On a hot summer night, an air-conditioned movie theater is a good place to go for entertainment. The studios understand this and typically roll out their most costly blockbusters. Movies with comic book heroes and tons of explosions are a certainty. It’s also a good bet that the laws of science will be suspended for about two hours, while heroes race through time and defy gravity and geeky computer hackers get the girl.
But when will they make a movie with an accurate portrayal of the exciting life of an engineer? Oxymoronic as that may sound, I’ve heard it expressed at multiple conferences by well-meaning engineers who feel that, “if only we had a suitable role model, then kids would flock to engineering.” First of all, the examples set for stockbrokers and lawyers in movies like Wall Street (1987) and The Devil’s Advocate (1997), respectively, don’t seemed to have dampened the attraction of these high-paying professions. Secondly, if you think about it, there are quite a few movies featuring engineers and engineering themes.
Blockbuster season is a great time to learn about the fringes of scientific possibility. The Star Trek (2009) franchise consistently incorporates the engineered possibilities of the future, albeit while taking a few creative liberties with special relativity. Meanwhile, Terminator (2009) explores the darker side of technological advancement. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Contact (1997) more thoughtfully consider the confluence of science, emotion and faith. While these movies are quick to exploit engineering, they don’t offer the leading role an engineer.
You need not look far, however, to find an engineering superhero. Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (2008), is best described as a genius engineer. Who else could have created an impenetrable mechanized suit out of bazooka tubes and jihadi camping gear?
J. H. Patterson, the real-life inspiration for The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), may not have had the technology, but I’m sure he had the mettle to face those foes. He was tasked with overseeing the construction of a rail line over the Tsavo River in Kenya, when a pair of man-eating lions went on a 9-month killing spree. After several attempts to engineer a means of capturing the lions, the lieutenant-colonel tracked and killed the lions himself. The hides are still on display in Chicago’s Field Museum.
Engineers and engineering make for good cinema and TV. Need more proof? Check out the weekly cable listings for Junkyard Wars, Myth Busters, Modern Marvels and countless others. But, does the media really influence kids’ career choices? An old study by the National Institute of Education seems to suggest: no. When high school juniors were asked who most influenced their career choice only 8.1% indicated the media. About double that percentage were most influenced by family members, while even non-family mentors ranked above the media.
While it may not be practical for engineering societies to enter the business of Hollywood, it is worthwhile for engineers to enter classrooms or otherwise mentor students. ASCE can provide the know-how and a network of fellow members to make outreach easy. Outreach volunteers can even register to win an Ipod by taking a survey about their experience.
Don’t wait for Hollywood to come calling, get out there and sell your own exciting story to the next generation of engineers.
Please comment with your own recollections of great engineering movies. Need more inspiration? Here are a couple of other websites that have tackled the question of naming the best movies about engineering: