After Thomas Edison built one of the first hydroelectric stations in Appleton, Wisconsin in 1882, dam construction surged throughout the United States, and the world. His Vulcan Street Plant produced 12.5 kilowatts of electricity, but each new project grew in size and capability, and now the mammoth Three Gorges Dam (pictured above) in China generates over 20 gigawatts of useful electricity.
Aside from their practical use, dams also serve as social and aesthetic forces that are hard to ignore. Controversy has surrounded them due to their impact on nature, as well as local populations; and they are, without a doubt, interesting constructs that beg the camera eye. These aspects are not lost on filmmakers, from Hitchcock to Michael Bay.
The Los Angeles River is kind of a movie star in itself, having been featured in so many movies it deserves a column of its own; the Sepulveda Dam is part of that waterless waterway, and due to its close proximity to Hollywood, it's often been utilized in films. These include Sabotage, Buckaroo Banzai, Iron Man 2, The Fast and the Furious, The Italian Job, Gattaca, and most memorably in Escape from New York, where Snake Plissken is almost killed before being saved by the President.
Dam! Hit the jump for more examples.
The towering power plant formerly known as Boulder Dam, which powers California, Nevada and Arizona, shows up in the bulk of movies. Above is a still from 1978's Superman: The Movie, as the villainous schemes of Lex Luthor take effect.
Albert Brooks directed the comedy Lost in America, in which he and his wife decide to drop out of the rat race of society, and travel the country in an RV. Their entire monetary supply, or "nest egg," is lost by the wife (Julie Hagerty) in one night in Las Vegas. The following day at Hoover Dam, Brooks unleashes his anger with the classic line, "Nice dam, huh? Do you want to go first, or should I?" And he forbids her from ever saying "nest egg" again: "The bird lives in a round stick, and you have things with ham!"
Another comedy that takes place in Las Vegas is, well, Vegas Vacation. When addressing a trip to Vegas, it seems like there was a clause in filmmaking that a stop at good old Hoover Dam was a requisite.
After Cousin Eddie asks, "When the hell does the damn dam tour start?" hijinks ensue, and Clark has to try to stop a leak he created that threatens the dam. The level of comedic gold is definitely dialed down in this, the final Vacation movie; but the dam tour was possibly the highlight. (Photo: Warner Bros.)
One part of any renewable resource installation is the transformer, which steps up the wattage to send the electricity to the grid. The fact that in Transformers, the Autobots are hanging out on Hoover Dam, home to enormous transformers, was a subtle touch of irony.
1992's Universal Soldier also exploited the dam's potential, as a scenario involving terrorists and hostages is thwarted by the military's new elite force of UniSols, played with robotic charm by Dolph Lundgren and Jean Claude Van Damme (hey now!).
Criminals, Controversy, and Cops
The presence of dams in crime dramas is an irresistible plot tool. One of the most breathtaking scenes in The Fugitive is when U.S. Marshall Gerard seemingly has the titular Kimble cornered atop a spillway at Cheoah Dam. Not willing to be detained again, Kimble jumps from the towering height and manages escape.
In 1998's Hard Rain, a severe storm threatens a dam in the Midwest. Officials open levees to protect the power station, and the flood increases, greatly influencing the conflict as thieves battle thieves amid the torrential waters.
Chinatown is an award-winning story of the corruption, scandal, and mystery surrounding a Department of Water and Power's shadowy manipulations of 1937's Los Angeles energy production and water procurement. As Jake Gittes, Jack Nicholson turns in a performance that will cement his status as acting icon, portraying a private investigator determined to uncover the theft of water via dam.
World War II Dams
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The sequel to The Guns of Navarone, titled Force 10 from Navarone, features a small group of commandos who secretly enter Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia. Their mission is to destroy a bridge, but when the plan goes south, they improvise. Instead of blowing the bridge with their erstwhile explosives, they decide to use smaller devices to create a chain reaction in an upriver dam. The force from the ensuing rush of water accomplishes the destruction of the bridge.[caption id="attachment_35637" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="StudioCanal"][/caption]
The Dam Busters is a classic British film with all the right elements of a war adventure movie in place. The historical account of how Royal Air Force planes flew in low to drop bombs that would skip over torpedo-catching nets, and then sink to a proper depth before discharging against the dams was a major influence on another movie. The attack on the Death Star in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope plays out very much like the exciting sequence in this film. YouTube user HenryvKeiper made two videos comparing the two.
Anyway, are there any movies we may have missed that feature a dam? Don't hold back (see what I did there?), tell us in the comments.
Previously In the Movies: Drive-In Movie Theaters, Elevator Shafts