The Martian, starring Matt Damon

Engineering on film: seven inspirational STEM movies

Image credit: Rex Features

Whether it’s pure science fiction fantasy or a grounding in high-tech fact that floats your boat, there’s a fine canon of films out there to draw on for inspiration in all things STEM. With summer blockbusters now hitting screens, we decided to look back at seven of our favourite examples of ‘engineering on film’.

7 – Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbidden Planet was a groundbreaking science fiction film for its time. It was the first film of its kind to show humans travelling faster than light in their own spaceship to ‘explore the stars’, as well as being the first film to be set entirely on a foreign planet outside of our own solar system.

At the time of the film’s release, space exploration was still at a fledgling stage with the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, achieving an orbit of Earth the following year, and NASA still yet to be born, in the year after that. So Forbidden Planet, in being the first motion picture to follow a crew of space explorers into uncharted space must have felt like the ‘distant tomorrow’ its official trailer hailed; and it pre-dated Star Trek by a full decade!

Opening the audience’s eyes to a brave new world of space exploration, it went one step further by entreating the individual viewer to ‘imagine yourself as one of the crew of this faster-than-light spaceship of the future’ – an irresistible call to place oneself at the heart of a brand new human endeavour. The film may have largely sidestepped the nuts and bolts of the space science that many films of the time, and those to come, focused on, but Forbidden Planet proposed that we could, and would, conquer the cosmos…in full Eastmancolor.

6 – Tron (1982)

Although a box office on cinematic release, the story of talented software programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), digitised and downloaded by AI into a computer mainframe eventually reached cult status.

Tron was revolutionary, but while its innovative reliance upon computer-generated graphics may have initially been a turn-off for mainstream audiences, for those young and impressionable future engineers and computer programmers in the auditorium it was simply breathtaking. Ahead of its time visually, the film’s concept and interpretation of cyberspace was also a first, portraying a whole new digital world, and at the same time revealing a very specific field of knowledge to an unsuspecting public.

First coined by American-Canadian cyberpunk writer William Gibson, for today’s engineers and technologists the term cyberspace denotes a whole range of subjects. A myriad of degree courses exist at top universities around the world on related topics including computer science, information technology, computer programming, software engineering, gaming, animation, cyber security, augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, computer engineering…the list goes on.

5 – Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

Children of the 70s, you’ll always remember when you first saw Star Wars: Ep. IV, the epic space fable and first of the iconic film series. It tells the tale of the cruel Darth Vader, under whose orders the Imperial forces hold hostage Princess Leia in their efforts to quell the rebellion against the Galactic Empire. Joining forces with sage Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, a restless Luke Skywalker meets Han Solo, maverick captain of the Millennium Falcon, and they work together with friendly droid duo R2-D2 and C-3PO to rescue the beautiful princess, help the Rebel Alliance and restore freedom and justice to the Galaxy.

Star Wars tapped into something big; it has an enduring legacy. For starters it follows the classic hero quest formula and is a story as old as storytelling itself, but set in a fantastical otherworldly, technologically advanced society. For the first time on film it depicted a fully realised, lived-in universe portraying the kinds of technology that for your average 1970s’ audience seemed literally light-years away. We had solar power technology – design of the Imperial TIE fighters; and robotics, both civil and military, that weren’t super shiny set-pieces, but fully-functioning, battle-scarred characters in their own right that could be annoying, could break and be fixed, and, ultimately, save the universe: that’s you R2-D2.

Then there’s laser technology – blasters and lightsabers; interstellar travel – think the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive; and force fields, tractor beams and levitation technology – who can forget Luke’s landspeeder? Not forgetting cybernetics – the most evil cyborg of them all being Darth Vader himself; artificial intelligence; and finally, holography – “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope…”. Copious amounts of food for engineering thought.

4 – Blade Runner (1982)

Not an obvious one, maybe, but a film which successfully and profoundly presented the big moral and ethical questions around artificial intelligence.

An adaptation of the 1968 novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ by Philip K Dick, Blade Runner depicts a dystopian, post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, home to the remains of a radiation-addled human populace, in which genetically engineered replicants, visually indistinguishable from adult humans, are manufactured by the powerful Tyrell Corporation. Banned on Earth, the replicants are used exclusively for dangerous or menial work on off-world colonies. Replicants who defy the ban and return to Earth are hunted down and killed or ‘retired’ by special police operatives known as ‘Blade Runners’. The film focuses on a group of recently escaped replicants led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), and the burnt-out Blade Runner pro Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who reluctantly agrees to take on one more assignment to hunt them down. During the search, Deckard begins a relationship with Rachael (Sean Young), an advanced replicant who causes him to question his and the replicants' humanity.

Deckard’s growing unease around what it is to be human reaches a climax in the final scenes. An injured Roy Batty and Deckard end up on the roof of an apartment block and as Deckard tries to jump to an adjacent roof he misses and is left hanging precariously between buildings. Roy makes the jump with ease, and as Deckard's grip loosens, Roy hoists him onto the roof, saving him. As Roy’s life runs out, he delivers a powerful monologue and dies in front of Deckard. White doves and pouring rain aside, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by Roy’s dying words, which pass the Turing Test with an A*: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

Blade Runner is typical of the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction, focusing on a ‘high-tech, low-life’ theme where advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as information technology and cybernetics, are juxtaposed with a breakdown or radical change in the social order. There’s plenty there to inspire engineers and technologists, from the big questions around robot morality and sentience, to hover cars, the Voight-Kampff machine to measure empathic responses and space exploration to establish off-world colonies.

3 – Iron Man (2008)

Billionaire engineering genius builds unique arc reactor-powered weaponised suit of armour with which to fight evil. So far, so science-fiction good.

As the story goes, after being held captive in an Afghan cave with a chest full of shrapnel, our chief protagonist Tony Stark, hooks up his damaged heart to a car battery, powering an electromagnet implanted in his chest by fellow captive Yinsen, a medical doctor, to keep the shards of metal from reaching his heart and killing him.

Death temporarily put on hold, Stark and Yinsen then set about quietly building a small, but powerful, electric generator called an arc reactor to power Stark’s electromagnet together with a suit of powered armour in order to make their escape. An armoured Stark battles his way out of said cave to find the dying Yinsen and, in anger, destroys his captors’ weapons and flies away, before crashing in the desert and destroying the suit.

Once firmly ensconced back in his luxury Malibu home he comes up with a way of miniaturising the battery and creates a unique weaponised suit of armour with which to fight evil and wrestle back control of Stark Industries. Iron Man is born.

And here’s where you can unsuspend your disbelief several notches. Immersed in Marvel’s Iron Man universe, the Tony Stark story contains much that today’s engineers and technologists can and do tap into. The son of wealthy industrialist and head of Stark Industries Howard Stark, our Tony was a boy genius, entering MIT at the age of 15 to study electrical engineering and later receiving masters’ degrees in electrical engineering and physics. His tinkering and perfecting of the Iron Man suit is, therefore, portrayed on screen as being firmly rooted in a legitimate background of engineering education and training.

As if proof was needed of the inspiration and excitement the franchise stirred in audiences around the globe, in October last year, we reported on mechanical engineering student Vimal Govind Manikandan from Kerala, India, who had developed a fully-functioning wearable exoskeleton. Reportedly inspired by the creative genius of Tony Stark and drawing on his own extensive engineering knowledge, plus a little help from the Internet, Manikandan’s suit is an hydraulics-powered exoskeleton employing mechanical systems, actuators, micro controllers and force sensors to produce movement, capable of lifting weights of up to 150kg.

Other real-life work in exoskeleton technology continues to progress, with developers in the fields of industrial, defence and medical applications, gaining ground in leaps and hydraulically-powered bounds.

2 – Apollo 13 (1995)

This docudrama-space adventure film, depicts astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise aboard Apollo 13 in 1970, the seventh manned mission in the American Apollo space program and the third intended to land on the Moon. However, things get decidedly tricky when, two days into the mission, an onboard explosion deprives their spacecraft of most of its oxygen supply and the command module's (CM) normal supply of electricity, light and water is also lost.

Roughly 200,000 miles from Earth, the ‘glitch’ elicits possibly one of the greatest understatements in history: “Houston, we have a problem.” NASA's flight controllers are forced to abort the Moon landing entirely, and the mission swiftly turns into a struggle for the astronauts very lives and a battle to get the three men home safely.

Director Ron Howard went to great lengths to create a technically accurate movie, employing NASA’s technical assistance in astronaut and flight controller training for his cast, and obtaining permission to film scenes aboard a reduced gravity aircraft for realistic depiction of the weightlessness experienced by astronauts in space. In doing so, Howard succeeds where very few films before or since have: he portrays engineers as heroes. From the moment the oxygen tank ruptures, an army of NASA engineers, together with the crew themselves, pulls-off a four-day marathon to get the astronauts home alive.

With computer and life-support systems failing around them, multiple warning lights blinking and unnerving bumps and vibrations rocking the space module, the group fall back on pure engineering knowledge to solve each problem; engineers are, after all, trained problem solvers. Considerable engineering ingenuity under extreme pressure is the film’s nail-biting hallmark.

The collective of engineering minds solve hurdle after hurdle, with completely new procedures having to be written and tested in the simulator before being passed up to the crew. The crew was forced to shut down the CM completely to save this for re-entry, and to power up the lunar module (LM) to use as a ‘lifeboat’, a concept suggested during training simulation, but not considered a likely scenario. Other problems included the fact that the LM was built for only a 45-hour lifetime and it needed to stretch to 90; power was a concern – ground controllers carefully worked out a procedure where the CM batteries could be charged with LM power; and the removal of carbon dioxide was a big problem – mission control devised a way to attach the CM canisters to the LM system using plastic bags and cardboard.

But one of the biggest challenges of all was how to navigate back to Earth and resulted in an incredible feat of engineering acumen and bravery. The crew used calculations around trajectory and burn to provide speed, providing a ‘slingshot effect’ to harness the Moon’s gravity to return the ship to Earth. The flight passed the far side of the Moon at an altitude of 254km above the lunar surface, and 400,171km from Earth, a spaceflight record marking the farthest humans have ever travelled from Earth.

Despite great hardship, and more than a little brain-ache, the crew returned safely to Earth on 17 April 1970, splashing down gently into the Pacific Ocean near Samoa.

1 – The Martian (2015)

...And the number one spot goes to fact-filled, hyper-real film, The Martian. Short of actually going to Mars to film it, the science and engineering it depicts couldn’t feel more real-life. But, putting excitement and delusion aside for one moment, the film is firmly rooted in the real stuff.

In short, it tells the story of American astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, who becomes stranded on Mars in the year 2035 after his team assume him dead, and must rely on his engineering ingenuity and space know-how to find a way to survive and signal to Earth that he is alive.

The Martian is based on Andy Weir's 2011 novel of the same name. The son of a particle physicist, Weir has a background in computer science and began writing a serial blog about a stranded NASA astronaut on Mars, researching related material and using existing technology so that it would be as realistic as possible, studying orbital mechanics, astronomy, and the history of manned spaceflight in the process. The blog gained traction and its popularity ultimately led to the successful novel and then film adaptation we now see.

Merging fictional and factual narratives about Mars, the novel built upon the work NASA and others have undertaken exploring the Red Planet. Although the action takes place 20 years in the future, NASA is already developing many of the technologies that appear in the film. Some of the tech challenges that today’s, and future, engineers can get excited about include spacesuits, rovers, ion propulsion, solar panels, radioisotope thermoelectric generators, habitation modules, plant farms, water recovery and oxygen generation.



Honourable mentions

Metropolis (1927), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Dune (1984), Robocop (1987), Star Trek: First Contact (1996), Contact (1997), Good Will Hunting (1997), eXistenZ (1999), The Iron Giant (1999), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), I, Robot (2004), Moon (2009), The Social Network (2010), Hugo (2011), Gravity (2013), Her (2013), Ex Machina (2014), The Imitation Game (2014), Chappie (2015), Interstellar (2014), Arrival (2016), Hidden Figures (2016).


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