With superhero, sci-fi and fantasy movies getting more recognition today than ever before, it’s never been a better time to be a nerd. But any self-respecting nerd has already seen the big stuff like The Avengers, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, so let’s delve into a broader range of titles that either slipped under a lot of people’s radars or haven’t yet been elevated to the higher echelons of nerdom where they truly belong. Here are 10 movies that should be mandatory viewing for all nerds everywhere.
10. War Games (1983)
In what very well might be the first film to ever give audiences a glimpse into hacker culture, War Games is both a historical period drama and great source of geekery. It sees a young hacker (Matthew Broderick) gain access to the government defence network and, through a computer game, accidentally initiate an all-out nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States.
With more bulky ’80s technology than you can shake an 8-inch floppy disk at, War Games was truly a product of its time and played heavily into the mass hysteria surrounding the mutually assured destruction doctrine of the cold war era. It even coined the term “wardialing,” which was the practice of dialing random phone numbers into your machine until you found a modem you could connect to. Today this term has evolved into what’s known as “wardriving,” where hackers prowl the streets in search of unsecured Wi-Fi networks they can leech off of.
Broderick actually gives one of the best performances of his career in War Games, which might come as a surprise considering how cheesy it can be at times, but it’s still a movie no geek should miss—especially if you grew up in the ’80s.
9. Tron (1982)
The original Tron is probably one of the most popular movies that few people have actually seen in its entirety. Sure, people will tell you they remember that awesome lightcycle scene, but that’s probably only because they saw that particular clip in some mashed up movie montage for the Academy Awards or something.
All nerds should see this movie. It’s basically about a hacker who gets transported into the world of a computer and is forced to participate in gladiatorial-style games where his only chance of escape is with the help of a heroic security program. Much like War Games, it’s positively soaked in ’80s culture and references. However, despite its revolutionary visual effects, Tron was disqualified by the Academy on the grounds that using computers to generate effects was considered “cheating,” a statement that would sound absolutely ridiculous today given the proliferation of CGI in movies.
Although the effects in the film definitely look dated when you go back and watch it, the movie blew minds back in 1982 and it surely still carries some of that magic.
8. Dark City (1998)
In Dark City, each night a mysterious metropolis gets reshaped; people’s memories are irrevocably altered, and anyone who begins to guess that something strange is going on gets sent for reprogramming. Rufus Sewell plays a seemingly ordinary person who learns the truth about the city and discovers that he’s in possession of some truly powerful abilities.
This movie fell into obscurity after it was overshadowed by The Matrix, which was released around the same time and used a lot of similar cinematography, set designs and thematics. But Dark City is both visually imaginative and philosophically provocative, as it encourages the audience to ask questions about ourselves and the trust we place on our natural senses.
If you can get your hands on the director’s cut of the movie, it’s definitely worth the watch.
7. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
This is ’80s filmmaking at its finest. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is an action-comedy extravaganza complete with martial arts mayhem, wild gunplay, crazy monsters and mystical sorcery.
Despite the extremely cliche story of two buddies teaming up to beat the bad guys and save the girl, this movie is almost impossible not to like. Kurt Russell’s tough guy persona was the pinnacle of badassery at the time, and the marvelous James Hong plays one of his most iconic performances as the villainous sorcerer Lo Pan.
Considering the spectacle that it was, it’s pretty shocking that the movie actually tanked at the box office. Had it faired better audiences might have had the chance to see an entire franchise built on Kurt Russel and his escapades as a nomadic trucker riding the Pork Chop Express. Oh well, we’ll always remember what old Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big old storm right in the eye and says “Give me your best shot. I can take it.”
6. Short Circuit (1986)
The ’80s really were a great time for nerdy movies and cold war what-if scenarios. Short Circuit tells the fun story of a military robot that get struck by lightning and, rather than going berserk and killing everyone, as is still the norm, it transformed into a loveable sentient being that’s terrified of the concept of being disassembled.
Sure, the premise is more than a little whimsical, but it’s one of the few movies on this list that’s fun for the whole family.
5. Akira (1988)
Akira shouldn’t just be required viewing for anime nerds, every nerd of every genre should see it. When it was first released in 1988 it was a groundbreaking movie that eventually became responsible for introducing Japanese animation to the wider Western audience.
Although the plot might break your brain a little, as it takes some pretty crazy turns and brings out more than a few warped ideas, the movie has been lauded for its atmosphere and animation style—which still comes out head and shoulders above many of today’s recently released big-budget animated features.
Akira is also a seminal cyberpunk movie which has been hugely influential in the sci-fi and pop-culture landscape. It’s even evoked in Kanye West’s music video for Stronger, in which he wakes up in a hospital bed with bandages wrapped around his head and comes to the realization that he has psychic powers. Sadly, he decided to leave out the giant milk-bleeding teddy bear.
4. Brazil (1985)
With movies like Time Bandits, 12 Monkeys, and Jupiter Ascending under his belt, Terry Gilliam is no stranger to the realm of movies that appeal to nerd culture. But of all the Terry Gilliam movies, Brazil is perhaps the most Terry Gilliamish. It has everything—fantasy, adventure, a dark dystopian future, a devilish sense of humor, and an unlikable yet charismatic protagonist.
Jonathan Pryce plays Sam Lowry, a paper-pushing government middleman who spends his days watching old movies and fantasizing about becoming an angelic warrior. While the movie starts out pretty funny, things quickly get bizarre and, by the end of it, the state of things are downright depressing, but it’s a superb vision of Terry Gilliam’s world that every nerd should see for themselves.
3. The Animatrix (2004)
Everyone has heard of and probably seen The Matrix, but the best sequel/prequel in the franchise was actually the straight-to-DVD animated feature The Animatrix. This anthology, collecting nine short movies from visionary anime directors, is packed with enough ideas and philosophical science fiction to keep you thinking about it for weeks. And some of the best shorts give brilliant alternate perspectives to the Wachowskis techno dystopian universe, strengthening the fabric of the original movie and the sequels that would follow.
This is especially true in the case of the two-part The Second Renaissance, directed by Mahiro Maeda. It tells the story of how the world from The Matrix came to be, and it’s definitely a lot to take in. But thanks to some stunning apocalyptic graphics and gorgeously disturbing designs, it becomes more like an introspective reflection on how class wars are invariably unstoppable, and how the victors will ultimately exploit those who are defeated. Yes, it’s unrelentingly bleak, but it’s also filled with some of the best imagery in a franchise that became iconic for its visuals.
2. District 9 (2009)
Neill Blompkamp really knocked his directorial debut out of the park with District 9. It even earned an Oscar nomination for best picture—something that was almost unheard of for a sci-fi movie until then.
In addition to providing an emotionally-driven, satire-laced narrative that echoes the apartheid situations faced by South Africa (the country where the movie takes place), the thing that really makes District 9 a must-watch is the astounding way it seamlessly blends all the CGI into the real world.
District 9 is a thought-provoking movie that also douses the audience with a ton of intense, visceral action in its final act. It’s a breakthrough cinematic achievement in sci-fi storytelling that every nerd needs to see.
1. Gattaca (1997)
As genetic discrimination is poised to become an actual threat to human rights in the coming years, the premise of Gattaca is perhaps even more salient now than it was when it was released in the ’90s. The thought that a person’s genetic makeup could solely determine their daily lives and future aspirations was a chilling concept, and one that Ethan Hawke’s character, Vincent Freeman, was unwilling to accept.
In the movie, set in a not-so-distant future, Freeman is a rare naturally-born human who is treated as inferior for not being genetically engineered. The really amazing (and utterly terrifying) thing about the film is just how convincing the future world seems. Given all the current prejudices in society, it seems incredibly plausible that this could be the way the world operates one day.
Gattaca was a movie that sparked real-world debate and got people talking about looming issues that need addressing. For that reason this is a movie that not only nerds, but everyone should see.