Jim Carrey had a point when he said, “Free cable is the ultimate aphrodisiac”, as frankly, anyone who can hand out free cable is going to be popular.
However, even The Cable Guy might find his social influence supplanted these days by the nearest computer geek. Gradually, computers have developed from a niche interest into something that everyone depends on to get through life. As a result, the computer geek has enjoyed a transformation from outcast to linchpin.
The geek is a stock character of both the big screen and the small. A character such as Garth from Wayne’s World doesn’t fit into our narrow definition of a computer geek. Does he use his Amiga to create a colourful poster for his friends’ rock concert? Yes. Does he put a bra on his head and do some computer hacking in order to create a woman? No.
By the same token, we’d argue that the hackers from Hackers (1995) are hackers rather than computer geeks per se. People like that look extremely sexy without their shirts on. Make no mistake, this list is a journey into the nerdier side of computer culture…
Gary and WyattWeird Science
“There are motorcycles in my house!” “Wyatt, there are killer mutants in your house!”
Polite, thoughtful and the recipients of top grades, Gary and Wyatt are every parent’s dream. However, within the milieu of 80s high school culture, these admirable qualities don’t always add up to social success. Like a lot of geeks, Wyatt and Gary are the rulers of their own world, in this case, the world of computers. In this pairing, Wyatt is the technical expert and Gary is the ideas man, a bit like Wozniak and Jobs.
Having a sex life is high on the agenda of a typical high school nerd and yet, often, an elusive aspiration. But this is movie-world, so, what if there was a way to use a computer to create their dream woman? As with all fables about wish fulfilment, things don’t go according to plan, and by the end, the boys have learned a few lessons about life. As ever in the John Hughes universe, the primary message is: being popular with a bunch of jerks just isn’t worth it.
At the same time, their peers realize that Gary and Wyatt are pretty cool guys. By being themselves, Gary and Wyatt are able to meet actual, physical girlfriends rather than a fantasy one on their computer, and for some of us, the lambs stopped screaming.
Moss and RoyThe IT Crowd
“I’m a 32-year-old IT consultant who works in the basement. Yes, I do the whole lonely hearts thing.”
As is the case with serial killers, while there is often a niche for the loner, computer geekdom is full of successful pairings. Turbo-nerd Moss accepts what he is and Roy knows that he’s in the same boat. Moss probably would have struggled to survive in an earlier century, but he thrives thanks to a life that can be lived largely online, and a job that places a greater stress on an obsession with technical things than on charisma.
Roy is the classic IT slob. At times, he muses about joining mainstream society, but the effort of sprucing himself up, becoming a bloke and liking a football team always puts him off. Many computer geeks picture themselves as Neo from The Matrix, but in reality, they mostly fall somewhere between Roy and Moss.
“I am invincible!”
Let’s face it, everyone in a Bond film looks like a bit of nerd compared to the main man. Boris’ loud Hawaiian shirt coupled with his frivolous attitude to password security give us a hint that he dreams of something greater than his lot in a bleak Russian communications outpost. His signature manoeuvre, raising his arms in a V and proclaiming, “I am invincible!” is often paid tribute to by the editor when he’s ahead on the pub quiz machine.
The hardcore computer nerd is the master of his domain name, but could he be turned to the dark side by the promise of material riches? Two years earlier, cinema audiences had been introduced to this dynamic by another tasty computer geek realisation in the form of Jurassic Park‘s Dennis Nedry.
Although unseen, we are left to presume that a quick visit from the former 006 and Xenia ‘Thigh Crusher’ Onatopp convince Boris that a life of riches and being squeezed is one that would befit him. The message, that giving in to temptation leads to being eaten by a dinosaur or frozen solid in liquid nitrogen, kept many an impressionable nerd on life’s straight and narrow.
“This isn’t a game! In the real world, when you kill people they die – for real!”
He begins the film as the kind of young man that any of us would be happy to bring home to meet our local Linux user group. He was nearly deemed too cool for our list, but despite his good looks and confidence, he exhibits positive qualities such as developing open source software with other nerds in a garage. It’s yet another variation on the ‘geek tempted by riches’ theme, but he comes good when he realises what he’s really involved in.
In a film that should have been called Don’t Come Out Of The Basement, he thinks that he’s it made in normal, non-geek society, but learns what a sham it all is, to the accompaniment of low piano notes and a terrified look.
Jim, Malvin and DavidWarGames
“Remember you told me to tell you when you’re acting rudely and insensitively? You’re doing it right now.”
The depiction of computer nerdom in WarGames is actually a three-pronged affair. Although Matthew Broderick’s teenage computer enthusiast, David, is extremely well played, people often forget to consider two of the supporting roles: Jim Sting and his companion Malvin.
Between them, we have three points in a two pronged decision tree: the computer geek as a youngster and two possible outcomes for adult life. Malvin is a cautionary tale for young David, an example of nerdom taken too far and a product of the blurry pace of 80s life, with its affordable computers that can be lifted by a single person.
Conversely, Jim is an older man who probably had to input his earliest programs on punch cards, endowing him with a patient demeanour. To young David, he probably represents the best compromise his future can offer: a job, a wife and a car, along with a glint in the eye when causing administrative havok down at the office.
David gets the girl, saves the world and, subsequently, probably tries a bit harder in school and takes the occasional sojourn away from computers. Jim and Malvin, we presume, continue to administer UNIX systems while exhibiting a sitcom-style clash of personalities.
SimonThe Office (UK)
“Correct! At last…”
Other actors, when called upon to evoke screen nerdom, should carry round a clip of comedy genius Matthew Holness in episode 2.4 of The Office (UK). Psychologist Eric Berne liked to employ games in order explain human behaviour, and we could call Simon’s principle game, “You Can’t Manage Without Me.” He’s a prat, and he wouldn’t get very far in life if not for the fact that he fixes computers.
A friendly “All right, Simon. How’s it going?” from mothers’ favourite Tim results in a total lack of acknowledgement. After all, Simon The All Knowing has idiots bothering him all day. Tim is the foil to Simon because he refuses to play his game. When Simon issues a challenge by asking Tim if he’d rather fix it himself, Tim doesn’t engage in a pissing contest because he doesn’t care enough about the job. Simon’s daft, exaggerated stories about his prowess on the go kart track and his inside knowledge about what really happened to Bruce Lee fall flat when he tries them within Tim’s earshot.
I’m sure many people have considered getting rid of Simon, but frankly, they couldn’t manage without him, and he knows it. Funnily enough, an earlier, but slightly less developed version of the character exists in a one-off sketch on the short-lived British TV show, Bruiser (2000).
Angela BennettThe Net
“Our whole lives are on the computer, and they knew, they knew that I could be vanished.”
The film itself is handicapped by the fact that we find it difficult to picture Sandra Bullock, playing her stock-in-trade mousey but lovable persona, as a lonely computer geek with no social ties whatsoever. This casting against type, the poor level of technical accuracy, along with its thriller backdrop that fails to ignite, are made up for, to a degree, by the prescience of the story.
Wondering if we are spending too much of our lives in the cloud has become a modern lament, and identity theft has become an important issue in the real world. The concept, of a computer admin with more friends online than in real life, seemed fanciful in 1995, but it’s now characteristic of life for the typical geek.
“There’s cool geeky and geeky-geeky. I’m only ever going to be geeky-geeky.”
Admittedly, this body swap comedy owes a lot to other films such as Weird Science, constituting as it does a Britpop homage to American teen comedies of the 80s. The pastiche of influences and the slightly off-kilter approach to the genre are less surprising when you consider that this is an adaptation of a chick-lit novel. However, fear not, because it’s good, if quirky stuff, and the stand out character is Luke de Lacey’s depiction of anorak-clad, painfully-shy Chas.
His performance is heart-warming as he negotiates the problems thrown up by his lack of social standing with his peers, an embarrassing mum and the mystery of a best friend who gender swaps due to a scientific experiment gone awry. Unfortunately, his wonderful performance is seldom seen, partly due to the inept way the film was promoted. The box art and the trailer (which gives away a major twist) completely omit Chas, even though he is arguably the lead character.
It looks like the distributor desperately tried to hawk the film as a chick-flick, meaning that fans of quirky sci-fi comedy largely missed out on one of the great geek portrayals.
“I’m the IT misfit. The man with no name.”
Isy Suttie turns in a classic performance as she-geek IT technician Dobbie. “She’s my dream, my nightmare”, muses Mark, having walked in on her while she’s engrossed in an MMO. We approve highly of her participation in live-action role playing, and something tells us she’s probably got a 20 sided die in her handbag.
Dobbie is more of a success in life than some other computer geeks, because she accepts her situation for what it is: the cool kids will never grant her accesses to the in crowd, so instead, she rocks the geek lifestyle like a 20-something Victoria Wood who’s been bitten by a radioactive nerd. She takes comfort in her massive geektastic DVD collection, and the understanding that if you make fun of her weird hairstyle, she won’t fix your computer for you.
“Quit being territorial, just give me the password!”
It’s always gratifying when an actor takes what could be a small role and elevates it. Think of what Eugene ‘Jim’s Dad’ Levy can bring to a supporting role to see what we’re talking about.
Mary Lynn Rajskub is a natural at awkward geek delivery, but her talent for comedy is always bubbling below the surface when she plays Chloe. An instant hit with fans when introduced in series three, Chloe rose from a recurring guest character all the way up to a billing in the final series that was second only to Kiefer Sutherland himself.
Let us not forget, before there was Chloe, Sara Gilbert gave good geek as the ill-fated Paula. Without giving too much away, you’ll be forgiven for staring at the screen and sobbing “Nooooo! Darlene!”
The circle was finally completed by Katee Sackhoff as Dana Walsh, and some plot twists that regular viewers of 24 found a bit surprising, being, as they were, unaccustomed to such developments.
It risks spilling blood on the keyboard to praise anything about Superman III, but Richard Pryor’s turn as a loser who comes up with a bone-headed, and much referenced, hacking scheme is decent. How about Hugh Jackman’s character from Swordfish? No way, he’s too cool. Same goes for Neo out of The Matrix. Brandon from Galaxy Quest is geeky, but is he a more of a geek of sci-fi than of computers?
With more room, we might have included Jamie Harrold as a classic basement dwelling computer hacker in The Score (2001), a performance that probably got him a computer geek role in The Sum Of All Fears (2002).
Have we missed anyone? Should we have bumped anyone? Tell us about it in the comments.