Top 10 Movies for Engineers
Shawn Wasserman posted on October 10, 2014 | 146456 views

I’ve always loved film. The power of the moving picture to inspire and entertain knows no bounds. It is no surprise then that many engineering professionals have a list of “talkies” that piqued their interests in STEM.

To honor these films I created a list of the best movies that inspired my life, interests and career in STEM. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Please comment below with any movies that inspired your own engineering career.

10. Star Trek: First Contact

An inspirational movie list for engineers would be incomplete without an entry from the Star Trek canon. Unfortunately, many of the films focus more on action and less on the engineering and social commentary of the TV shows. First Contact, however, brings us back to the invention that started the federation: the warp drive. Though only peppered as a side story throughout the film, the creation of the first faster than light craft did captivate me as a child. A larger focus on the invention would have surely improved the ranking of the Star Trek film.

In First Contact, Picard and his crew chase the Borg back to the end of World War 3. With Earth in shambles, an unlikely man is destined to unite the governments and bring the human race into first contact on the final frontier. Can the crew of the Enterprise save their future, or will resistance be futile?

9. Pacific Rim

There is really no way around it: Pacific Rim is fun. Giant mechanized robots fighting giant aliens traveling to earth through a portal in the ocean. What can go wrong?

The shocking fact of the matter is that Guillermo del Toro made Pacific Rim smart. The character development is real as personalities, acting and actions are all believable. But in the end any engineer is there for the cool mechs. Am I right?

8. The Thirteenth Floor

The Thirteenth Floor might be a little esoteric but who doesn’t like the puzzle of a modern day film noir? Now add a computer company creating a 1930’s virtual reality and you have a real treat for engineers. I’m not going to say much about Thirteenth Floor as to do so would be a tragedy to your viewing experience. I mean, who wants to see the end of the road before they reach the destination? But if the murder mystery puzzle doesn’t catch your interest then perhaps the VR sci-fi element will.

7. Hugo

With Hugo on the list we move from a 1930’s VR film noir to a 1930’s steam punk-ish world. Hugo is essentially Martin Scorsese’s love letter to French illusionist and film maker Georges Méliès. It follows 12-year-old orphan Hugo Cabret as he tries to complete his father’s work to make a clockwork automaton. In doing so Hugo embarks on an unlikely adventure.

Hugo takes you on a fun yet unexpected journey and the film is filled with enough mechanical eye candy to make any engineer happy.

6. Good Will Hunting

We don’t expect the geniuses at MIT to be roaming the halls as a janitor. But after anonymously solving a series of difficult mathematical problems, janitor Will Hunting catches the eye of Prof. Gerald Lambeau. Hunting finds himself in trouble with the law but Lambeau makes a deal to keep Hunting out of jail if he studies under the Professor and attends behavioral health treatment. After a series of failed therapists Hunting meets Dr. Maguire, who finally cracks Hunting’s shell and brings the genius closer to stability.

Many great minds are hurting and can feel lonely from time to time. It’s a good reminder to engineers that they are not alone. It’s healthy for us to remember that though we may be "the smartest in the room," we cannot solve everything on our own. And despite our intelligence, we may not understand what is right in front of us.

5. Tron

Tron tells the story of Kevin Flynn, fired as an ENCOM Computer programmer after Sr. VP Ed Dillinger steals his work. It’s up to Flynn and his friends to prove his worth to the company. The only problem is, they must do it from inside the computer, literally.

Tron was revolutionary. This box office flop was simply ahead of its time. As one of the first films to rely heavily on computer generated graphics, Tron opened the door for many of the films we enjoy today. Simply watching the behind the scenes is a treat for any engineer, but to watch the film is breath taking. My only complaint is you might want some earplugs for the harsh electronic music. Don’t worry, though, they more than make up for that music in the soundtrack of the sequel.

4. Sphere

The true genius of writer Michael Crichton isn’t just that he has come up with some of the best science fictions stories of our time, it’s that he hides the fiction in hard scientific fact. The real challenge was which “book to film” adaptation deserved to be on the list. Though many would choose Jurassic Park, and who would blame them, the adaptation of Sphere brings in more of that problem solving, science and engineering you expect from a Crichton story. Better yet, it does it with submarines and dive equipment.

Sphere tells the story of Dr. Norman Johnson, a psychologist chosen by the US Navy to lead a science team on an expedition to a crashed UFO under the Pacific Ocean. What Johnson, the Navy and his team finds? Now that would be telling.

3. The Social Network

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have heard of Mark Zuckerberg’s monster website, Facebook. The Social Network tells the story of how the computer genius started the net’s biggest party and burnt a lot of bridges along the way.

With a director/writer team of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin you’re sure to find a captivating, intelligent film. It’s hard to make a 10 minute long scene about hacking interesting, but The Social Network pulls it off.

2. October Sky

October Sky is the hallmark of inspirational filmography. The film is based on the childhood of real life NASA engineer Homer Hickam (from his book Rocket Boys). It depicts his story growing up in a coal mine town dreaming of a life outside of the mines. To achieve his dream, Homer needed to get to college; too bad he wasn’t built for a football scholarship. Inspired by the ground-breaking Sputnik Satellite, Homer and his friends set out to learn about rocketry and achieve their scholarships though the power of their minds, not their bodies.

Not everyone is born with all the breaks; the good life on a silver platter. To all those that dream big and have started small October Sky is the film for you. After all, what is more American than rockets, explosions and NASA?

1. Apollo 13

On April 11th 1970, Cmd. James Lovell, Cmd. John Swigert and Pilot Fred Haise set out on a trip to the moon on the Apollo 13 module. On April 13th, however, an unknown glitch caused their oxygen tank to rupture. An army of NASA engineers had to pull off a four-day marathon to get the Astronauts home alive.

Very few films depict engineers as heroes. Fewer are based off of the lives of living, breathing individuals. Fewer yet do so with a brilliant all-star cast. If you haven’t seen Apollo 13 yet then “Houston we have a problem.”

Honorable mentions

The Andromeda Strain, Gravity, 21, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek II: Wrath of Kahn, Jurassic Park, Contact, and Hackers.

To see more engineering movies loved by ENGINEERING.com read: Our Favorite Movies of All Time.

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