‘Dream Big: Engineering Our World’: Film Review

Engineered for classroom inspiration.

Aimed at tomorrow’s civil engineers, the latest Imax opus from Greg MacGillivray explores manufactured wonders around the world.

Dream Big: Engineering Our World, an Imax tribute to feats of engineering across the ages — ancient, contemporary, hypothetical — offers its fair share of visceral 3D thrills. There’s the rush of time-lapse swoops down paved thoroughfares, gasp-inducing glimpses of Earth from a space capsule and aerial views of skylines and bridges. But the film begins on more modest turf, among kids at play — building, creating, pretending.

As with many other Imax features directed by Greg MacGillivray, but more explicitly so, kids are the primary audience for Dream Big. With its focus on problem-solving, teamwork and the power of the imagination, it’s certain to spark syllabus highlights for STEM teachers and their students as it embarks on its run at museums and science centers across the country.

Using a 60-40 mix of film and digital, MacGillivray (The Living Sea) and two fellow giant-screen vets — Brad Ohlund, director of cinematography, and aerial photography expert Ron Goodman — cover wide-ranging material with their typical flair for you-are-there immediacy. The director supplements the new material with well-chosen stock footage, much of it extraordinary in its own 2D right, while Jeff Bridges’ narration lends underplayed notes of amazement to the inspirational mix.

The transitions aren’t always smooth as the pic shifts gears from the Great Wall, with its innovative sticky-rice mortar, to such newfangled achievements as France’s sky-high Millau Bridge, Scotland’s one-of-a-kind Falkirk Wheel rotating boat lift and the wind-load-minimizing twists of the Shanghai Tower. But though the shifts can be abrupt, the film provides an overview of a huge topic with admirable concision.

MacGillivray includes portraits of a handful of engineers working today. One, Angelica Hernandez, emphasizes the power of the classroom: She was a member of the high school robotics team profiled in the documentary Underwater Dreams, whose “junkyard” robot outperformed sleeker models from MIT and other collegiate squads. Her teacher, Fredi Lajvardi, plays himself in the film’s recreations of the Phoenix group’s groundbreaking work. That youthful can-do spirit similarly animates the Mississippi high schoolers who the filmmakers follow on their trip to Australia for a solar car challenge.

Seattle-based engineer Menzer Pehlivan, whose area of expertise is earthquake safety, takes clear delight in staging classroom demonstrations for budding builders, with an emphasis on bringing girls into the sciences. She was 13 when a devastating quake in her native Turkey set her on her professional course. Based on her firsthand experience, she factors in the emotional aftershocks of such an event when designing preventive measures — one of the doc’s many reminders that’s there’s more at stake than just nuts and bolts.

Along those lines, the most affecting contemporary story that MacGillivray tells involves the work of Avery Bang, who heads a nonprofit organization, Bridges to Prosperity, that builds footbridges in the developing world. The filmmakers were in Haiti when Bang’s team and locals worked together on a suspension footbridge. The simple structure would give residents of remote riparian communities long-needed safe access to facilities on the other side of the river. In the documentary’s most stirring sequence, MacGillivray & Co. capture the elation of schoolkids crossing the finished product.

Elsewhere in the film, matters of economics are barely dealt with; soaring high-rises may solve the need for commercial and residential space in increasingly crowded cities, but whether they offer affordable options for poor, working-class and middle-class residents is unclear.

Along with the fascinating factoids it assembles, Dream Big poses many questions — all of them grist for the problem-solving mill. Through examples of dazzling successes and also the occasional look at a design that didn’t work — notably the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge, its dramatic buckling and collapse captured in archival footage — the film is sure to pique grade-schoolers’ interest and encourage research and experimentation. Its what-if mix of physics, imagination and goodwill is an exhilarating conversation starter.

Production company: MacGillivray Freeman Films in partnership with American Society of Civil Engineers; presented by Bechtel Corporation
Distributor: MacGillivray Freeman Films
Narrator: Jeff Bridges
Featuring: Avery Bang, Steve Burrows, Angelica Hernandez, Fredi Lajvardi, Menzer Pehlivan
Director: Greg MacGillivray
Producer: Shaun MacGillivray
Executive producers: Mary Jane Dodge, Jane Howell Lombardi, Christine A. Williams
Director of photography: Brad Ohlund
Editors: Jason E. Paul, Stephen Judson, Mark Fletcher
Composer: John Jennings Boyd

42 minutes