Rube Goldberg Machines in Movies

Rube Goldberg was an engineer-turned cartoonist who is most famous for the animated contraptions he drew. Goldberg used engineering principles to create fun diagrams of machines which performed simple tasks in complicated ways. Most often his machines were designed to perform everyday household tasks in zany, creative ways. He used a lot of unconventional techniques and materials to create these contraptions.

Due to the fun nature of Goldberg’s animated and real-world creations, it is no surprise that he has had an impact on film. Since film is a visual medium in motion, it is actually the perfect way for Goldberg’s unique machines to come alive. This is a look at some of the best Rube goldberg-inspired machines, contraptions, and sequences in film.

First, The Less Traditional Goldberg-Like Machines…

When we think of a Rube Goldberg machine, we often think of something that has a lot of complicated components that are working together to complete a task. Magnets, marbles, dominos, tea kettles, and pulleys are some of the most common components that come to mind. While that concept is true, a Rube Goldberg machine can also be something relatively simple. At its most basic definition, a Rube Goldberg machine can be anything that completes a simple task in a complicated manner. Many films have featured contraptions that fit this bill and are seemingly influenced by Goldberg’s ideas. Consider some of Kevin McCallister’s traps in the Home Alone films, or even sequence in Toy Story where Buzz Lightning proves to Woody that he can fly (thanks to a few well-placed toys).

One of the most famous non-traditional Goldberg machines in film has to be the defense system built into the cave seen in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Starting when Indiana Jones removes the golden idol from its pedestal, the machine becomes activated. Even though we don’t actually see how it works, its sets off a series of routines designed to trap/kill the thief. The boulder, is of course, the last resort. The idea that even an ancient society without sophisticated technology can build a working machine plays right into Goldberg’s concept; a complicated machine is composed of simplistic components that work together in succession (often in unsual ways). All of the Indiana Jones films feature a Rube Goldberg-like device similar to this one. It was even a source of inspiration for a similarly lethal device in The Goonies, among other films.

Another example of a Rube Goldberg machine that may not come to mind at first is from Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. When a can opener causes Edward to have a flashback, we see a complicated machine that is used to make cookies. This is a good example of a Rube Goldberg machine not necessarily because it is doing something simple in a complicated manner, but because it is a machine that is performing a task in a non-traditional, somewhat artistic way. There are more efficient ways to mass-produce cookies, yet this machine isn’t concerned about speed or efficiency. It’s all about the looks and the artistry of the motion.

Classic Rube Goldberg Machines…

More traditional Rube Goldberg machines have been featured prominently in many popular films. Since Goldberg designed his contraptions to be whimsical contributions to modern life, they often were seen completing simple tasks in convoluted ways inside the home. An example includes one of his most famous sketches, a mechanism that used the motion of a soup spoon to trigger a napkin. In cinema, filmmakers took this intent and expanded upon it. As such, many of the Rube Goldberg machines that are seen in film are ones that are used to complete chores around the house.

The most common type of Rube Goldberg machine in film has to be the breakfast-making machine. We’ve seen this countless times before (especially in the 1980’s). The most famous Rube Goldberg breakfast-making machine has to be from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. This is such a great Rube Goldberg machine for a number of reasons. First, like the rest of the film, this machine is fun and good-natured. It uses a number of different toys, and cartoon-like elements (such as an anvil) to prepare breakfast for Pee Wee Herman. It also is full of color. The plastic toys, are bright colors, which is one way this one stands out. Another reason this is such a great conraption is the fact that Pee Wee himself is fascinated by it. He makes the workings of the machine seem fun, and that helps make the audience interested. This is also a great example of combining different ideas to create a cohesive machine. Strings, tubes, motors, belts – everything is in motion. The clip starts off with a simple contraption that starts a record player, adding sound as well!

Another famous breakfast-making machine from the 1980’s comes from one of the most popular 80’s films, Back to the Future. The opening title sequence shows Doc Brown’s home and inside there are several devices that are working together to prepare breakfast. However, unlike most Rube Goldberg contraptions in film, this one is unique in the fact that it’s not working very well. This helps to create intrigue in the audience, because it becomes apparent that not everything is OK. Immediately we become interested in the character of Doc Brown because of his inventions and their dilapidated state, even before we meet him. In Back to the Future III, there is even an homage to Doc Brown’s original breakfast machine, but using 19th century technology to pull it off. 

One of the oldest breakfast machine contraptions in film is from the 1963 children’s movie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This one is one of the first examples of a scientist-type character having a Rube Goldberg type machine in their home. Other examples besides Back to the Future include Flubber and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In all these films, there is a slightly aloof, almost comedic perspective. It helps that they are created by “mad scientist” type main characters. Indeed, this one is also special because of the music and sound effects it uses which work really well with the overall tone of the film. Like the device in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, the characters are fascinated by it. This helps to promote the up-beat and positive tone of the film. Although this one is simpler than other Rube Goldberg machines we’ve seen, it is no less artistic. The colors and design of the machine fit in well with its setting, and give it a unique rustic and classic feel. 

Not Always Just Machines…

When it comes to Rube Goldberg contraptions in film, they don’t always have to be actual machines. On several occasions, creative filmmakers have used normal objects, sets, and even people to set up complicated sequences that unfold similarly to the way that a Rube Goldberg machine would. These unconventional “chain reaction” sequences aren’t designed to complete a task in the same way that Goldberg’s contraptions are. Instead, they take pleasure in seeing normal things put into action in abnormal ways for pure entertainment.

A great example is the opening sequence of the otherwise forgettable Superman III. Right away, the audience is clued in on the more comedic approach of this second sequel. The music suggests a comedy routine, and sure enough, a combination of slapstick and circumstance ensues. One simple distraction, caused by a women in an eye-catching dress, leads to a series of events that cause destruction and chaos on an otherwise normal city block. In this type of “Rube Goldberg” contraption, 

Another great Goldberg non-machine is in the Tom Hanks film The Money Pit. Here again, the tone is more comical. The chain reaction of events continues because of one mishap after another. In this way, the sequence evoques Goldberg’s contraptions because it is creating motion in unlikely, or complicated ways. The exaggerations from the slapstick tone are what makes this sequence possible. At the same time, it makes great use of the set. As the scaffolding comes apart, it functions like a Goldberg machine would with levers and moment arms.