Help decide the World's Greatest Engineering Movie

What is the best engineering movie ever made? Help us find out, or at least point the way. We will be having a Movie Madness “playoff” elections in which 32 movies compete head-to-head in a several  brackets until there’s only one left.

We will need some help, however, to fill up those 32 slots. So please nominate a movie or two by emailing me ( Put Movie in the subject line, or leave a nomination at the end of this blog entry). Please include two or three lines as to why this movie deserves the engineering accolades.

Within a few weeks, we’ll start having “elections” pitting one movie against another, letting you and other engineering enthusiasts winnow down the field until only one remains, the World’s Greatest Engineering Movie.

Note: Please don’t confuse sci-fi movies with engineering movies. Not all sci-fi involves engineering. In general, a good engineering movie includes engineers as major characters, or talks intelligently about engineering issues or the profession. But these are just rough guidelines. Now send in those nominations.  

And watch this space for further details.

Discuss this Blog Entry 79

Nick O'Donohoe (not verified)
on Mar 5, 2014

Apollo 13, hands down

on Mar 5, 2014


Why is Apollo 13 such a great engineering movie. (Just looking for solid reasons/opinions)

vikki (not verified)
on Mar 20, 2014

Apollo13 - because they had to use what was on hand to find an elegant way to save the ship

Bridge over the River Kwai - the prisoners built an awesome bridge under duress and then had to blow it up. So you have great engineering and explosions in the same movie!

Jon Stanis (not verified)
on Mar 6, 2014

I agree with Nick. Apollo 13.

As for reasons, Apollo 13 is great because it shows not only the things engineering has been able to achieve, but also makes the entire problem solving process extremely exciting. When was the last time you can remember being excited about making a round peg fit in a square hole?

on Mar 20, 2014

Excellent analysis of Apollo 13--one of the most exciting and compelling parts of that movie was when they walked in the room with the big pile of garbage on the table, and were challenged to fit the square peg into the round hole with just that pile of garbage for raw material. It was beautiful, a work for art!

Joe Brouwer (not verified)
on Mar 6, 2014

Flight of the Phoenix!!

Anonymous2 (not verified)
on Mar 12, 2014

You beat me to it. Easily the best (the original, not the remake). Here's why: They used model airplane principles on a large scale; they had limited resources and great pressure; they saved their lives. Awesome choice.

TeamFCAR (not verified)
on Mar 7, 2014

I agree with Apollo 13 but "The World's Fastest Indian" should at least be on the list.

on Mar 7, 2014

Do you have any reasons for nominating The World's Fastest Indian?

vipan (not verified)
on Mar 10, 2014

You would surely like '3 Idiots'

on Mar 10, 2014

Andromeda Strain... Maybe more scientific than Engineering oriented. I saw the movie when I was a child and I vividly remembered Scanning Electron Microscope they used in the film. When I was enrolled as a Materials Engineer, I was excited about taking a course in SEM partly due to the movie.

Brad (not verified)
on Mar 11, 2014

I'm not a big movie buff, but I did catch a TV interview of the producer of Titanic and it seemed like some complex engineering was present behind the scenes.

on Mar 11, 2014

Thanks, but we're looking for movies that appeal to engineers, so they should probably have engineers as major characters, concern events and situations engineer are familiar with, and/or deal somewhat seriously with engineering principals.

Dreschel (not verified)
on Mar 11, 2014

IRONMAN (The first one...)

PsyMon (not verified)
on Mar 11, 2014

"Primer" will make your neurons twitch

Kurt Heitmann (not verified)
on Mar 11, 2014

2001 ; Astronaut (and surely engineer) Bowman was cool, clever and a phantastically fearless explorer of the unknown

on Mar 11, 2014

The Aviator The astonishing life of Mr Howard Hughes, envy of every engineer, genius and adventure

on Mar 11, 2014

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Captains Nemo achievements in technology were outstanding

TayL (not verified)
on Mar 12, 2014

Wasn't there a John Wayne movie about "The Fighting SeaBees"?

Chitransh Raj (not verified)
on Mar 12, 2014

Iron Man(any part)...awesome engineering. And don't tell that it is unrealistic. Real engineering lies in making unrealistic idea real!

George H. Morgan, Patent Agent (not verified)
on Mar 12, 2014

Tucker, The Man and His Car (I think that was the title) was the story of the creator of the Tucker automobile, which was quite innovative at the time. Most of his innovations were later incorporated by the Big Three automakers. It starts back in the WWII area, when Mr. Tucker was a supplier of an innovative plexiglass molded window for bomber gunners, as I recall, when he came up with an innovative light military vehicle while dreaming about his automobile. He built some 20 or 30 of them, but was not able to overcome the obstacles in his way.. A great story about a great engineer.

George H. Morgan, Patent Agent (not verified)
on Mar 12, 2014

Yes there was the John Wayne movie about the "The Fighting SeaBees". I believe it was around 1944. I had an uncle in the Seabees so found it most interesting. The navy had civilian contruction employees brought in to build an aircraft landing strip on an island in the Pacific. Japanese troops were still on the island. Japanese snipers were picking off the construction men. So, in a fit of anger, the construction employees grabbed their guns and attacked the Japanese. It was a disaster for the construction men. John Wayne's Marines had to move in and save the day. The Navy decided that they should organize the men into a Navy unit and give them combat training so they could protect themselves in the future.

Marty3 (not verified)
on Mar 12, 2014

movie "Flash of Genius" or movie "Tucker"

Harold (not verified)
on Mar 12, 2014

The Dam Busters (1955) - exciting true story about engineers in WWII. Realistic portrayal of how engineers solve problems.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) - a great portrayal of an engineer finding a creative solution to a difficult problem. Also shows the difficulties some engineers have with social interactions.

on Mar 13, 2014

LIKE "Flight of the Phoenix" suggestion

Bl1vvit (not verified)
on Mar 20, 2014

Agreed. I was considering suggesting both Flight of the Phoenix (original) and The Dam Busters.

Mr. Invisible (not verified)
on Mar 12, 2014

My vote depends. Films like Apollo 13 certainly rate highly, for applauding the ingenuity, intelligence and value of engineers, and make us all smile at ourselves. But my motivation for selecting a favorite "engineering" film is based more on the value of inspiring in young minds, a desire to do such magic, than on any desire to hold up an example of engineering excellence.

So even though they don't serve as examples of actual engineering accomplishments (or even realistic engineering possibilities), I'd vote for movies like "The Absent-Minded Professor" (1961 - Fred MacMurray), Swiss Family Robinson, or Ironman (the original versions, all). Those were the kinds of influences that attracted me to the art and science of design engineering. Movies in general were just entertainment. These made me realize that what I really cared about doing as my life's work was dreaming up amazing ideas, and making them become realities.

We have plenty of textbook-like messages floating around for the benefit of those who've already entered onto the path. What we should hold up as examples of "Best" and "Greatest" are inspirational guiding lights.

Tim Loose (not verified)
on Mar 12, 2014

"A Grand Day Out", the Wallace & Grommit movie by Nick Park. Who can resist building a rocket ship to go to the moon for a spot of cheese?

Craig Franklin (not verified)
on Mar 12, 2014

October Sky. Real engineering by real high school students. They literally become rocket scientists!

on Mar 26, 2014

Agreed on October as the best. Hands down it shows the effort required to accomplish a real engineering task.

Chris Burke (not verified)
on Mar 12, 2014
Kevin (not verified)
on Mar 13, 2014

"Primer" (2004)

In my opinion, it is by far the most realistic depiction of engineers working together to solve a problem. What they accomplish still makes the hairs on the back of my neck tingle.

Matt (not verified)
on Mar 13, 2014

IronMan. With the design and technology explained behind making the Ironman Suit - make it a great candidate.

on Mar 13, 2014

The Bridge on the River Kwai....structural engineering in a prisoner of war stress setting. Engineer rising above all and accomplishing it with surrounding materials and ingenuity. In addition [from wikipedia]: The film achieved near-universal critical acclaim, winning seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture) at the 30th Academy Awards, and in 1997 this film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected for preservation in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time.

Pete Marino (not verified)
on Mar 13, 2014

Absolutely. One of my favs and the 1st movie that came to mind.

KR (not verified)
on Mar 13, 2014

Just saw October Sky. It really inspires a young person to do engineering by developing a rocket. And it's a true story!

kento53140 (not verified)
on Mar 13, 2014

Paycheck with Ben Affleck. Uses logic to stay alive for the entire movie.

Tinkerg (not verified)
on Mar 13, 2014

Fat Man and Little Boy - 1989 film that reenacts the Manhattan Project
Pretty good film with the physics and engineering (and of coarse hollywood drama)
Tucker is a definate pick - politics / big business against the american dream / good engineering - always wondered if the fraud was planted?

on Mar 13, 2014

Fate is the Hunter. This movie about an airline disaster and the crash investigation is the best examination of the chain of failure and the potentially awful consequences of apparently small design details that I have ever seen.

on Mar 13, 2014

My vote is for Apollo 13 but I also like October Sky, Dam Busters and Bridge on the River Kwai. What is surprising is how few real engineering oriented movies there are. Films like Iron Man are fun, have engineers in them but they are doing things that are impossible. It leads to people saying things about films such as Apollo 13 like "That could never happen." In that case and most of the other movies they in this list they did or very close given the fact that the movies are usually not documentaries.

on Mar 13, 2014

Serious crowd here - - OK, to add a little levity, how about "Ferris Buehler's Day Off" - it's still a classic.

Stephen Miller (not verified)
on Mar 13, 2014

I too like The Bridge on the River Kwai and ranks in my top five favorites...

My favorite is The Great Escape which is all about engineering with multiple disciplines working on the same project.

The Iron Man movies also capture the design and benefit of creating things but not at a detailed level. There are many everyday items he uses that I would like to have: Jarvis comes to mind...

The 1965 version of the Flight of the Phoenix is also in my top favorites. It shows some of the issues that have to be considered during design and then resolves issues during implementation.

To me, any movie that shows the design, construction, and use of the product represents engineering; otherwise, it just window dressing. The Star Gate and Star Trek compendium always have engineering as an aspect of the show but it's not an engineering genre. Between Amanda Tapping as Samantha Carter and James Doohan as Montgomery 'Scotty' Scott, I think engineering is well represented.

The Mission: Impossible series had one of the most notable engineers, Greg Morris playing Barney Collier, ever but wasn't successfully brought to the big screen (all of the movies are some of the best James Bond movies).

The James Bond movies should also rank here someplace. Without Q, James Bond is quite reduced.

All of the other movies listed are very good films with different smatterings of engineering. I couldn't really complain which one wins, but it does beg the question "why is this one better than that one".

If you wrote a specification, it would be much easier to rank and chose the best... Just saying...

on Mar 13, 2014

I realize I didn't include WHY - from an Engineering perspective - Ferris Buehler's Day Off should be considered tops. Honestly, at first I didn't read that it needed to have some Engineering aspect to it. So here goes:

1) Ferris (aka Matthew Broderick) frequently breaks the "Fourth Wall" - Speaking directly to or otherwise acknowledging the audience through a camera in a film or television program, or through this imaginary wall in a play, is referred to as "breaking the fourth wall".

2) John Hughes wrote this in less than a week and shot it on a low budget of $5.8 mil - time to market with efficient use of $$ - what every engineering team hopes for (!)

3) Doorbell/Intercom rigged to be a voice recording that Rooney hears as he comes to Ferris' home

4) and of course, the Ferrari and all of its engineering technology

Probably doesn't beat any of the suggestions already made - but might give you a good laugh. Cheers!

Nate (not verified)
on Mar 18, 2014

If FBDO is a serious pick, Fantastic Voyage wins easily; it had Raquel Welch.

GTPower (not verified)
on Mar 13, 2014

As suggested already by Craig Franklin, "October Sky" is a very good movie. I agree for the same reasons stated above.

I'll nominate another movie: "No Highway in the Sky" with Jimmy Stewart as a member of the Royal Aircraft Establishment sent to investigate the crash of a newly popular airplane design. He's convinced the failure was due to fatigue of the aluminum frame and sets out to prove his theory by fatigue testing the airframe. But, his testing fails to produce a failure and his math and engineering skills are questioned. Officials want to clear the airplane design for use and override the conclusions from his investigation. To make a long story short, he's nearly declared insane because of his actions to ground the plane because he's certain there's a design flaw and the the plane is dangerous. Alas, the plane passes inspection and is allowed to fly again. He finally figures out that he's failed to include temperature as a factor in his calculations, so he recalculates and adjusts the test and succeeds in producing a failure. But he doesn't find this out until about the same time that another plane crashes with passengers onboard - when the fuselage cracks during landing, just like his testing predicted.
Warning! Contains engineering and materials science related themes, not recommended for "date night"!

on Mar 20, 2014

No Highway in the Sky is an excellent choice--the struggles of a fatigue engineer who is doing engineering nobody else quite seems to understand. The movie was based on the 1948 "No Highway" by Nevil Shute. Nevil Shute here was practically Nostradamus--no not the noted soothsayer whose quatrains were written so vaguely you could attribute almost any atrocity to them--this guy was a real life soothsayer, though I doubt that was his intention. Six years after the book was released, de Havilland Comets started falling out of the sky--what was the cause? Cracking caused by fatigue. A whole branch of engineering science came out of those failures--fracture mechanics.

Jim (not verified)
on Mar 13, 2014

The Birdmen (1971 TV Movie) about prisoners of war held in Colditz Castle who made a glider that allowed 2 guys to escape. Based on a true story, although the real plane never actually had a chance to fly.

on Mar 13, 2014

Weird Science & Real Genius - the ones that launched many nerds on the way towards an engineering career.

Murray Ostberg (not verified)
on Mar 13, 2014


ProEngineer (not verified)
on Mar 14, 2014

The picture of the magazine on the lead for this story showed the film "Destination Moon", which I saw in the movies as a kid (late 1940's or early 50's). At the time, traveling to the moon was incomprehensible. My dad remembered, as a kid himself (1910's), his teacher telling his class that travel to the moon was impossible because you could not take enough coal with you to propell a spaceship. But destination moon, made after WW2, now had rocket science. But it did not have other items - like spacesuits. So, (probably) consulting engineers designed them for the movie. And, look at the close comparison to the spacesuits worn by our astronauts in the 1960's.

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A questioning, sometimes humorous look at technologies, engineering, and the world.


Stephen Mraz

Steve serves as Senior Editor of Machine Design.  He has 23 years of service and has a B.S. Biomedical Engineering from CWRU. Steve was a E-2C Hawkeye Naval Flight Officer in the U.S. Navy. He...
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