Review by Sean Boelman
Directed by Marcus Robinson, An Engineer Imagines claims itself to be a “cinematic homage” to its subject, and that description is disappointingly accurate. Often feeling more like a shallow tribute to an underappreciated art than a biographical documentary, the film offers some gorgeous imagery but not much else.
The movie pays tribute to the life and career of Peter Rice, one of the most famous and distinguished architectural engineers of all time. There’s no denying that Rice made some important contributions to his field, his works including the Sydney Opera House and The Pompidou Centre, but Robinson fails to translate this into a compelling film.
Part of what makes the movie fail is that it often seems like it is fawning over its subject. More adulation than anything else, the film gets too caught up in singing its subject’s praises to offer anything of real substance about his life or even his artistic process. This is where greater access to primary materials would have been helpful.
Robinson interviews a lot of architects that offer their perspective on Rice’s impact on the field, but a lot of these interviews feel repetitive. Although it is clear that a person is important when so many people say the same great things about them, that isn’t a particularly cinematic presentation of information.
The movie does a solid job of making the viewer admire Rice, but it isn’t the interviews that do so. Rather, it is the presentation of his work that really brings the point home. Why have multiple people talk about someone’s brilliance when their work speaks for itself? All it takes is one look at the structures Rice contributed to in order to understand why he was so important.
Robinson’s use of visuals in the film is absolutely gorgeous. The architecture featured in the movie is obviously wonderful, and the way in which he photographed it was done for an eye for aesthetics. While it’s fitting that a documentary about this topic would be so visually-oriented, it’s certainly a bit disappointing that the film almost would’ve been more enjoyable on mute.
The thing that Robinson does succeed in doing is arguing for Rice’s profession as an underappreciated form of art. Although some have seen architecture for its creative side, it is more often looked at through a mathematical perspective as engineering. However, the movie does an excellent job of showing that there is more than one way to look at things.
Despite some wonderful visuals, Marcus Robinson’s documentary An Engineer Imagines is mostly a bore. The film simply doesn’t explore the material it needs to explore with any amount of depth or sincerity.
An Engineer Imagines streams online in partnership with indie theaters beginning April 29. A list of participating locations can be found here. It then hits VOD on May 5.