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The 20 Best Movie Geeks

Films like The Matrix have elevated geeks out of the lab and into pop culture with a vengeance. But while it’s fun to imagine learning kung fu by high-tech implant, the reality for most geeks is that they’ll be stuck in the lab forever. So let’s honor the real geeks from the history of cinema: The ones who never gave up their nerd cred in exchange for a pleather trenchcoat and a machine gun, the ones who kept using technology to their advantage and never forgot that, at heart, they were more machine than man.

While we had trouble sifting through a field of dozens of candidates (with yet another forgotten hero bubbling up every day), here are our 20 favorite true geeks from cinema history.

20. Alex Rogan, The Last Starfighter
The idea that mastering a video game could ultimately have real-world consequences is close to the ultimate in geek wish fulfillment. So it was that mid-1980s pre-teens thrilled to see Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), a going-nowhere trailer park kid, totally dominate an arcade game, only to get whisked to the stars after finding out that the game was actually a recruitment tool left on earth by aliens looking for good pilots. The resulting space battles might have been nothing special, but watching Rogan live every arcade haunter’s dream was still impressive, even if the results were something like Ender’s Game without the moral consequences. – CB

19. The Brain, Brick
Being known as ‘Brain’ ain’t exactly a ticket to popularity in the cliquish world of California high school. That works out perfectly for Brendan, the ex-boyfriend of deceased Emily. Brendan’s a loner, too, and loners stick together without getting close. Brain (Matt O’Leary) is Brendan’s Sherlock-on-the-side, braving one dangerous rendezvous after another to serve up clues to Brick‘s mystery. Why does he do it? He’s got a name to live up to. – EM

18. C-3PO, Star Wars series
Sure, sure — the nerds in the audience claim to identify with Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker, or even Han Solo (delusions of grandeur indeed). But their true surrogate is the nervous, socially awkward know-it-all C-3PO. Like a lot of human nerds, this protocol droid contains an enormous amount of extremely specialized information, backs down from physical confrontation, and doesn’t get any girls. This explains why the rest of the Star Wars crew puts up with him: It never hurts to keep a nerd on hand — and tossing him out of an airlock would alienate the fan base. – JH

17. Toby Radloff, American Splendor
He’s the ‘genuine’ nerd from Cleveland, Ohio, a White Castle-eating, spray cheese-loving madman and darn proud of it. As friend and co-worker of underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar, his dork persona would soon grace the pages of the classic American Splendor. Played in the film version by Judah Friedlander, Radloff remains an enigmatic oddity — part idiot savant, part iconic sage. – BG

16. Adam Penenberg, Shattered Glass
Being labeled a ‘geek’ isn’t a completely derogatory term. For Penenberg (Steve Zahn), then a (real-life) journalist at Forbes.com, his geekiness uncovered one of the biggest journalistic hoaxes ever. Thanks to his Internet savvy and tireless, brilliant research, Penenberg exposed New Republic phenom Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) as the lying, manipulative jerk he was. In doing so, Penenberg’s 1998 article became a breakthrough in the then-new field of digital journalism, as well as an overlooked milestone in geek history. – PC

15. Brandon, Galaxy Quest
Before he was ‘a Mac,’ Justin Long established his geek cred by playing Brandon, an over-obsessed devotee of Galaxy Quest, the Star Trek doppleganger at the heart of the eponymous 1999 comedy. What makes this geek so heroic is that it’s the very obsessiveness of his fandom that saves the lives of the main characters. The cast of the show ends up on a real-life version of their fictional spaceship and must race against time to undo a self-destruct sequence. Only Brandon, with his encyclopedic knowledge of the fictional ship’s guts, is able to remotely talk them through a maze of death traps in order to stop the countdown– after his mom makes him take out the garbage, of course. – DT

14. Wesley Crusher, Star Trek: Nemesis
Even in the series’ heyday, Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Wesley Crusher was always the odd man out on the Enterprise, which may explain why he appeared in only one of the numerous films that the series spawned. An absurdly bright genius who had an uncanny ability to save the ship, the world, the universe, or whatever else needed saving, the son of the ship’s doctor still never managed to fit in with the rest of the crew (though star Wil Wheaton has since become one of the real-life mini-icons of the geek generation). To this day I still giggle when I remember an early-’90s comic strip from my old college newspaper, which featured a throwaway line of make-believe audio from Trek tucked into the background of a panel involving kids watching the show: ‘Prepare to beam Wesley into the black hole…’ It’s funny because you know they all wished it was true. – CN

13. Peter Parker, Spider-Man series
Peter Parker is a unique spin on the nerd because it’s the cover for a superhero. What sets him apart in such a crowded field is the modesty of the man who defends mankind against the worst criminal villainy on the planet but, off his web, is an entirely vulnerable guy striving to make a living as a news photographer and getting verbally beat up daily by a bigoted idiot of an editor. The worst part is how his ‘other’ job puts a strain on his relationship with Mary Jane Watson, the girl of his dreams, who tends not to be so into his crime-busting diversions. It always seems to get down to the girl, and this nerd with a cape and mask can’t rescue his own happiness. – JB

12. Emmanuel Goldstein, Hackers
Matthew Lillard’s hacker (handle: Cereal Killer) from the unimaginatively-titled Hackers may not have had the chops of Zero Cool (Jonny Lee Miller) or the looks of Acid Burn (Angelina Jolie, easily the hottest geek on film), but he did have one thing that elevates him in the geek pantheon: A name drawn from history. The ‘real’ Emmanuel Goldstein’ was a character in 1984 and is also the pseudonym for Eric Corley, the founder of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. No word on whether Corley was flattered by the homage. – CN

11. Paulie Bleeker, Juno
When Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), a super-smart teenager with the composure of a lion tamer, decides she’d like to have sex with her nerdy classmate Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) one night
, it more than pleases him. Paulie may seem boring and geeky to the rest of the community, but it’s Juno’s desire that counts. As the final scenes show, Juno was, is, and always will be (as much as we can hope for in an unknown future) in love with the nerd. In this surprise hit movie about an independent teenager’s grit and determination, the nerd actually gets the girl, and it makes us happy (while spawning a load of Paulie Bleeker fan clubs).- JB

10. Herbert Heebert, The Ladies Man
Some may opt for the myopic and buck toothed Julius Kelp from The Nutty Professor is the essential Jerry Lewis geek persona. Indeed, said scientist is mild mannered geek meekness personified. Others may choose his classic cut ups from Cinderfella, The Patsy, or The Disorderly Orderly. But Herbert Heebert is the ultimate Lewis nerd if, for the simple reason that as the only male in this film’s boarding house full of females, he still had difficulty getting a date. – BG

9. Q, James Bond series
While most of us think of Q from the James Bond films as a character who’s the brains behind the brawn of 007, Q is rather not a single man, but a title bequeathed on the head of the ‘Q division’ which develops all those badass devices and vehicles for the British Secret Service. Why is Q such a geek hero? Because he’s the coolest kind of engineer — one that comes up with deadly, clever gadgets from the simple dagger shoe to the boombox rocket launcher to the glove-compartment defibrillator. Also, he’s a hit with car geeks, too, outfitting Aston Martins and Lotus Esprits for Bonds through the years. Desmond Llewelyn, who embodied Q for decades, is sorely missed. – AC

8. Hermione Granger, Harry Potter series
Any fan of either the Harry Potter books or movies know that there is no greater anal-retentive A+ honor-roll nerd in the literary universe than Hermione Granger. She’s less obsessed with being a know-it-all, but rather wants to actually know it all, which does — of course — make her somewhat annoying and intimidating. But all that braininess most definitely came in handy, getting Harry and friends out of many scrapes with her crazy knowledge of spells, potions, and creatures. She’s the bookworm heroine to geek girls everywhere. – AC

7. Louis Skolnick, Revenge of the Nerds
His jet-black eyeglass frames (properly taped) made the ladies hesitate. His laugh sent them packing. But Robert Carradine’s earnest nerd helped prove brains do triumph over brawn — well, the ogres of Alpha Beta, anyway. He even scored himself an Omega Mu. I guess you could say Skolnick gets the last laugh. This list couldn’t exist without him. – SO

6. Egon Spengler, Ghostbusters
Who ya’ gonna’ call? Yeah, you’ll probably think to call droll Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) or amiable imbecile Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd). But who did they call every time the ectoplasm hit the fan? Brainiac Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). Back off, man. He’s a scientist. – SO

5. Doc Brown, Back to the Future series
I don’t imagine the inventor of the Flux Capacitor had much free time to, you know, get ripped at the local gym or do keg stands while pledging Drunka Kappa Barfa. No, I imagine he spent many a day and night studying physics, time, relativity and several hundred other topics that aren’t always the cover story for GQ. The man was such a geek, in fact, that he had to travel back in time to find a girl who would even give him the time of day. And yet, he always had confidence, pluck, and a sincere love for science and humanity. That being said, how he kept a follicle of those wisps of smoke-white hair while time-traveling with Marty for three movies is beyond me. – CC

4. Stephen Tobolowsky in anything
You may not know Stephen Tobolowsky’s name, but you know the man. He’s the same character in every movie he’s made (nearly 150 of them), the balding, bespectacled, full-on nerd who’s often the subject of derision (Groundhog Day, Sneakers) but sometimes a full-on villain. Doesn’t matter which: Tobolowsky regular steals the show with his earnest geekiness, which he embraces without complaint. Check out the indescribable Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, a sort-of documentary about the man, if you can find it. – CN

3. Chris Knight, Real Genius
Geek cool doesn’t get any smoother than this. Val Kilmer’s Chris Knight hacks vending machines with liquid nitrogen, hosts ‘tanning invitationals’ for the local beauty school students, hangs with the burnouts in the tunnels beneath campus, and turns the world’s deadliest weapon into the biggest prank on the planet. Knight’s pink bunny slippers alone earn him a high-level spot here. The trick with the popcorn seals the deal. – CN

2. Whistler, Sneakers
You gotta love a movie that starts with two college kids hacking computer systems just for kicks… in 1969. Even in the Jurassic era before Netscape, every heist crew needed its hacker, and in 1992 the Sneakers team had their Whistler. But Whistler (David Strathairn) has one extra card in his deck: He’s blind. In addition to rocking a wicked-cool Braille display and keyboard, Whistler displays superhuman powers of aural observation. (‘Why would he have an answering machine and an answering service?’) And when you’re stealing scenes from Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, and Ben Kingsley, you know you’ve got major geek cred. – EM

1. David Lightman, WarGames
Plunking away on his IMSAI computer to change his grades and remotely scour Silicon Valley for in-development computer games, David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) stands as a legend among geek heroes. Never mind that he outsmarted the mother of all computers to avert nuclear catastrophe, he got the girl (Ally Sheedy, who’d become the pin-up queen of computer nerds) too! And yet Lightman is no overblown hero. He’s perpetually meek, his fashion sense is pathetic, and he always seems to have to have a runny nose. A bigger, better geek you won’t find in the annals of cinema. – CN

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