosphere), in Oblivion’s scenario humans are confined to Earth, and are shown to have used nuclear weapons against alien surface targets. This implies that the aliens landed ground forces, forces vital enough to their war effort that their destruction ensured their defeat.
But why would the aliens land ground forces anyway? It is frequently noted in contemporary strategic studies that airpower cannot take or hold ground, but this limitation would not necessarily apply to the aliens. A civilization capable of routine interstellar flight is also presumably capable of arbitrarily detecting and destroying even hardened ground targets. This means that if humans are unable to threaten alien standoff weapons platforms or otherwise interfere with their bombardment and the aliens have sufficient spacecraft to cover all surface war zones, ground forces are unnecessary.
Anyway, the aliens aren’t seeking to hold ground at all; they are simply trying to kill enough humans to prevent humanity from interfering with the aliens’ plan to steal the Earth’s resources. This genocide can certainly be accomplished from space.