You Ought to Be in Pictures

DCI's Top 10 movie picks spotlighting engineering concepts

We asked our staff which movies they thought are most notable for featuring engineering concepts that either saved the movie's main character(s), was praised or successful in the film, or key to the movie's storyline. Some of the films involve mechanical and aeronautical engineering, some actually featured structural engineering. If you haven't seen these, be sure to check them out on Netflix or your favorite movie channel. Maybe there are movies you would add to the list.

1. The Bridge on the River Kwai: The brilliant Academy Award-winning classic follows the plight of POWs at a Japanese prison camp in Burma during World War II. Under the command of Colonel Saiyito, British soldiers are ordered to build a railway bridge within three months. After many failed project attempts and increased pressure, Colonel Saiyito and his engineers accepted British Colonel Nicholson's proposal for his men to design and deliver the bridge by the accelerated deadline. Nicholson and his officers recommended moving the bridge's location 400 yards downstream where there is more solid bedrock for the piles. They devised a work capacity schedule to increase productivity by 30%. The British army also discovered elm wood in the jungle, the same type used for the London Bridge which lasted 600 years. When the bridge was completed on-time, even Colonel Saiyito proclaimed it as a "beautiful creation."

2. The 39 Steps: In this 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie, the protagonist Richard Hammond has an incentive to discover the mystery behind "The 39 Steps" to clear his name from a woman's murder. He learns the murdered woman, Annabella, was trying to protect England's national security (a top secret engineering invention) from espionage. In a more comical part of the movie, Mr. Hammond is mistaken as a political speaker and improvised an oratory praising The Fourth Bridge as an exemplary structure of Scottish engineering.

3. Towering Inferno: The movie that inspired Die Hard, Towering Inferno showcased plenty of advanced pyrotechnical effects for a film released in 1974. In the motion picture, architects from Duncan Enterprises designed a mixed-use 135-floor San Francisco high-rise called "The Glass Tower." To kick off the high-rise's official grand opening, the firm hosts a red carpet gala on the top floor. Right before the event starts, faulty electrical wiring sparks a random fire in the storage room on the 81st floor. The plot thickens when maintenance staff noticed the alarm system didn't activate; they discover the localized fire; the sprinklers didn't work as designed; the fire spreads out of control; and dignitaries are trapped on the top floor. Stairwells are consumed with fire and the emergency express elevators are no longer operational. Chief architect Doug Roberts works with Battalion Chief Mike O' Hallorhan to rescue as many party guests and tenants as possible. With a solution recommended by the structural engineer, the duo make their way to the building's rooftop to set charges to the water tanks. By exploding them, a million gallons of water would drown the fire, and the strength of the joists and risers in the promenade room would withstand the impact.

4. Die Hard: Borrowing from Towering Inferno's drama in a high-rise setting, this late-80s action flick ups the ante with a street-smart New York cop trying to save his wife and colleagues from a group of international terrorists. The 40-story building endures explosions, gunfire, broken glass, elevator shaft breaches, and a power outage. Detective John McClaine crawls through the HVAC system to maneuver through the building and quips: "Now I know what a TV dinner feels like." One thing is for sure - the anchoring system for the HVAC ductwork was strong enough to hold a 180-lb New Yorker nourished by a hefty bodybuilder's diet.

5. Money Pit: This movie is really about relationships. Just like acquiring a fixer-upper, all relationships take maintenance and reality checks. Walter and Anna get swindled into buying a lemon of a house. At first, the renovation team manager wasn't sure if the house could be successfully fixed. But he relied on his tried-and-true assessment: "As long as the foundation is good - everything else can be fixed."

6. Hugo: Martin Scorsese's delightful children's movie about an orphaned young boy who lives in a Paris train station is a must-see for any engineering family. The story follows Hugo Cabret who has a talent for tuning all the clocks at the station and repairing random wind-up toys and mechanical instruments. He feels sad when machines are broken because they are unable to fulfill their purpose. Hugo is determined to fix the automaton (a mechanical child) his late father took on as a museum project, and unlocks the mystery behind its creator. Further into the story, Hugo meets French illusionist and filmmaker George Melies who filmed movies in his high ceiling, all-glass production studio designed to maximize natural light.

7. The Wizard of Oz: When Dorothy arrives in the mystical land of the Munchkins, a house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East. The house's frame and shell are still intact after the tornado carried it there. Mighty fine Kansas-engineered lateral systems were installed in the house!

8. Ocean's Thirteen: Danny Ocean and his men want to spy on William Bank, the egotistical owner of "The Bank" casino who sabotaged Reuben Tishkoff out of the business investment. Rusty Ryan disguises himself as a seismologist and presents to Mr. Banks an animated simulation (probably created through Building Information Modeling software) of how the casino towers would perform during an earthquake. Rusty gives a seismic gauge with the hidden camera for Mr. Bank to use in his office, giving Danny Ocean and the boys "eyes" on the enemy.

In another scene, Danny and Ryan climb through the air vents of the casino to measure the floor thickness of a room where diamond necklaces are kept. The concrete floor measured 18 inches (too thick to drill through clandestinely), so they go with Plan B.

9. X-Men: Days of Future Past: Mutant Enthusiasts can follow some revisionist history in the movie's background plot. X-Men baddie Magneto was jailed for his involvement in manipulating the second bullet which assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Since Magneto's power is controlling the movement and form of metal, his jail cell was constructed without the material to prevent his escape. The underground concrete/composite/glass structure masterfully contained Magneto until another skillful mutant outmaneuvered the guards and released him.

10. King Kong: Giant 30-ton gorilla climbs the Empire State Building and the structure survives damage. Enough said about William F. Lamb's architectural design and the construction work of The Starrett Brothers and Eken.

About the author

Rose Bechtold

Rose Bechtold, Communications Specialist | Rose comes from a journalism and technical writing background. She is in her element while in research mode and naturally immerses herself in expert knowledge by interviewing staff members about new subjects. In her spare time, Rose practices plein-air sketching of buildings and random scenes around town.

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