5 culturally significant nerd movies

Nerd culture is a difficult thing to pin down. It would be fair to say that being a nerd has gone mainstream. However, our interests cast a wide net, and this net includes more than just video games and comic books. The science, technology and art that make up portions of nerd culture, have their roots in historical and culturally significant events. I wanted to take a look at a few films that expressed this side of being a “nerd”; movies that give a historical context for the stories they tell. Below is a list of 5 significant and often overlooked nerd films. These movies include subjects ranging from hacker culture to the cold war. Let’s dig in, shall we.


Tron: This film represents a time when Disney was willing to take chances and explore new storytelling territory. Tron’s plot is convoluted and couched in techno jargon, but regardless of that, this film was way ahead of its time. Using the burgeoning video game industry as a backdrop for corporate espionage, this film takes a hard left turn when our hero, software designer, Kevin Flynn enters a digital landscape doing battle with computer programs personified. This movie is visually stunning, and should be noted for its inclusion of early computer culture and its links to the video game industry and 1960’s and 70’s counter-culture as well as inspiring modern electronic music and style with regards to groups like Daft Punk.


Sneakers: If you like heist films but haven’t seen Sneakers, you’re missing out. The film begins in the 1960s with two young hackers using their university’s computer to divert funds from conservative organizations to liberal causes. One of the young men is arrested; the other goes on the run. Flash forward 30 years and we catch up with the hacker that got away, who has formed a surveillance business under a new identity. What ensues is a caper film that is often funny, tense, political and bridges the gap between early hacker culture and the future of privacy and surveillance in the world. Sneakers is just as current now, as it was when it came out in 1992.

real genius earmuff

Real Genius: 15 year old Mitch Taylor is recruited to a California university (think Caltech), believing this is his ticket to a bright future. It is soon revealed that he is a part of an experiment used to design weaponry to be used by the U.S. military. Along the way he is taken under the wing of the hilarious and carefree Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), a young man who has learned that being a genius isn’t all there is to life. At first, Real Genius comes off like a typical 80’s teen comedy, but the film presents themes that extend beyond social hierarchy, to include thoughts on morality and ethics in scientific discovery. This film reflects the the 1980’s culture and include the end of the Cold War and materialism in a comedic and engaging way.

Space Camp

Space Camp: Okay, so this movie is besieged by problems not the least of which is the fact that it came out shortly after The Challenger disaster. The film is full of clichés and is perhaps the most pithy film on this list. However, through its ‘gee-wiz’-like 80’s presentation, and its inclusion of a precocious child and ‘adorable’ robot, this movie sends out a pro science message and eschews the pocket protectors and horn-rims for a cast that is non-archetypal.  With Col. Chris Hadfield having just returned to Earth*** and Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson making impassioned pleas for NASA funding, the time may be nigh to revisit this film in the form of a remake.


War Games: When highly intelligent high school student, David, hacks into a government weapons system, thinking it’s a game, he incites the countdown to nuclear war. The films spans the western half of the United States as, David and his friend Jennifer try desperately to find answers and avoid capture. This film is a brilliant, socially conscious and thoughtful adventure that everyone should see. War Games reflects the heightened anxiety of the Cold War, paired alongside the curiosity inspired tech culture of the 1980s.

This is my list for just a few of the culturally significant nerd-related movies. What are some of yours?


*I have omitted Revenge of the Nerds and Hackers even though I really enjoy both of those films. While they address concerns of conformity and finding one’s place, I feel like they lean more toward fun popcorn fare, without having anything more to say about the culture around them. 

**I adore this movie! It’s a cult classic with endlessly quotable lines. When you meet a person who has heard of it, you feel an immediate kinship.

***If you haven’t been keeping up with the Colonel’s time in space via social media, you just missed 6 months of awesome.

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