Scenes of awesome engineering under pressure in the movies
September 16, 2011 8:33 PM   Subscribe

I want to watch scenes of awesome engineering under pressure in the movies.

I love the films Apollo 13, The Killing Fields, and Mister Roberts. Each of them has scenes where characters improvise technical solutions to a real problem using minimal materials, and under pressure. I find these scenes inspirational.

In Apollo 13, the a team of engineers improvises a makeshift air filter from random and unrelated materials. The whole second half of the film is to some extent made up of this kind of improvisational engineering.

In The Killing Fields, the Al Rockoff character (played by John Malkovich) improvises a darkroom to create a passport photo to help Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor) try to leave Cambodia and the certain bloodbath of the Khmer Rouge.

In Mister Roberts, Doc (William Powell) and LTJG Roberts (Henry Fonda) improvise a bottle of scotch to help Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon) woo a nurse. They manage to assemble it from some coke, water, and various tonics including iodine.

The thing they have in common is that I feel drawn into the moment and to try and think through a problem that seems unsolvable.

Now, to some extent Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction is this, but that's less of a team effort in the thinking part. Something like Jeff Goldblum's character in Independence Day using his Mac to upload a virus is neat, but it doesn't feel like real and improvisational problem solving. The escape in The Shawshank Redemption kind of qualifies, but we don't really get to see the process.
posted by artlung to Media & Arts (49 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
The Great Escape.
posted by jbenben at 8:37 PM on September 16, 2011 [7 favorites]

Das Boot? It's been a while since I've seen it, but I think it qualifies. And seconding the Great Escape.
posted by true at 8:47 PM on September 16, 2011

Would The Bridge on the River Kwai qualify? In it the commander of a group British POWs directs his men to build a proper bridge, despite the fact that the Japanese will put it to military use, for the sake of his men's morale. Over the course of the movie you get to see them build a respectable bridge using limited materials under terrible conditions. However, you don't really see the same sort problem solving as in Apollo 18 or The Great Escape.
posted by RichardP at 8:50 PM on September 16, 2011

Not a movie, but every episode of McGyver, ever.

Also, Burn Notice follows a burned spy that, being burned, has no resources and just improvises everything, including explosives, body armour and all that other cool spy stuff.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:00 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have I got a movie for you: Swades.

The whole movie is about using engineering to change lives. A NASA project manager goes to a remote Indian village to find his old nanny, ends up helping the villagers plan and execute projects for water, electricity, and education, also sings and dances. Inspired by the work of AID.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 9:00 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Iron Man for the win!
posted by argonauta at 9:02 PM on September 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

The raft-building in Cast Away probably applies, too.
posted by argonauta at 9:03 PM on September 16, 2011

There's a long list here that looks like a solid fit.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:05 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

K-19: The Widowmaker based on the story of a Cold War submarine incident.
posted by buzzv at 9:06 PM on September 16, 2011

Flight of the Phoenix. Dated, but kind of in that vein.
posted by FauxScot at 9:16 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'll have to re-watch The Great Escape.

Adding Das Boot to my re-watch list -- been a long time since I've seen that one.

Bridge on the River Kwai ... I hear you, but I'm only remembering one point where they talk engineering... the Colonel talks about the pilings the Japanese are putting in are in a bad spot on the river and I think he and his engineers show off better plans. But I don't know if we're really drawn into problem solving.

I remember trying to watch an episode of MacGyver. It didn't feel particularly good. Is it worth trying again? Culturally this kind of problem solving has gotten named for him, maybe I should look again.

About Burn Notice -- "spy" makes me concerned that the verisimilitude, I think that's a key component of my examples, the problem solving is real world, by real human beings, rather than super-spies. Is there an episode in particular worth watching?

The Iron Man movies do have fun "building stuff" montages including problem solving, but typically there's no pressure component to it. Tony Stark is a super genius, with unlimited resources, a AI and so at the very edges of believability.

Putting Swades on my Netflix queue to watch. It's on instant! Thanks!

Cast-Away is a great example! Not for the raft, but more for the doing a lot with limited resources.

Adding K-19 and Fight of the Phoenix to my Netflix queue.

Monsieur Caution, thanks, that's a good article with more ideas!

Thank you all for the answers!
posted by artlung at 9:22 PM on September 16, 2011

- Escape from Alcatraz might have what you think is missing elsewhere. BTW: you are describing a spoiler that effectively ruined that movie for me. Not everyone has seen it, and that element is as huge as The Sixth Sense's. I don't think anybody should ever mention it. EVAR.
posted by rhizome at 9:27 PM on September 16, 2011

Fat Man and Little Boy with Paul Newman, John Cusack, Laura Dern and a bunch of others is a fairly entertaining and reasonably historically accurate portrayal of the development of the atomic bomb.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:28 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

All the pressure is self-inflicted, but the awesome levels are off the dial. Bush Mechanics.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:30 PM on September 16, 2011

Wait, but Tony Stark built an arc reactor and an armored suit out of random missile parts while he was being held prisoner in a cave! I'm not saying it was believable (the opposite, actually), but certainly there were limited resources and time pressure....

From IMDB's synopsis:
Much later, Tony regains consciousness in a cave. His chest is hooked up to a strange device. Another captive, named Yinsen (Shaun Tomb), explains that he operated on Stark but was unable to remove all the fragments from the bomb blast. Yinsen created a device - essentially a car battery-powered magnet - that will keep the remaining fragments from shifting and causing further damage to his heart. The terrorists who captured Tony & Yinsen enter the room. Yinsen translates; they want Tony to build them a Jericho missile. Tony refuses and they torture him, shoving his face in a tub of water.

Hours later, the terrorists, a group called the The Ten Rings, show off a huge stockpile of weapons - all made by Stark Industries. Tony appears to relent and start building the missile, but has other plans. With Yinsen's help, and using palladium from his weapons, Tony constructs a tiny version of an arc reactor, streamlined from a much bigger design used at his company's headquarters. The power output is enough to run Stark's heart for fifty lifetimes... or something much bigger for about 15 minutes. It will also be enough to keep the shrapnel in Tony's heart from shifting any further and killing him.

Tony designs a way out for himself and Yinsen - an armored suit powered by the arc reactor that he will wear and use to defeat the terrorists. Midway through construction, the head of the Ten Rings, a man named Raza (Faran Tahir) arrives and threatens to torture Yinsen, angry because he thinks Stark is not working on the Jericho as they wanted. Tony bargains for Yinsen's life, saying he makes a good assistant. Raza gives them one more day to finish.

Working furiously overnight, Tony completes his project. Yinsen straps Tony into the completed armored suit, telling him the way out of the cave. They set off a bomb inside the cell door as a distraction for the guards as Tony powers up his suit. Yinsen realizes that they will not have enough time. He grabs a gun and runs off to distract the surviving guards.
posted by argonauta at 9:32 PM on September 16, 2011

Okay, okay argonauta. But I think the fact that the technology is outlandish nullifies the engineering joy. I feel like believability is a major factor for me, but given my phrasing I suppose Stark working on the Iron Man Mark I under the nose of the terrorists qualifies.
posted by artlung at 9:42 PM on September 16, 2011

note to self: Must. Get. Life.
posted by argonauta at 9:42 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Both the recent film The American and (to a lesser but cooler extent) the older Day of the Jackal have pretty good "assassins making shit" scenes.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 9:55 PM on September 16, 2011

How about Home Alone and Home Alone 2?
posted by SMPA at 10:04 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Note that the real Apollo 13 engineers didn't build an actual air filter out of socks and duct tape. They built an air tight adapter from a circular thing to a square thing, so the crew could use the air filter in the lunar lander which had a different fitting then the main crew capsule.

Speaking of semi-magic, at various points in the Stargate franchise they do some pretty fantastic engineering, like Carter blowing up a sun. They say the first one is always the hardest. (And its not total star trek type BS either)
posted by Chekhovian at 10:05 PM on September 16, 2011

Sorry didn't see your complaint about the Iron Man post. But frankly the way the Apollo 13 thing is portrayed in the movie its not really believable either.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:07 PM on September 16, 2011

1. The 1994 HBO movie Doomsday Gun.

Based on the real-life story of Gerald Bull, a brilliant munitions expert who was driven to design bigger, more powerful artillery cannons. He was convinced that he could perfect a design that would be powerful enough to launch satellites into space; this achievement became his lifetime goal. When the Americans wouldn't fund bigger gun projects anymore, he began working for anyone in the world who would continue to fund his research - and wound up designing a supergun for none other than Saddam Hussein.

He is in a tremendous rush to quickly engineer new workarounds for the successive design issues encountered at these unprecedented scales, trying as hard as he can to complete the project while being pressured to abandon it lest he be assassinated by Mossad, MI-5, or the CIA.

Available on DVD from Netflix.

2. Listening (2006).

Essentially about Echelon, an aging NSA officer defects and hastily assembles a counter-espionage SIGINT operation of his own. Some interesting scenes in Italy as he puts the operation together - almost equivalent to Sneakers (1992) but about wiretapping instead of encryption.

Not on Netflix, but it's "available" on the net.
posted by ceribus peribus at 10:08 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sunshine is a film where the entire fate of the human race depends upon a small team of scientists delivering a nuclear payload to reignite a dying sun. Things go horribly wrong, desperate solutions are improvised under extreme conditions. Really one of the most riveting films I've ever seen, one of my favorites.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:09 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not a movie, but every episode of The A-Team would have them perform some miracle feat of engineering to defeat the bad guys.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:11 PM on September 16, 2011

Here's a Burn Notice example to help you decide if that's what you're looking for. Though I guess that example is less "improvisational" and more "premeditated."

Also maybe the first half of The Dam Busters, when they are developing the new bomb and how to deploy it.
posted by RobotHero at 10:11 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

The 1998 TV Series From the Earth to the Moon is already mentioned in Monsieur Caution's excellent link upthread. You want to watch episode 5, "Spider", about the engineering challenges of designing the lunar lander. It's the closest I've ever seen on film to the experience of working on a large engineering project with tight deadlines. Netflix has the series via DVD.
posted by ceribus peribus at 10:26 PM on September 16, 2011

I came in to say "From the Earth to the Moon" too, but since it's covered, I've got another suggestion. If you can handle old movies, try one starring Leslie Howard and David Niven. It's listed in IMDB as "The First of the Few." The alternate listed title is "Spitfire," although I'm sure when I saw it on TV, it was under yet another title, the name of which escapes me.

Here's the IMDB plot summery:

By the late 1920's aircraft designer R.J. Mitchell feels he has achieved all he wants with his revolutionary mono-planes winning trophy after trophy. But a holiday in Germany shortly after Hitler assumes power convinces him that it is vital to design a completely new type of fighter plane and that sooner or later Britain's very survival may depend on what he comes to call the Spitfire.

Besides telling the story of the engineering, it depicts the business, political and financial struggles involved in getting a new technology off the ground, especially during times of social and political unrest.

It's not the world's most brilliant movie, but the story it tells is fascinating. Be warned though, if you need your movies to be all happy-happy-joy-joy, this isn't the movie for you.
posted by sardonyx at 10:41 PM on September 16, 2011

This probably doesn't play, but I feel obliged to mention it anyway just because it's so cool: in the third Keroro Gunsou anime movie, there's a computer hacking duel between Kururu and Miruru, with each simultaneously trying to take over the other's computer system and trying to prevent the other from doing the same first. It doesn't have the kind of plausible believability you're looking for, but damn, is it cool!
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:54 PM on September 16, 2011

In case you don't know it, The Great Escape is based on a true story!

I'm back to recommend Eddie Izzard's comedic take on The Great Escape - which I hope you find amusing!
posted by jbenben at 11:17 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Dish might qualify, although it's a lighter movie than most of the others mentioned. More.
posted by Coaticass at 12:40 AM on September 17, 2011

What, no Armageddon yet?
posted by ouke at 2:20 AM on September 17, 2011

oops, Armageddon
posted by ouke at 2:21 AM on September 17, 2011

It's tv, possibly too obvious and the pressure is artificial / self-created but I kind of enjoy it in the same way I enjoy what I've seen of the movie examples in this thread: Mythbusters.
posted by rjs at 2:32 AM on September 17, 2011

127 Hours. Not sure if it counts as engineering - more surgery I guess. But the pressure and improvisation are both there, and I think it's Danny Boyle's best movie.
posted by hnnrs at 4:13 AM on September 17, 2011

It's not a movie, but the PBS TV series Rough Science has a deadline element, and various projects to make stuff out of basic stuff. In one memorable episode they mined silver to make photographic emulsion so they could take a picture of the building they were in.

It looks like it may be available on Netflix. I recommend the NZ series, if only for the West Coast scenery.
posted by arzakh at 7:26 AM on September 17, 2011

Armageddon is hardly an example of awesome engineering. More like movie physics.
posted by kenliu at 11:29 AM on September 17, 2011

Fitzcarraldo -- film by Werner Herzog -- main character dreams of building an opera house in the Amazon. klause kinski at his best.
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 1:04 PM on September 17, 2011

Primer is fantastic—utter mind-warp, but fascinating and infused with enthusiasm about engineering, discovery, and possibility.
posted by alexandermatheson at 1:15 PM on September 17, 2011

Thank you for asking a question that I didn't even know I had. THIS POST IS MY FAVORITE.
posted by sdn at 1:42 PM on September 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Dish might qualify. It's a based-on-the-true-story about the guys who ran the satellite dish in Australia that let folks see the moon landing live in 1969.
posted by fings at 4:51 PM on September 17, 2011

The Mosquito Coast
posted by NortonDC at 5:13 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

The old BBC series Danger UXB is about the cat and mouse game played between British bomb disposal teams and German bomb designers. There's some great engineering under pressure to be found there. Netflix claims to have it.
posted by dws at 6:21 PM on September 17, 2011

Have you seen October Sky? It's the true story of a NASA engineer, who, as a boy, lived in a poor coal mining town at a time when the mines were shutting down. After the launch of Sputnik this kid decides he wants to be an astronaut, and hardly anyone takes him seriously, but he convinces his friends to help him build rockets so he can get to the National Science Fair.

The kids learn a lot of engineering NEVER DO THIS stuff by basically doing it and finding out, "Whoa, that was dangerous!"
posted by misha at 6:45 PM on September 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Maybe The Andromeda Strain (maybe too sci-fi/medical). Also sci-fi (in its time) but a classic, Destination Moon. And seconding The Dam Busters.
posted by Rash at 9:37 PM on September 17, 2011

I remember trying to watch an episode of MacGyver. It didn't feel particularly good. Is it worth trying again? Culturally this kind of problem solving has gotten named for him, maybe I should look again.

Generally, I think it's pretty awful as a TV show - I saw an episode a few weeks back, and couldn't really get past the mullet and the dialogue. But, from memory, he comes up with some interesting solutions with the materials at hand. I watched it regularly when I was 9 years old, so perhaps the solutions he came up with were only cool to a 9 year old.

About Burn Notice -- "spy" makes me concerned that the verisimilitude, I think that's a key component of my examples, the problem solving is real world, by real human beings, rather than super-spies. Is there an episode in particular worth watching?

My understanding is that Burn Notice is relatively well researched, but that they generally leave out vital details in the dangerous stuff, i.e., bomb making.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:36 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I haven't seen this, but it more or less fits the bill: The World's Fastest Indian - old guy spends years building a kludged together racing motorcycle, then sets a landspeed record with it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:40 PM on September 18, 2011

Not a movie or even fiction, but there used to be a reality show on TLC called "Junkyard Wars" that featured teams competing to build a machine to complete some task. The teams had to scavenge the parts from a junkyard. I think there was some shenanigans going on plans being presubmitted and the junkyard being preseeded with some proper, but used parts. But the building and engineering seemed to be real and quite tense.

I'm not seeing it on netflix, but it sounds like just the thing you're looking for.
posted by jefftang at 8:13 AM on September 19, 2011

The original version of The Taking of Pelham 123 gave me that feeling, even though it's slightly different than your explanation. It's a movie about the taking hostage and ransoming of a NYC subway car and everybody in it. The problem-solving happens in the heads of the viewer, and Walter Matthau's character, as the action unfolds and the intricate scheme (involving engineering) of how the crooks will attempt their escape from underground with the money slowly becomes clear.

Plus, the film noir meets the 1970s soundtrack is incredible.
posted by umbĂș at 3:18 PM on September 19, 2011

Juggernaut (1974, Richard Lester) with Richard Harris has this sort of feel. Last time I checked it was on Netflix Watch Instantly.
posted by dgeiser13 at 12:04 PM on September 20, 2011

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