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Infrastructure and film: 5 iconic movies that civil engineers helped bring to life

Date
20 August 2021

As part of our #EngineeringSummer series, ICE looks at five unforgettable films that civil engineers helped make possible.

Infrastructure and film: 5 iconic movies that civil engineers helped bring to life

There’s nothing like the magic of film to transport us to another world. We rarely think about how a film is put together, but did you know that civil engineers have played a part in the creation of some movies' most iconic scenes?

As the UK emerges from lockdown and cinemas begin to re-open, we thought this was the perfect time to re-visit some of our favourites – and show how civil engineers are responsible for bringing the magic of the movies to life.

The Dark Knight Rises

un fact: the ceremonial foundation stone at Senate House, London, was laid by King George V on 26 June 1933
Fun fact: the ceremonial foundation stone at Senate House, London, was laid by King George V on 26 June 1933

There are few films as reliant on infrastructure as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012). When we first meet super-villain Bane, who has set out to destroy Batman and his beloved Gotham City, he decides to set up the headquarters of his army – where else? – but in the underground sewer system.

The ferocious Bane is cunning enough to realise that the complexity of the sewerage system is sure to give him a strategic advantage – after all, who could be smart enough to foil him underground? His plan works out remarkably well, as Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon demands that the entire police force descend underground, leaving Gotham vulnerable to threat.

Aside from highlighting the importance of our sewerage systems, Gotham City – which in Nolan’s imagining is a nightmarish, apocalyptic version of New York – is also awash with engineering marvels from London’s Senate House to New York’s Queensboro Bridge.

In a film so richly grounded in fantasy and terror, the real-life impact of infrastructure becomes more palpable than ever.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Fun fact: the weight of the concrete is equivalent to 100,000 elephants
Fun fact: the weight of the concrete is equivalent to 100,000 elephants

Not one for the vertiginous amongst you, Brad Bird’s 2011 offering, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, sees Tom Cruise scaling the tallest building in the world: the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The Mission: Impossible films are known for their heart-stopping action scenes, but few moments in the franchise offer quite the same adrenaline rush for filmgoers as this one.

At 2,722 feet – that’s roughly a mile– you could forgive Cruise for relying on a team of world-class stunt teams, but he decided to do the scene himself. Skydance Productions, the studio behind the film, had to seek permission to drill holes in and break the windows of the Burj Khalifa to make the stunt possible.

Although Cruise's Ethan Hunt is seen free-climbing as a sandstorm descends, in real life, it took teams of engineers, professional stunt artists, architects and, of course, a safety harness, to pull off this spectacular scene.

The Spider-Man franchise

Fun fact: the bridge took 9 years to complete and opened in 1909
Fun fact: the Queensboro Bridge took 9 years to complete and opened in 1909

If you’re a super hero who relies on web-shooters to swing from skyscrapers to bridges in New York City, it’s pretty much a given that you’ll come across some impressive pieces of infrastructure.

The Queensboro Bridge first appears in Spider-Man (2002), as Spiderman’s archenemy, the Green Goblin, forces him to choose between girlfriend Mary-Jane and the citizens of New York City.

The Queensboro Bridge is a cantilever bridge, which spans the East River in New York. At 3,725 feet in length, it makes an impressive backdrop for one of the film’s most nail-biting scenes.

In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the Brooklyn Bridge also makes an appearance when Spider-Man declares his love to Gwen Stacy. In Stan Lee’s original comic books, it’s also the bridge that the Green Goblin lures Gwen to, before she tragically falls to her death.

King Kong

Fun fact: the Empire State Building's upper tower was originally designed as a mooring mast for airships
Fun fact: the Empire State Building's upper tower was originally designed as a mooring mast for airships

The Empire State Building is a 102-storey skyscraper in New York, which has become beloved to filmmakers and can be spotted in many a Hollywood outing. One of its earliest and most famous appearances was in the 1933 version of King Kong, then considered one of the greatest horror films of all time.

After escaping from a Broadway theatre, where he has been shackled and presented to the audience as an exhibit, Kong flees before scaling the Empire State Building.

Director Peter Jackson re-created this scene in his brilliant 2005 re-make. With Jackson’s eye for detail and use of stunning visuals, the scene where Kong climbs the Empire State Building, before falling to his death, is just as iconic as the original.

The creation of the Empire State Building in 1930 was made possible by 3,400 construction workers, and films such as King Kong provide a dazzling reminder of their incredible legacy.

James Bond, GoldenEye

Fun fact: filling the reservoir caused several seismic shocks
Fun fact: filling the reservoir caused several seismic shocks

We couldn’t have a list of the greatest infrastructure in film without including 007 himself. The 1995 film GoldenEye opens in spectacular fashion as Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, bunjee jumps off the 220 metre Contra Dam. In 2002, it was voted the greatest stunt in movie history.

Built in 1965, the Contra Dam, also called Verzasca Dam by the locals, is the epicentre of the Verzasca Hydroelectric complex. The dam, located in Locarno, Switzerland, is surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty, making it the perfect backdrop for GoldenEye’s dramatic opening.

Since viewers spied it on movie screens, Contra Dam has become a favourite of Bond fans and thrill-seekers alike.

Get involved

Now it’s time to have your say! Share your favourite infrastructure movie moments with ICE on our Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter pages – and don’t forget to use our hashtag, #EngineeringSummer.

  • Jessica Beasley, communications executive at ICE