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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Modern Marvels - Engineering Disasters
Modern Marvels - Engineering Disasters
A&E Video // Unrated // May 27, 2008
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Todd Douglass Jr. | posted May 20, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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The Show:

Like it or not, for better or worse we (humans) have a morbid fascination when it comes to accidents. How many times have you driven by a car crash only to attempt to sneak a peak or grumble about being stuck behind people who were looking? The same can be said for a fire or medical emergency or police action. If there's something going on that's bad news for someone, we as a people are generally interested for whatever reason. With that fact in mind, today we're taking a look at Modern Marvels: Engineering Disasters and it's every bit as gawk-worthy as you may think.

The Modern Marvels series has become a staple of primetime television for those of us looking for an in depth view of some piece of technology or another. Ever since the show originally aired in 1995 the program has garnered over 500 episodes and a faithful audience. While you can consider me as part of that crowd I have always found the sub-series Engineering Disasters to be the most captivating.

In 1999 the first Engineering Disasters episode was released with a couple follow ups over the next few years. It wasn't until 2003's fourth outing that the concept really took off and became a staple of the program. That's where this five disc DVD box set comes in as it chronicles episodes four through twenty with the New Orleans special included for good measure. Why the first three episodes were not included is beyond me and the fact that no bonus material is featured doesn't help matters, but if you're a fan of Engineering Disasters or are even remotely interested in the subject then you really won't care.

If you have never seen the show then you should know that each episode is broken up by a variety of topics. The level of detail surrounding each item is relatively light though in many cases these disasters could have received their own documentary with the amount of history surrounding them. What this show does is present an overview of each disaster with an introduction to it, a cause, and in most cases, an aftermath. While most items are served well by the supplied information there are many that I wish received more fleshing out.

As evidence of what an episode of Engineering Disasters could be like if it had more time the New Orleans feature stands out the most in this collection. We all know what happened in August of 2005 and how devastating Katrina truly was, but how many actually understand the science behind what happened? The levees broke down with pounding 15-foot storm surges, bridges collapsed, streets flooded, and so many people were left homeless or dead. Each disaster on this set rings through with its own level of tragedy but New Orleans is the most recent of which to be featured in this set and thusly, the most fresh in our minds.

Other disasters included here include the fire at the MGM Grand Hotel, the Exxon Valdez spill, the Union Carbide explosion, the toxic waste-filled Love Canal, the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, and Chicago's floods. Throughout it all there are issues with fires, floods, planes, nuclear meltdowns, and building inadequacies. Another recent even comes from 9/11 where Engineering Disasters takes a look at the collapse of World Trade Center Building 7.

All in all Modern Marvels: Engineering Disasters is a solid collection of episodes from the sub-series though it's not as complete as it could have been. With three episodes missing and more being released there's hope that we'll receive a second collection somewhere down the line. For the time being this is the definitive look at the franchise and it's very interesting and educational. Sure it's like watching a train wreck (there's one of them here too) but it's fascinating just the same and the material is handled appropriately. If you're even remotely interested in Modern Marvels you definitely need to pick this set up.

Episode List:

Disc 1:

Episode 4: The fire at the Las Vegas MGM Grand Hotel, the collapse of Seattle's Lacey V. Murrow Floating Bridge, the car that spurred the creation of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, and the flaw that grounded the first commercial jet. Episode 5: A lake and surrounding land are sucked into a Louisiana salt mine, the Exxon Valdez spill, and a California freeway meets a large earthquake. Episode 6: The Marine's AV-8 Harrier "Jump Jet", the Ford Explorer/Firestone rollovers, fire on the Piper Alpha offshore oilrig, derailment of a high-speed train in Germany, and computer errors that brought the world to the brink of accidental nuclear war. Episode 7: a forty-year old fire that still burns in an abandoned mine beneath the streets of Centralia (PA), two hundred sixty million gallons of water surge through a quiet Los Angeles neighborhood, a passenger plane shakes itself apart, and a freighter ship topples a Tampa Bay bridge.

Disc 2:

Episode 8: the 1983 collapse of a New England bridge, the sinking of an offshore oilrig, a devastating 19th century flood in Pennsylvania, and the explosion of a jet-fuel plant in Nevada. Episode 9: a runaway freighter ship strikes a riverside marketplace and witnesses the aftermath of a British airship disaster and a roof collapse in an Illinois arena. Episode 10: From the horrifying Union Carbide explosion in Indiana to Stalin's disastrous Siberian canal project, investigators delve into a few of the most tragic engineering catastrophes around the world. Episode 11: Experts recreate and examine a devastating flood in China that killed 145,000 people, a mansion swallowed by a sinkhole, a dance competition turned deadly, and an enormous gas explosion.

Disc 3:

Episode 12: The Texas A&M bonfire collapse, a Milwaukee drinking water contamination, a tank design flaw that contributed to thousands of World War II deaths, and Denver's airport baggage system turned into a high-tech nightmare. Episode 13: Patriot missile failures, the collapse of 7 World Trade Center Building, the toxic waste-filled Love Canal, and the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire. Episode 14: What went wrong during a flash flood of molasses, a massive oil tanker explosion, and a terrifying subway cave-in. Episode 15: A devastating flood brings Chicago to a standstill, a terrifying accident traps hundreds in an Alpine tunnel, a Mississippi riverboat explodes, and a cockpit warning system malfunction results in a fiery crash.

Disc 4:

Episode 16: Mexico's exploding streets, an Italian mining disaster, an oil tanker run aground off the coast of England, and a small Texas town where children are forever entombed in the ruins of their school. Episode 17: A crack in a California street transformers into a gigantic sinkhole, a fatal roof collapse at Charles de Gaulle International Airport causes chaos, and the flaw behind the plane crash that killed Knute Rockne is examined. Episode 18: Political pressure puts soldiers at risk in the case of the Army's Stryker Light Armored Vehicle, development demands that have forever altered California's landlocked Salton Sea, a labor-saving device which exposed consumers to dangerous levels of radiation, and the deaths of three men during the building of the Milwaukee Brewer's stadium.

Disc 5:

Episode 19: The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, two mysterious Boein 737 crashes, and one of the least known nuclear catastrophes in U.S. history - a meltdown at a secret government facility. Episode 20:A BP Refinery in Texas leads to one of America's worst industrial accidents, as well as the unusual events that caused American Airlines flight 587 to fall from the sky, and the reasons behind NASA's Skylab failure. Engineering Disasters: New Orleans: As Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, design flaws on escape routes from the city and engineering errors at the Superdome shelter contributed to the nightmare. Join "geological detectives" as they sift through the rubble to expose how the levee and the century-old pump system were a disaster in the making.

The DVD:


Modern Marvels: Engineering Disasters is presented on DVD with a full frame aspect ratio. The show presents differing qualities between episodes as they rely mostly on stock footage spread across many years. It's also worth noting that these episodes date back to 2003 so the quality of the filming differs somewhat as well. Overall this is a solid looking series with an image transfer on par with what you'd expect a television documentary series to present. There is some grain in the picture along with a few moments where the video has a soft appearance. All in all this is a well presented show but it doesn't posses that "wow" factor.


Engineering Disasters comes with a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo presentation that once again lives up to expectations. The quality is relatively flat but on par with what you'd hear from the show's broadcast. This being an educational/documentary type series there really isn't a need for something more robust or immersive so the audio is adequate enough for the material.


No bonus features are included on this release.

Final Thoughts:

Modern Marvels: Engineering Disasters is a meaty release with brief overviews of over 40 disasters to peruse. Each episode breaks each disaster down by a chapter so you can pick and choose exactly what kind of destruction you want to learn about. The episodes themselves are very interesting with loads of information but sometimes the content can feel a bit rushed depending on the subject matter. Plenty of highlights can be found across these five DVDs though the fact that this isn't a "complete" collection of episodes from the sub-series is kind of disappointing. Even so if you're even remotely interested in Modern Marvels this is definitely a release to pick up.

Check out more of my reviews here. Head on over to my anime blog as well for random musings and reviews of anime, manga, and stuff from Japan!

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