Plants In Space

Mike Brotherton has mentioned more than once on this site how much he hates bad science in science fiction.  Especially science fiction movies.  As a fantasy writer and complete non-scientist, I never thought I’d have much to say on the subject.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love Pixar movies, and I found a lot to love about Wall-E: the people sliding across the floor of the spaceship like a load of landlocked walruses; the captain rising to his feet to the music from 2001; the crazy robots in the repair ward.  I liked the movie a lot more than I didn’t like it.  It’s just that there was one scene that drove me crazy.  And it still drives me crazy, so much so that it almost completely ruined the movie for me.

It’s a short scene.  Wall-e and Eva are zooming around outside the spaceship trying to rescue the plant from earth.  (SPOILER ALERT!)  And they do rescue it.  But then Wall-e takes it out to show Eva while they’re both still outside the ship.

That’s right.  In a movie that’s basically about the ecological consequences of our failure to properly manage our planet, the heroes wave a plant around in space.  And the plant’s none the worse for it.


Maybe I’m just too picky, but I hardly think teaching the current generation of  G-rated moviegoers that plants can survive exposure to interstellar vacuum is going to help matters much as we systematically destroy our planet.

Am I just being a curmudgeon?  Do other folks care about this kind of thing?  Or, most likely, is my science completely off and I should stick to fantasy?

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  1. 1. John

    I take no issue with your assertion that the plant in space is bad science, but I do take issue with your claim that the story is about ecological consequences.

    “In a movie that’s basically about the ecological consequences of our failure to properly manage our planet,”

    The writer and director Andrew Stanton has directly stated in various news sources that this is untrue. (this is obviously a biased newsmagazine, but the quote stands for itself)

    Jeffrey Overstreet’s interview

    And many more can easily be found, aas he claims it in almost every interview he has given.

    Yes, he did use it as a vehicle, but he did not intend to write a story about the environment or obesity, as some claim.

    Obviously, the end result has some message, how can it avoid it? but it was not intended to be such, and authorial intent is just as important as result.

  2. 2. LJCohen

    Normally, I would be right with you–but in the case of Wall-e, I have to give Pixar a pass. It is such a beautiful and powerful story, that I’m willing to stretch my suspension of disbelief even further. Besides, I grew up on road runner cartoons and *still* am waiting for one of those rubber black holes. LOL.

  3. 3. Adam Heine

    I’m awfully picky about science in science fiction (c’mon people, THERE’S NO SOUND IN SPACE!), so I don’t blame you at all for picking on that particular point of the movie. At the same time, I don’t think it’ll hurt the planet much for people to grow up thinking that plants can survive in a vacuum. I mean, how often are humans going to have the chance to apply that specific piece of knowledge?

  4. 4. Samantha Ling

    Well, Wall-E did find that plant inside a dark and dank refridgerator with no sunlight. And who knows how long Eva had it in her belly before she was retrieved. So I sort of thought of that plant as a magic plant anyway.

  5. 5. sylvia_rachel

    Oddly enough, we saw Wall-E last night and I poked DH and muttered about exactly the same thing (right after I asked him whether a fire extinguisher would really do what the fire extinguisher does in that scene in the absence of atmosphere, and he said, “I dunno. Maybe. But a real fire extinguisher wouldn’t last that long”). So, yeah, I was annoyed. But as commenter #3 points out, it was clearly a magic plant anyway.

    The other real howler was the moment when — shortly after we’ve seen the roomful of babies being indoctrinated by a bot (“A is for Axiom, your home sweet home. B is for BuyNLarge, your very best friend”) — Mary and John accidentally touch hands, and there’s this big moment of astonished revelation. At which point DH turned to me and said, “So … exactly how do they reproduce?”

    I liked it, though. I did.

  6. 6. Jim C. Hines

    That scene did bug me when I saw it. Like others, I loved the movie enough to give Pixar a pass, but yeah … they goofed, and it’s annoying.

  7. 7. Kelly McCullough

    That one kicked me right of the story as well. Still a good movie, but yeah, argh.

  8. 8. DanD

    What threw me out of the story was the use of live actors. I love Fred Willard but I could not figure out what he was doing there? Were they trying to accentuate the difference between original humans and the blobby result of 700 years of inactivity?

  9. 9. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    We went to see it last night. I enjoyed it, but I do have to admit that the plant thing on all levels (points to Samantha’s post) did poke me out of the movie a little. But I tried not to let myself think about it too much, since let’s face it, there were a lot of issues with the entirely sedentary lifestyle, the question of how did they take care of bodily functions, and so on. Which is to say, I just had to let go of all disbelief. Wheeeee!

  10. 10. S.C. Butler

    Wow. Have a few comments. I suppose I should start from the top.

    John – Since the Big Babies (at least I got that part of Stanton’s vision right – phew!) came back to restore the planet (where they probably quickly died), I interpreted the book to be about ecological consequences. So have a lot of other folks. If Stanton didn’t intend this, that’s his problem, not ours, just as people interpreting my stories in ways I don’t want them to is my problem, not theirs. Once you let your stories go, interpretations are bound to expand. Like humans in outer space.

    LJ – I love those old Road Runner cartoons too, but I’m uncomfortable giving Pixar a pass on this one because their movie isn’t about absurdist violence. I need some consistency in my cartoon universes, especially in the details. What works for Road Runner doesn’t necessarily work for Wall-E.

    Adam – Yeah, what is it about sound in space in movies (including this one)? Otherwise, this part of my reaction might fall under the curmudgeonly part.

    Samantha – I think your explanation is best. It is a magic plant. And I think the plant in the fridge is what primed me to lose it over the plant in space later.

  11. 11. S.C. Butler

    Jim, Kelly – No question it’s still a good movie. Maybe the three of us are all just curmudgeons.

  12. 12. S.C. Butler

    DanD – I thought the live action was going to bother me too, old-fashioned cartoon purist that I am. (Shall we discuss rotoscoping now?) For some reason it didn’t, though. Maybe your answer’s the right one. Or maybe they were just looking for Fred (and the cast of Hello Dolly) to liven things up a bit.

    Diana – Unlike, Jim, Kelly, and me, you seem to be able to overcome curmudgeonliness much more easily than we do.

  13. 13. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Except today, Sam, I’m a half-bubble off going nuclear. Maybe I should go see the movie again? drug myself insensate with bucket after bucket of hot buttered popcorn? (tracing the root of said meltdown to children and messes. BIG messes today).

  14. 14. Geis

    I didn’t think that the plant was in hard vacuum for very long. Recall that the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” accurately portrayed what happens to a person in a vacuum for a minute or so, (He has to hold his breath and doesn’t have a good time.) I’m sure a plant could weather such an encounter reasonably well. Better than a human would.

  15. 15. S.C. Butler

    Diana – I vote for popcorn, with plenty of butter. Either that or be really vicious to your protag for the next few days.

  16. 16. S.C. Butler

    Geis – I googled for this information before I made the post, but found nothing conclusive either way. I could very easily be wrong.

  17. 17. Joshua Palmatier

    I actually spent a good portion of the first part of the movie WAITING for them to screw up the plant in space thing. I actually heaved a HUGE sigh of relief when they didn’t go for the cockroach in space thing (leaving him behind). The plant in frig thing bothered me as well, except that I realized they never specified that the door to the frig was actually on the frig, only that it was blocking Wall-E’s way to the frig. So maybe it had fallen off and was lodged in place, so he had to cut it, but the frig was actually open to the elements . . .

    But anyway, too much thought on my part for that scene. Then they blew it with the plant (and sound) in space. And we can’t let them off with “only for a little bit of time” either because it was inside Wall-E and I seriously doubt he was vacuum-sealed (cockroach could get into him earlier on).

    I had no problem with the real humans (they were in the ads for the Axiom as well) being there. I also wondered about whether the fire extinguisher would work.

    In the end, the plant was the only issue that threw me out of the movie, but I still enjoyed it immensely.

    And it certainly had things to say about us, the environment, and obesity, no matter what anyone else says.

  18. 18. Joshua Palmatier

    Oh, and few things to say about corporations and commerce as well.

  19. 19. S.C. Butler

    Josh – I knew I wasn’t the only one who thought the movie had things to say about the environement, and all your other points too.

  20. 20. Mike Brotherton

    Well, I didn’t comment earlier because I hadn’t seen the movie, and am not likely to until it hits cable (I’m behind already on higher priority movies and my options in Laramie vanish quickly). Thing is, it usually isn’t hard to write a fix to something like this that wouldn’t bug people.

    Geis, you only last about 10-15 seconds in space and you are somewhat worse for wear. 2001 is close to right, but don’t think it’s okay because it’s survivable. We’ve done the experiment (accidentally) with earth-bound vacuum chambers. One immediate effect is that exposed liquids (e.g., saliva in your mouth, which better be open to let the air out of your expanding lungs) boil. You pass out within 15 seconds. Seems like a cruel thing to do to a poor little plant that does depend on liquids and atmosphere to live.

  21. 21. Mike Brotherton

    Oh, and the real lesson is to avoid stuff like this because it will annoy some fraction of readers/viewers. If it doesn’t bother you, fine, but don’t go trying to tell other people they weren’t. In movies especially, the immediate reaction is everything.


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S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.



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