Apparently, many Design News readers are movie buffs.
In January, we asked our readers to weigh in on the best and worst science/engineering movies of all time. Our request was made after the publication of a new book, Hollywood Science: Movies, Science and the End of the World, written by Emory University physicist Sidney Perkowitz. In his book, Perkowitz identified Gattaca, Metropolis, The Day the Earth Stood Still (the movie that gave us the line, “Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!”) On the Beach, A Beautiful Mind, and Contact as the best tech movies ever. His worst were The Core; What the #$*! Do We Know!?; Chain Reaction; Volcano; and The 6th Day.
Knowing that our readers aren’t shy about expressing their opinions, we asked for them to weigh in, and they didn’t disappoint. Many of them told us that Perkowitz’s list was, well, pretty feeble. And my personal choices, they said, were even worse.
Many chided me for missing 2001: A Space Odyssey. Burt Siegal, a Skokie, IL, engineer who has spent a lifetime looking for technical gaffes in movies, said he is still amazed by the accuracy of 2001. “Most (movies) don’t have a clue on high tech stuff,” Siegal wrote. “However, 2001 was a fantastic exception.”
Siegal was joined by many other readers who felt 2001 was a glaring omission to our lists.
Beyond 2001, however, there wasn’t a lot of agreement among Design News readers. Respondents cited Frequency, The Astronaut Farmer, Forbidden Planet, Primer, Mission to Mars, Def-Con 4, The World’s Fastest Indian, Real Genius, Brainstorm, Black Sky, On the Beach, Silent Running, The China Syndrome and a host of others as top technical movies.
Some readers said that glaring technical mistakes often turned them away from otherwise good movies, while strong technical details had the effect of drawing them in. Citing The China Syndrome as an example, one reader asked, “What other movie uses improper radiographs of welds as a plot point?”
A few readers agreed with my assessment of October Sky as the best engineering movie ever. More, though, complained that there aren’t enough films with engineers as central figures. Two contrary examples: The China Syndrome, with Jack Lemmon as a nuclear power plant engineer, and No Highway in the Sky, an old film in which James Stewart plays an embattled metallurgist (there just aren’t enough good movies about metallurgists).
In general, though, our readers were much better at finding the dogs. Two such films were mentioned repeatedly: Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. Of Armageddon’s plot, reader Peter Hoy commented, “Yeah, NASA has got shuttles on steroids that can fly to/around the moon, land on an asteroid and then take off again and fly back to earth, but they can’t follow directions to put together a…drill.”
Readers had similar disdain for The Day After Tomorrow. “Global super storms and a redirection of the Gulf Stream cause the next Ice Age to take hold in TWO DAYS!” commented Roger Novotny of Rochester, MI. “Imagine the thermodynamics of that.”
There’s one point that almost all of our engineers readers agreed on, though: It’s almost too easy to spot technical mistakes in movies. The difficulty of selecting a single worst film was summed up by materials engineer Jane LaGoy of Pepperell, MA, who said, “There are so many movies that show bad science and technology, it’s hard to pick one…”