These remain the post-glory days of the nerd. From Larry Ellison, island-owning-cutthroat-businessman-billionaire, to Mark Zuckerberg, billionaire-coder-CEO-visionary, the once-lowly nerd — with Silicon Valley serving as his Xanadu — is now creator of much of the world’s riches, seer of the world’s future, and the person to whom Presidents and hopefuls come for money, anointing and benificent manipulation of Big Data.
It was not always thus.
Even while Bill Gates was destroying the competition in his fast march to world’s richest human being, nerds in high schools around the world were still getting bullied. The rise of the web, PCs, social media and easy money — all easily leveraged by the nerd — have at last taught even the biggest, meanest, stupidest of bullies, that the nerd they pick on today may very well be the one that creates that thing that puts the bully’s future self out of work, and possibly eradicates the only industry he’s ever known.
To its credit, Hollywood has long promoted the glory and power — and humanness — of the nerd, since at least the dawn of the Reagan Era. Long before nearly anyone, including nerds, actually owned a computer, Hollywood revealed a potential, brainy hero figure.
True, while many movies still offer up the stereotypical nerd, slovenly, socially inept, living in mom’s basement, spending his (always his) nights staring into banks of computer monitors, and lacking even the fortitude to be the hero’s plucky sidekick, some of the best films of the past 30 years have glorified the nerd.
These are the very best of the bunch.
Revenge of the Nerds
Released nearly 30 years ago, Revenge of the Nerds is the standard by which all nerdy cinema will forevermore be judged against.
Adams College freshman nerds Gilbert and Lewis are relentlessly taunted by the jocks of Alpha Beta fraternity. When the jocks force the nerds out of their dorm, the nerds must create their own fraternity — and teach the entire school why nerds matter. Booger and Pointdexter nearly steal the show.
It was “Morning in America” and Hollywood was moving at warp speed to release pro-nerd films. One of the nerdiest ever was Real Genius, the story of a boy and another boy, and mostly only boys, except for the rare girl, who were all so super-smart that they were sent off to a sort of Cal Tech Junior High.
Our anti-hero, Mitch, so smart that even his parents don’t know what to do with him, helps save the world, gets the girl and learns that the smarter you are the less you need to care about your appearance. Brain power trumps all.
Phone Phreaking in 1983, the fallacy of the Cold War, computer hacking, computer gaming — probably no mainstream Hollywood film has ever been as audacious as WarGames in its depiction of the power of the nerd. All Matthew Broderick’s character wants to do is hack phone systems and play the latest and greatest computer games. Instead, he nearly starts World War III.
If Matthew Broderick’s nerd helped avert World War III in WarGames, then twenty years later, following the PC revolution, the Internet revolution, and the bursting of the Internet stock bubble, American Splendor offered a smaller, more cynical view of the nerd. The film’s depiction of the slovenly, obsessive, radically under-employed Harvey Pekar delivered a vision of the nerd as common man.
Only, in this case, one bursting with talent and, if he must admit it, reasonably happy with his meager lot in life. Hoarder Harvey decides to document his life in comic form and it becomes wildly popular — primarily due to its unflinching honesty. The film also offers a brief but inspired depiction of comic artist and uber-nerd, Robert Crumb.
X-Men may be the prototypical Hollywood vision of the nerd. Nerds are, well, born that way. They are endowed with amazing abilities, which makes them stand out from everyone else. X-Men also has, surprisingly, one of the best Nazi prison camp scenes of any film from any genre. Only, it’s not about Nazis or the past, but the future — and who will control it.
This being a Hollywood blockbuster, all those born with the special “X gene” are, not surprisingly, equally pretty and badass.
Lead image taken from the trailer of Revenge of the Nerds