Top engineering films to watch during lock-down (The Final List)

Xi Engineering

We hope everyone is staying safe and that the coronavirus pandemic ends soon. For those climbing the walls in lockdown, after lots of online debate between the team, we have put together a list of our top engineering films divided into engineering specific themes.

Some on the list are all-time favourites, some recent watchlists, and some completely off the wall choices! We hope you find as much comfort and entertainment in our top engineering films as we have during the lockdown.

Best-Engineering-films-Xi-Engineering

Theme 1: Engineering and (maybe) the end of the world.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Best Engineering films - Dr. Strangelove (1964)

The Film: Stanley Kubrick’s blackest of black comedies about man’s hubris and nuclear Armageddon featuring Peter Sellers in multiple roles. 5/5

Engineering highlights: The creation of a doomsday device and Dr Strangelove’s plan to accommodate the US leadership in deep mineshafts for 100 years. 2/5

Total: 7/10

Engineering explored: Electrical engineering, cryptography, military engineering.

The China Syndrome (1979)

Best Engineering films -The China Syndrome (1979)

The Film: What goes wrong when you cut corners at a nuclear power plant. The film was released just 12 days before nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. 3.5/5

Engineering highlights: Radiographs used to inspect the welds on key pumping components. 4/5

Total: 7.5/10

Engineering explored: Vibration, fatigue analysis, condition

Blade Runner (1982)

Best Engineering films - Blade Runner (1982)

The Film: Set in dystopian 2019 Los Angeles Rick Deckard played by Harrison Ford hunts bioengineered humanoids known as replicants. Visually and musically stunning. Strongly recommend watching Ridley Scott’s director’s cut. 4.5/5

Engineering highlights: The Voight-Kampff machine, the synthetic eye lab, and J.F. Sebastion’s toy room. 2/5

Total: 6.5/10

Engineering explored: Bioengineering, automatons.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Best Engineering films - Jurassic Park (1993)

The Film: Scientists and engineers build a theme park populated by genetically re-engineered dinosaurs. What could go wrong? 3.5/5

Engineering highlights: Rayleigh wave propagation from a tyrannosaurus foot strike excites floor resonance and causes waves in a glass of water. And splicing frog and dinosaur DNA I guess if you’re into that sort of thing. 3/5

Total: 6.5/10

Engineering explored: Bioengineering, seismic engineering, structural dynamics.

Ex-Machina (2015)

Best Engineering Films - Ex-Machina (2015)

The Film: Reclusive billionaire tech CEO builds an AI. What could go wrong?
A well-written and acted three-hander which will have you shifting your sympathies throughout. Bonus half a point for Oscar Isaac’s little dance. 4/5

Engineering highlights: A long meditation on Turing tests. Also, some very nice looking hydraulic actuators. 4/5

Total: 8/10

Engineering explored: AI, robotics, urban design.

Theme 2: Engineering to save the world.

Last week we looked at the five best engineering films where technological “advances” paved the way to Armageddon. But, let’s be honest, those were mostly scientists responsible for the headlong rush to a post-apocalyptic hell-scape.  When it comes to saving the world its time for the engineers to step up.  Here are the five best films where engineers save humanity.

Silent Running (1972)

The Film: After all life on Earth becomes extinct, a series of geodesic domes on spaceships maintain the last specimens of plant life. 3/5

Engineering highlights: It’s three robots Huey, Dewey and Louie were inspirations for R2D2. One point off for parking the greenhouse around Saturn a long way from the sun. 3/5

Total: 6/10

Engineering explored: Structural engineering, robotics, agricultural engineering.

Contact (1997)

The Film: Jodie Foster plays SETI scientist who believes she may have made the first contact with an alien species.  Based on a book of the same name by Carl Sagan, the film explores the juxtaposition of science and religion in the face of something we can’t understand.  Would make a great double feature with Arrival (2016).   3.5/5

Engineering highlights: Lots of radio-telescopes, data processing and decryption of blueprints. 3/5

Total: 6.5/10

Engineering explored: Mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, signal processing.

Wall-E (2008)

The Film: WALL-E is a trash compacting robot cleaning up the Earth after it has been abandoned due to environmental neglect. WALL-E meets EVE, a robot searching for the signs of new life on Earth. The opening 40 minutes alone of this Pixar film could count among the greatest silent film ever made. 4/5

Engineering highlights: Lovely robot design and an exploration of how technology impacts humankind for good and evil. 2/5

Total: 6/10

Engineering explored: Robotics, aerospace, consumer product design.

Pacific Rim (2013)

The Film: The world is terrorized by Kaiju, monsters that spring out of the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.  To defend coastal cities, humanity builds massive robots that are piloted by two psychically linked people. Guillermo del Toro’s love letter to Japanese Kaiju films. 3/5

Engineering highlights: Fabrication of the enormous Jaeger robots. 2.5/5

Total: 5.5/10

Engineering explored: Mechanical engineering, robotics.

Interstellar (2014)

The Film: Matthew McConaughey travels through a wormhole to find a new home for humanity. Christopher Nolan’s film is full of ideas (maybe too full) and includes a gorgeous combination of physical and CGI effects. 4/5

Engineering highlights: The spacecraft and robot designs are on point.  Kip Thorne was a consultant and the computer generation of the graphics for the blackhole lead to some new understandings about gravitation lensing. 3.5/5

Total: 7.5/10

Engineering explored: Aerospace, robotics, agricultural engineering.

Theme 3: Engineering to escape confined places.

So, you’re stuck at home and looking for an escape.  What could be better than a film where an escape is literally engineered.  Escape films have many tropes that lend themselves readily to engineering – there’s always a lack of resources that require intricate planning and innovation. And occasionally someone gets shivved.  Here are the five films we think best represent engineering as a means of escape.

The Great Escape (1963)

The Film: All-star epic about the escape from a German POW camp in World War 2.  Based on real events where British and Commonwealth POWs stage a mass escape from Stalag Luft 3 – the film takes some liberties by adding some Americans, including Steve McQueen. McQueen’s character passes time in the cooler bouncing a baseball off the wall, endearing in the movie, annoying if it’s your neighbour’s teenage son during lockdown. 4/5

Engineering highlights: The tunnels Tom, Dick and Harry with their reinforcement improvised from bed slats and the pocket tubes for spreading tunnelled soil in the yard.  3.5/5

Total: 7.5/10

Engineering explored: Mine engineering, innovation, critical chain project management.

Escape from Alcatraz (1979)

The Film: Clint Eastwood plays a prisoner and jail-escapologist who is sent to the unescapable Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. Also based on real events. 3/5

Engineering highlights: The raft constructed out of raincoats and the paper-mache dolls that acted as decoys.  3/5

Total: 6/10

Engineering explored: Marine engineering, tooling design.

Chicken Run (2000)

The Film: Stop motion film from Aardman Studios depicting a break-out from a chicken farm run by one of cinema’s greatest villains Mrs Tweedy (I got chills just typing her name). A straight homage to The Great Escape. 3.5/5

Engineering highlights: The pedal-powered wooden aeroplane used in the escape attempt.  Mrs Tweedy’s (chills again) pie machine.  3/5

Total: 6.5/10

Engineering explored: Aerospace, industrial food engineering.

The Prestige (2006)

The Film: Two magicians in Victorian London team-up, fall out, become great rivals and battle for illusionist supremacy. A great cast and Christophe Nolan at his best. 4.5/5

Engineering highlights: David Bowie is Nikola Tesla – that’s all you need to know. There are also a lot of Michael Caine engineering illusionist tricks.  But, come on – Bowie Tesla.  4/5

Total: 8.5/10

Engineering explored: Electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, topology (in the knot tying sense).

Snowpiercer (2013)

The Film: For some reason in a post-apocalyptic frozen world the remnants of humanity are all on a train that constantly circumnavigates the globe.  Chris Evans plays a prole who wants to escape the underclass at the back of the train and over-throw the ruling class at the front. 4/5

Engineering highlights: The train mechanisms look pretty cool.  But requiring little kids with their small fingers to change parts is a shockingly poor piece of industrial design.  2/5

Total: 6/10

Engineering explored: Transportation engineering, industrial food engineering (not in a good way).

Theme 4: Engineering in Space.

In our final chapter, we’re looking at engineering to get into space. There are many engineering trope space mission films we would have liked to explore including; “somethings gone wrong, get some engineers on this”; “blackboards with parabolas and equation”; “engineers in short sleeve shirts and ties”; and “electrical engineering fail causes fire”.

In this list, NASA and the Apollo missions feature heavily, which may not be too surprising given the importance of engineering to those missions and Hollywood’s interest in American stories. Please let us know if you can recommend any great films about Sergei Korolev, Yari Gagarin or Valentina Tereshkova, we’d love to hear about them.

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

The Film: George Melies basically invented narrative cinema and special effects in this seminal classic about a group of scientists travelling to the moon and doing some lite colonialization. The film was ground-breaking in another way – Thomas Edison used it to invent film piracy when a print toured the USA. 5/5

Engineering highlights: The engineers wear wizards’ hats and when they argue they throw their blueprints at each other – so just like the Xi Engineering office. The launch acceleration/jerk looks pretty eye-watering.   2/5

Total: 7/10

Engineering explored: Aerospace, munitions.

Apollo 13 (1995)

The Film: The true story of the Apollo 13 mission to the Luna surface that was aborted due to an explosion en-route – “Houston, we have a problem”. 3.5/5

Engineering highlights: The scrapheap challenge scene where a bunch of engineers (wearing ties with short sleeve shirts) fit a square scrubber into a round filter is the greatest engineering scene in cinema history.  5/5

Total: 8.5/10

Engineering explored: Aerospace, failure mode and effect analysis (FMEA), mechanical engineering (using duct tape of course), electrical engineering (failure).

The Martian (2015)

The Film: Matt Damon gets left behind on Mars when his crew have to conduct an emergency evacuation as a massive dust storm hits. 4/5

Engineering highlights: This film is all engineering all the time; improvising a potato patch from bio-waste and turning jet fuel to water; improvising a rotating camera to send and receive messages in hexadecimal; JPL being set, and meeting, impossible delivery deadlines with mixed results; Donald Glover doing some astrodynamics. 5/5

Total: 9/10

Engineering explored: Aerospace, critical path analysis, bio-engineering, astrodynamics, robotics.

Hidden Figures (2016)

The Film: The stories of Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan are used to illustrate the crucial role African-American women played in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions; all while working in segregated Virginia.  3.5/5

Engineering highlights: Some strong blackboard action to calculate the trajectories for the Mercury missions.  Fortran programming of an IBM mainframe. Heat shield design. 4/5

Total: 7.5/10

Engineering explored: Aerospace, astrodynamics, coding, thermo-structural design.

First Man (2018)

The Film: Neil Armstrong’s journey from test pilot to walking on the moon. The visual and sound design of the film helps put you in capsule right next to Armstrong and will have you wondering how this flimsy thing managed to get to space and bring everyone back alive.  4.5/5

Engineering highlights: Lots of cool aircraft including the X-15 spaceplane, the effect of centrifugal force on the human body and the disconcerting use of a swiss army knife.  3.5/5

Total: 8/10

Engineering explored: Aerospace, propulsion system design, electrical engineering (failure again).

The Verdict:

Based on our rigorous method of determining the best engineering movies, we can now definitively say that Xi’s three great engineering films of all time are:

1 – The Martian – 9/10 – Matt Damon writes ASCII in SPACE
2 – The Prestige – 8.5/10 – David ‘Tesla’ Bowie
3 – Ex Machina – 8/10 – Excellent hydraulic actuators

A very special thank you to all who send us your recommendations! These are our top picks:
  • The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) – simply for engineering’s greatest ever movie quote –  “I’m an engineer, I go where the bridges are.”
  • Moon (2009)
  • Mute (2018)
  • Cube (1997)
  • The Man in the White Suit (1951)
  • Dam Busters (1955)
  • The Aviator (2004)
  • The Social Network (2010)
  • Le Man 66 / Ford vs Ferrari (2019)

Engineering Time

  • The Time Machine (1960)
  • La Jetee (1962)
  • Back to the Future (1985)
  • Primer (2004)
  • Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)