It's time, once again, for Design News's Science and Engineering Movie Contest, which names no winners, awards no prizes, and isn't really a contest.
This year, to make it seem more like a real contest, we talked with Sidney Perkowitz, an Emory University physics professor who authored Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World and the forthcoming Slow Light: Invisibility, Teleportation, and Other Mysteries of Light.
Four years ago, Perkowitz published a list of what he thinks are the best and worst science movies ever made. His best were Gattaca; Metropolis; the original version of The Day The Earth Stood Still (which gave us this classic line: "Gort, Klaatu barada nikto!"); On the Beach; A Beautiful Mind; and Contact. His worst: The Core; What the #$*! Do We Know!?; Chain Reaction; Volcano; and The 6th Day.
Since then, Perkowitz has added movies to both lists. New entrants to the "best list" include both of the Iron Man films, which he likes because of the way they depict the main character. "The hero of Iron Man is a guy who makes things," Perkowitz told us. "He gets in there and can do anything from electronics to foundry work. He's like the ultimate engineer and designer."
Perkowitz acknowledged that the Iron Man franchise stretches the state of suspended disbelief almost to the breaking point, but he believes the technology depicted in the movies is based on a nugget of truth. "The idea of an Iron Man suit is a little bit in the works," he says. "The US military is putting plenty of money into building exoskeletons and into developing neural control of weapons." He adds, however, that the concept of a flying suit is a tough one to buy into.
Perkowitz says he also liked the movie Unstoppable, with Denzel Washington, but thought the premise was dubious. A runaway one-million-ton train sounded a tad too large for Perkowitz. He says a train crash of that mass and velocity would produce enough kinetic energy to match the explosive force of 60 tons of TNT, which could level a good portion of a small city.
On the other side, Perkowitz has added one new technical stinker to his list. Angels and Demons, a thriller starring Tom Hanks, tells the story of bad guys who gather anti-matter from a collider, then put it in a little container powered by an iPod battery until they get an opportunity to blow up the Vatican. His official technical review of the movie: "Puh-leeze!"
Of course, Perkowitz's assessments are based more on science than engineering. To get a more engineering-oriented perspective, we drew on Design News's Engineering Movie Contest Panel. Here are our enlightened opinions, which we urge readers to ignore.
Best: Apollo 13; No Highway in the Sky; Flash of Genius; Iron Man; and The Right Stuff. Best of all, however, could be October Sky, a 1999 film about former NASA engineer Homer Hickam. It may be a stretch to call October Sky an engineering movie, but it successfully portrays a bright young science student as a normal child. For that alone, it should win the award as best engineering film.
We would also like to single out the film Clambake for special recognition, largely because it stars Elvis Presley as a chemical engineer. In the film, Presley invents a superior boat varnish called Goop, which is all anyone needs to know about the plot.
Worst: Armageddon, in which NASA engineers are able to land a manned rocket on a speeding asteroid, but can't figure out how to assemble a drill; and The Day After Tomorrow, which gives a whole new meaning to the word "ridiculous." Also: any movie that portrays engineers as stereotypically anti-social, and any movie in which cars blow up after bumping into one another.
Admittedly, our list is thin, which is why we encourage readers to post their own choices for best and worst science and engineering films. Remember, entries will not be postmarked, and prizes, valuable or otherwise, will not be awarded.
So what are your picks for the best and worst engineering movies? Let's discuss it in the comments section below.