Battleship (Peter Berg, 2012)

Please get a physics teacher involved next time

Battleship has a Flying Snowman right at the beginning. The Flying Snowman is a concept pioneered by author John Scalzi that symbolizes the breaking point of a fictional universe. When his wife once read a bedtime tale to their young daughter about a snowman coming to life, the fact that it could fly took her out of the story. Scalzi was surprised: surely it was equally curious when the snowman ate hot soup earlier?

Every person has their own point at which the fiction breaks. For Battleship and me, that moment came right at the beginning when it traipsed around any notion of real, actual physics. Here’s the basic premise: in 2007 scientists send a radio wave into space to the faraway Gliese system. Uh-oh! It’s now 2012 and the aliens have arrived to wrest our world from us.

Listen. It’s very simple. When you don’t understand simple science, don’t make a science fiction film. I emphatically do not care that you’re making a dumb summer blockbuster: when you don’t know the first thing about radio waves, distances and interplanetary travel, back away. You’re going to insult us and make yourself look like a moron. How much so? This much:

One. Visual nonsense. Radio waves are invisible. Look around you: see anything titillating about in the ether? Nope. But of course, that’s not very cinematic, so when the signals get blasted off into outer space via a special satellite, it looks like a pulsating, yellow beam of bullshit.

Two. Fast and loose with physics. Radio waves are electromagnetic radiation, that travels at the speed of light. The Gliese system is 20 light years removed from Earth. That’s right, it would take exactly 20 years for the signal to arrive. If the special satellite had somehow produced the miracle of breaking Einstein’s law that nothing can go faster than the speed of light, it’s at the very least a gross oversight not to mention this in the film. You’d think the scientists would be somehow a little more excited that they had managed to upset the laws of the universe in the profoundest way possible.

Three. Distances. The radio waves are just part one of the impossibility of the time frame of five years. It would have taken the signal at least 20 years to reach Gliese, but for the aliens to travel all the way back to Earth – even with faster than light travel or some warp drive shenanigan – would have taken them considerably longer than in the movie. Moreso because…

Four. Alien culture. This is something 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens got massively wrong too. Why do moviemakers think it’s enough just to design some evil looking space ships helmed by reptilian extraterrestrials? If you bring in an alien race, that brings with it the implication of an alien culture. As a rule, a species that is advanced enough to create complex technologies capable of interstellar travel and warfare will be supported by a culture of specialists, and will be highly communicative and hierarchical. If that’s confusing, read up on Jared Diamond. Showing aliens as raging monsters makes no sense whatsoever.

In Battleship, the aliens send an invasion force to Earth straightaway. Why not an expedition force? Why not communicate first? (Some critics have argued it actually is a diplomatic envoy, which is a fun notion, but I consider it unlikely.) Since they are clearly technologically ahead of us, the element of surprise is irrelevant. Imagine instead how any advanced civilization would react to a signal from outer space, even if they were of the most aggressive persuasion. They would carefully deliberate their options, take significant time deciphering the message and learning the language. Should they opt to exterminate they’d first scout out the planet, learn everything they could, train personnel for the mission, build specialized tools. It would take years. On Earth, the aliens do show some signs of intelligence, but not to the point of leveraging their awesome firepower to win. Which they would have, every time, had this been for real.

The Flying Snowman breaks not because fantastical elements are introduced, but because the world gets its own rules wrong. Science fiction piggybacks on existing technologies and premises. Doing that creates the necessity of getting it right. Neglect that necessity too cavalierly and you shatter the world you tried to build.

Roderick Leeuwenhart


  1. I don't think the scientific inaccuracies are what make this movie bad. Many movies have them and are still great. The thing about this one is just that it's all action, shallow and predictable, and therefore doesn't stick around in your memory much.

  2. Where the hell is Ninja Assassin!

    1. Not for some time, unfortunately. There's quite a hefty queue to resolve first :)

    2. Son, I am disappoint