A version of this post appeared earlier on my Patreon site, but I thought it was worth exploring here.
Let me introduce you to one of my pet peeves about SF movies in general, through that awesomely terrible film, Independence Day, a film that apparently existed for the sole purpose of trying to make Will Smith and Bill Pullman as President Lone Starr into badasses, if you kinda squint. Hard.
What was the funniest moment in Independence Day? Was it Will Smith’s “Welcome to Earth,” line? Brent Spiner’s performance as the clueless Area 51 boss? No, I suggest that it was the parts where humanity attempts to fight 15-mile diameter floating city-battleships with air-to-air missiles. It’s kind of a credit to the movie that when the shields go down and the missiles hit the targets that the response from the audience is a cheer rather than, “Wow, the humans scratched the paint.” Which is pretty much the result of the attack. My first warning that this movie was going to be really, really bad was that the United States Air Force was actually sending fighters armed with air-to-air missiles up against these floating cities rather than, say, B-52s ready to carpet-bomb the damned things for a START.
In all seriousness, just from the outset, it should have been clear that even without shields, for fighting these aliens, nuclear weapons should have been the first and only option. The shields were only there so that humanity could use their most powerful weapons too late and discover that they were useless. And of course, once ONE nuclear weapon is proven useless, no one says “Well what if we tried two? Or ten? Because hopefully there does exist an upper threshold for damage that these shields can absorb?”
And of course the reason for that is shown later in the film: because the writer believes that nuclear weapons are infinitely powerful. Just one of them (used on an unshielded target) can destroy an alien spacecraft that is a quarter of the size of the moon.
Which brings me to my point: There are pretty much only two reasons nuclear weapons ever exist in science-fiction:
1) to highlight the awesome technology and power of the aliens in making them useless, (see also George Pal’s War Of The Worlds,) or
2) to provide humanity with a devastating knockout punch at the last second (see Pacific Rim, The Avengers, etc.). Nothing is ever damaged by nuclear weapons: there is only destroyed, or untouched.
Of course, this is ridiculous. Both the United States and the Soviet Union went to rather great lengths in the Cold War to devise shelters that would ensure that their assets could survive near-misses (and in the case of Cheyenne Mountain, direct hits) by nuclear weapons. The best defense against them is also the simplest: dig a deep hole.In addition to this, there are reasons besides political dick-waving that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and others invested so much time into building various sizes of nuclear weapons: they really aren’t doomsday devices. But they have been portrayed as doomsday devices for so long that many of my students in U.S. History are shocked and appalled to discover that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki are, today, thriving major world cities, and not smoking wounds in the Earth that glow in the dark. Nuclear weapons have been made to be larger, so as to threaten large cities with full-scale destruction, and smaller, to target massed enemy formations without necessitating the destruction of nearby cities.
Now I hope it’s clear that I’m not saying that nuclear warfare is no big deal: obviously, no sane person wants a nuclear war. On the other hand, does any sane person really want any war at all?
I suspect that there is a sort of reluctance to address these facts, lest people adopt a more casual attitude toward nuclear war, as if saying the truth aloud would somehow encourage people to use the weapons, but given our history, I sincerely doubt that fiction is going to be the tipping point, here, so in the name of halfway decent filmmaking, I suggest we all grow up.