From vintage dramas to high-octane thrillers, from animated family films to Bollywood comedies, there is no shortage of films with a focus on engineers and how they do what they do.
The only film on this list written, directed, produced, edited and scored by an engineer, Primer is an ultra low-budget sci-fi flick that has gone on to develop a cult following. Made for just $US7000, it went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.
It centres on two engineers, supplementing their day jobs with building experimental tech in their garage, who accidentally discover time travel. What follows is one of the most inventive and sophisticated films about time travel ever made. It also resolutely refuses to hold the viewer’s hand, making it ripe for repeat viewings.
No list of engineering-focused films would be complete without Apollo 13, which tells the incredible true story of what is perhaps the greatest feat of improvised engineering in history. The multi-award winning film is tense, dramatic and a celebration of the tenacity and problem-solving abilities of the NASA astronauts and the flight engineers at mission control.
It’s also, by Hollywood standards, a relatively faithful retelling of the real-life events, with the exception of the crew’s infighting; in reality, the astronauts stayed level-headed throughout the ordeal.
The Flight of the Phoenix
When an oddball crew crash-lands their cargo plane deep in the Saharan desert, far from any hope of rescue, it is up to a self-proclaimed aeronautical engineer to devise an ambitious plan — build a new plane from the wreckage that surrounds them.
The 1965 original, starring James Stewart and Richard Attenborough, is widely regarded as a classic but be warned — the 2004 Dennis Quaid remake is most definitely not.
A close retelling of the largest oil spill in history, Deepwater Horizon can be a gripping, unsettling film for an engineer to watch. An all-star cast tells the tale of the 2010 disaster, which killed 11 workers, injured 17 more and spilled more than 3 million barrels of oil.
The film offers a blow-by-blow account of the failures (both process and equipment) that triggered the incident.
The Wind Rises
The only animated film on this list, The Wind Rises is also one of the most engineering-focused too. The final film by iconic Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, it is a biography of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, best known for designing the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter aircraft ahead of World War II. The film is not just beautiful — it’s also been used to help teach ethics to engineers in training.
Technically, Matt Damon’s character is a botanist, and not an engineer, but his approach to problem solving is straight out of an engineer’s playbook. Damon plays an astronaut stranded alone on Mars and forced to engineer ways to adapt and stay alive.
It even has the seal of approval of chemical engineer and NASA astronaut Don Pettit, who said the film showed how engineers think.
“You’re always doing calculations, you’re looking — particularly if you’re in a frontier — you’re looking at the resources you have, and the rates at which you are consuming them, and then you are doing a little bit of math in public and trying to figure out what’s going to kill you first,” he said.
“It’s how the quintessential engineer thinks in order to stay alive in the frontier.”
A guaranteed crowd-pleaser, Paper Planes is a feelgood family film centred on a young boy with a passion for flight and a dream of attending the world paper plane championships in Japan. It’s just the ticket to introduce young ones to the joys of engineering and design — and it’s Australian too.
A heartwarming drama, October Sky was inspired by the memoir of Homer Hickham, a West Virginian coal miner’s son.
Inspired by the 1957 launch of Sputnik 1, and against his father’s wishes, Hickham dreams of escaping his small-town roots. The real-life Hickham went on to become a NASA engineer.
A classic Bollywood comedy, 3 Idiots follows three engineering students in Delhi, and despite the humour and exuberant dance scenes, packs a serious message about the Indian education system and the pressures it — and parents — can place on young students.
It was such a hit in India and throughout Asia that it is even credited with prompting national conversations — in India and China in particular — around how tertiary study is organised.
No Highway in the Sky
Possibly the only film ever created with metal fatigue as the central plot point, No Highway in the Sky also stars James Stewart as a metallurgist and aeronautical engineer who is desperately trying to convince authorities that a new model of plane is set to fail catastrophically.
Based on a novel by engineer Nevil Shute, the film eerily foreshadowed the de Havilland Comet crashes that would begin just a year after its release, also caused by metal fatigue.
Got a favourite we missed? Share your go-to engineering films in the comments box below.