Would Aliens Really Kill Us, 'Independence Day'-Style?

alien spaceship
A hostile alien race returns to Earth in the new movie "Independence Day: Resurgence." (Image credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox. TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

In the new movie "Independence Day: Resurgence," opening in theaters today (June 24), Earth will once again gear up for an epic fight with a hostile alien race. The premise will set up some awesome action sequences, but how realistic is the idea that if aliens were to visit Earth, their one goal would be to destroy us? What do the experts think?

Twenty years ago, the new movie's predecessor, "Independence Day," featured Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum cracking wise while using a computer virus (presumably written in an Earth-based computer language) to disable an alien ship and save humanity. In the new movie's timeline, Earth's nations have since created a huge, planetary-wide defense program to shield our planet, but it may not be enough to defend humanity when the aliens return. 

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has said repeatedly that he's afraid of aliens wiping out the human race the way a human would wipe out a colony of ants. ['Independence Day: Resurgence' Trailer]

In 2015, Hawking co-launched an initiative called Breakthrough Listen, which will search for alien communication signals out in the cosmos, and eventually broadcast signals from the human race, with the goal of enabling communication across the universe.

"We don't know much about aliens, but we know about humans," Hawking said at the Breakthrough announcement. "If you look at history, contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view, and encounters between civilizations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced. A civilization reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead of us. If so, they will be vastly more powerful, and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria."

Are the aliens benign?

Alien invasions of Earth are nothing new in sci-fi. One of the most famous examples is "War of the Worlds," an H.G. Wells 19th-century classic that was adapted into a Tom Cruise movie in 2005. In that film, aliens inexplicably begin bursting from underneath city pavement to incinerate humans.  

But some films portray aliens as benign, such as 1997's "Contact," based on a 1980s book written by Carl Sagan. A signal begins spouting prime numbers, which Jodie Foster's SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) team tries to decode. Their efforts at talking with the aliens turn a little strange, but there definitely is no invasion. 

This hopeful view is something that science communicator Ann Druyan, Sagan's widow, shared at the Breakthrough event in 2015. (It's also the belief held by astronomer Jill Tarter, former director of the Center for SETI Research, whom Foster's character in "Contact" was based on.) Druyan is also involved in the Breakthrough initiative.

"We may get to a period in our future where we outgrow our evolutionary baggage and evolve to become less violent and shortsighted," Druyan said. "My hope is that extraterrestrial civilizations are not only more technologically proficient than we are but more aware of the rarity and preciousness of life in the cosmos."

Active SETI debate

Three spacecraft currently heading out of the solar system — the Pioneer probe and the two Voyager probes — contain maps that point the way back to Earth. And there continue to be initiatives to put messages for aliens on spacecraft. When the NASA New Horizons probe finishes its Pluto and possible Kuiper Belt work, some people are hoping to create a crowdsourced message for aliens to upload to its hard drive.

Some researchers, however, aren't sure it's such a good idea to shift SETI efforts from just listening to actually sending out signals — a method some call "active SETI."

"Active SETI advocates broke with the conventional wisdom of the SETI pioneers, which was to listen but not transmit. This change may have been driven by the impatience of younger SETI people after 40 years of unsuccessful searches," Michael Michaud, author of the book "Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears About Encountering Extraterrestrials" (2007, Copernicus), said in a 2014 interview with Space.com

"But active SETI is not science," added Michaud, a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Department of State. "It is an attempt to provoke a response from an alien society whose capabilities and intentions are not known to us." 

But Earth's sheer distance from other civilizations might serve as a shield against aliens that don't exactly want us around. 

Douglas Vakoch, director of interstellar-message composition at the SETI Institute, said in 2010, "Even if they tend to be hateful, awful folks, can they do us any harm at interstellar distances?" 

Follow Elizabeth Howell @howellspace, or Space.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace