There are enough movies about creepy effects of technology—from poisonous gases used in wars to the scary future of AI. In this list, we chose to focus on movies and TV shows that talk about positive aspects of technology. Mankind cannot live without technological inventions and, sometimes, it makes good use of human inventiveness, scientific knowledge, engineering prowess, and perseverance to improve the odds of the race’s survival.
MOVIES AND TV SHOWS
QUEST FOR FIRE (1981)
Not only is this one of the most amazing and universally popular films ever made, but it also tells the story of one of the first and most important breakthroughs in human technology—the invention of making fire. This ability pushed mankind above all other creatures on the planet—everything else in our technological development is just a consequence.
APOLLO 13 (1995)
Technology is front and center in this story—first, the feat of getting humans into space in a metal box, and then being able to get them back when things go wrong. The famous utterance, “Houston, we have a problem,” was really an understatement considering the slim odds of survival that the Apollo 13 crew had on that flight.
Sometimes technology fails utterly. Tom Hanks’ character, a man comfortably traveling on a commercial jet, suddenly finds himself bereft of any technology at all. He is alone on a small Pacific island without any means of contacting the rest of humanity. All he has is a few coconuts to feed himself (and one to talk to). As in the Survivorman TV series, we realize how much our species is dependent on a network of people and things to keep us alive.
COCO BEFORE CHANEL (2009)
For literally centuries, fashion constrained women’s bodies in corsets, crinolines, ruffles, bows, and acres of heavy fabric that impeded movement and breathing. In the 1920s, Coco Chanel’s ideas transformed women’s fashion into a liberating “flapper” style. Her concept of the “little black dress” remains a staple of any woman’s wardrobe to this day. This is the story of how Ms. Chanel became the most famous designer in history.
Out of the innumerable film and TV renditions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, we selected one of the most accomplished ones—the TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson. Many of Doyle’s literary ideas have since been implemented by modern criminology: using fingerprint evidence as a proof of crime, analyzing the crime scene in search of material clues, and detecting processes of eliminating possibilities or analyzing a timeline of events. Sherlock’s methods, so miraculous-sounding in the 19th century, have been a staple of all police work for well over a century now.
THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH (2010)
This mini-series was based on Ken Follett’s most famous historic novel, which is set in the 12th-century world of political and social turmoil in feudal England. The lives of the protagonists of this story revolve around the construction of the (fictitious) cathedral of Kingsbridge. Follett became fascinated with the process of cathedral building—a technological marvel of the late Gothic period.
IMITATION GAME (2014)
This film tells the story of Alan Turing, the genius mathematician who invented a proto-computer in order to crack the enormous amount of data provided when Polish and British spies got access to the German coding machine Enigma. When Turing and his team invented modern code-breaking, they enabled the success of Allied war operations that included the protection of the Atlantic convoys and the invasions of Europe in Sicily and Normandy.
THE MARTIAN (2015)
When astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) gets accidentally abandoned on Mars, he has to, in his own words, “science the sh** out of his situation.” In other words, Watney has to use all the knowledge and tech ideas he can come up with to contact Earth and survive on the inhospitable planet for four years until he can be rescued. Technology is his enemy and his savior at the same time.
THE CURRENT WAR (2017)
In the story of the competition between Edison, who was promoting DC current, and Westinghouse—and then Tesla—who were basing the future of electricity on AC current, there are no clear winners, other than the general population that moved from gas lamps to electricity in a few short years. It is, therefore, a story about the positive effect of technological progress, even though the underlying ruthless fight between the inventors is the core of this movie.
McGYVER (1985-1992 and 2016-2021)
The character of McGyver, an agent/scientist who solves even the most dire situations with a lot of scientific ideas, has become a synonym for an inventive tinkerer. The two TV shows, one at the end of the 20th century and the other in the second decade of the 21st, both take advantage of our collective fascination with technology that can, literally, save lives. A perfect show for young people to counterbalance movies where technological inventions serve destructive purposes.
This biography of Maria Skłodowska-Curie stars Rosamund Pike as the Polish-French scientist who developed the theory of radioactivity (she coined this term) and who discovered two new elements: polonium (named after her native country) and radium. The incredible scientific work of Curie changed the world thanks to both the destructive and curative powers of radioactivity. The scientist had to combat both the intellectual inferiority of her fellow scientists and their prejudice against women.
Christopher Nolan’s latest film is scheduled for release later this year. J. Robert Oppenheimer is credited with being “the father of the atomic bomb” for his development of the weapon, while his subsequent creation of the field of American theoretical physics remains largely unappreciated. Oppenheimer’s life story not only includes the McCarthy era of political persecution but also his post-war efforts to limit the proliferation of the destructive technology.
DOCUMENTARIES AND REALITY SERIES
This unpretentious reality series aimed at empirically verifying urban legends and popular opinions about science. In the show, viewers could learn about laws of physics or chemistry, see various applications of technological solutions, and enjoy an explosion or two in the process.
SURVIVORMAN (2004- 2015)
Les Stroud is the Survivorman—an adventurer who lives his tale by being dropped, alone, in the most extreme conditions (e.g., in a jungle, on a snowy mountain) and making it back in one piece. In the process, he uses little technology other than an occasional knife or piece of rope, but in this way he demonstrates how our existence is dependent on technological inventions—from a compass to matches and water bottles.
MYSTERY OF THE MATTER (2015)
A one-season PBS series, Mystery of the Matter examined chemical elements and the scientists who discovered them or harnessed their power and uses.
WORLD’S LARGEST UNDERGROUND CITY: CHICAGO (2016)
An episode of National Geographic’s Mega Engineering series, the documentary explores the creation of underground cities as a solution for cities that have no space to expand on the surface. Cities featured include Moscow, where many underground malls and subway networks are already in existence; Amsterdam, which is planning to dig extensively under its canals; and Chicago, which is planning an ambitious project of a second city to be built many floors underground.
MEGAPROJECT: SINGAPORE’S UNDERGROUND SEWAGE SYSTEM (2023)
A documentary on a megaproject undertaken to expand Singapore’s space to fit a sewage system. Space is at a premium in Asia, and nowhere more so than in this city-state. Massive drilling systems and planning operations showcase the engineering and construction technologies that may serve the growth of cities and countries of the future. This is an example of the numerous popular documentaries that are tracking big construction projects all over the world.