The top 10 representations of nerds in cinema

The top 10 representations of nerds in cinema // Copyright by Walt Disney Pictures and other relevant production studios and distributors. 

The Nerd has a long history in the movies, one that probably dates back to silent comedian Harold Lloyd and the bespectacled klutz he played in films like Safety Last! (1923) and The Freshman (1925). The term “nerd” was apparently first popularized in the mid-seventies by Happy Days when it was applied to literally everyone in the cast who was not the Fonz.

The ‘80s turned out to be a kind of heyday for the cinematic nerd, but that may just be because fashion itself was pretty polarizing at the time: you could either dress like David Bowie in Labyrinth or you could dress like a nerd. Those were seriously your only two choices (as far as I understand fashion in the ‘80s).

Some movie nerds time has forgotten. Some are as enduring as the memories you still have of wearing headgear to school. This list is about the latter. But before we get into things, it would be good to establish just what makes a nerd a nerd.

According to Wikipedia—shut up, you’re not really a journalist if you cite Wikipedia.

According to Wikipedia, a nerd may be defined as someone who’s “overly intellectual, obsessive, introverted or lacking in social skills” and who “may spend inordinate amounts of time” on things which are “highly technical.”

And while Wikipedia doesn’t mention this, if there’s anything I’ve learned from the movies it’s that nerds pretty much always wear glasses. (In fact, I can think of two movies off the top of my head where the protagonist is meant to be viewed as either a nerd or not a nerd at any given moment depending entirely on whether they’re wearing glasses: one stars Christopher Reeve and the other Rachael Leigh Cook.)

So with that flexible definition in mind, please double-check that your pens are all in your pocket protector in their proper color-coded order and join me on a ranking of the top ten cinematic nerds.

10. Wayne Szalinski — Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

Wayne Szalinski of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids might easily have become just one more dorky, down-on-his luck, contraption-inventing movie dad. But in the hands of underrated comedic genius, Rick Moranis, the character is as instantly appealing as coming upon an oatmeal cookie the size of a house.

Whether balancing on stilts, hovering in a body sling, or casually clinging to the fence in an effort to find his shrunken children in the expanse of his lawn without stepping on them, Wayne Szalinski proves he’s one nerd of a movie dad you would not be embarrassed to have meet your friends (provided everyone is safely out of the way of anything that might accidentally rearrange their atoms).

9. Data — The Goonies

Most kids surely have fantasized at some point about embarking with their friends on a once- in-a-lifetime adventure through a pirate cove just a short bike ride away from their own backyard (especially if you were a kid in the ‘80s when mobile entertainment was a thing of the future and half the toys you owned were liable to kill you).

The Goonies allowed kids to vicariously experience just such an adventure without having to rub elbows themselves with murderous jewel thieves. If one were to find oneself in such a situation however, you would most certainly want a friend like Richard “Data” Wang on your side.

While one of the film’s running gags is that Data’s inventions tend to fail or backfire on him, when they do work they spare the Goonies a world of pain. Data deploys his gadgets to slow down the Fratelli brothers, rescue himself and others from the cave’s booby traps, and even defeat a giant octopus by feeding it a Walkman playing the Goon Squad’s “Eight Arms to Hold You” (which may or may not be there depending on the version of the film you’re watching). While Data’s inventions have about a 50/50 chance of properly functioning, he’s still one of the most lovable movie nerds out there.

8. Evie Carnahan/O'Connell — The Mummy series

Evie Carnahan of Universal’s rebooted Mummy franchise (the one that worked) is one nerd who truly gets to live the dream. An Oxford-educated librarian who knows how to read and write ancient Egyptian, Evie decided to take a job with the Cairo Museum of Antiquities where she would have the greatest possible chance of one day discovering an ancient lost city and inadvertently reviving a 3,000-year-old, plague-happy cursed chancellor to the Pharaoh by reading out loud from the Book of the Dead. Career goals.

Marrying one’s interests with one’s skillset in an adventure of blockbuster proportions with tasteful amounts of CGI is after all what many aspire to in life. The amount of sand in your own life dream may vary.

7. Peter Parker — any Spider-man movie

Whether you prefer Tobey Maguire’s blubbering emo Spider-man, Andrew Garfield’s blubbering emo Spider-man, or Tom Holland’s adorable, ultra-peppy Spider-man (they don’t come in many shades, do they?), you’ve surely enjoyed some iteration of Marvel’s most iconic superhero at some point. You may even prefer your Spider-man hand-drawn. I haven’t read the comics myself, but I’m sure there are whole other sides of Spidey to be found there.

I’ll have to read the comics sometime. They sound good.

Anyway, whichever version you prefer, before Peter Parker was turned into a super athletic, super coordinated all-around stud by radiation poisoning, he was a nerd. He actually still was a nerd even after he started saving cats out of trees, and that may be why he’s such a likable and easily identifiable hero. He wasn’t raised in a mansion with his own butler. He didn’t come from outer space. He’s not a Greek goddess with an invisible jet. He’s just a regular guy, hopelessly socially awkward and preoccupied with his own nerdy hobbies like photography, academics, and science experiments with radiation in them.

Peter Parker—giving nerds everywhere hope they too can become a superhero with enough exposure to radiation since 1962.

6. Egon Spengler — Ghostbusters

While any one of the OG Ghostbusters could easily be dubbed a classic movie nerd, Dr. Egon Spengler is unquestionably the brainiest of the bunch. He personally designed most of the Ghostbusters’ tech and can handily nerd-drop the atomic weight of cobalt in casual conversation. But despite his outwardly nerdish demeanor, Egon actually has a rather sly sense of humor and sufficient street smarts to match his book smarts, making him quite a well-rounded individual as far as cinematic nerds go.

Egon’s scientific and personal interests include: paranormal phenomena, valences, ectoplasm, the effects of environment on mood, spores, molds, fungi, and Twinkies.

5. Velma Dinkley — Scooby-Doo

Let’s face it, without Velma the Scooby gang wouldn’t de-mask anywhere near as many curmudgeony hoodlums as they do. Almost always the first to see through the smoke and mirrors and with a steady supply of Scooby Snacks always on hand to help Shaggy and Scoobs stay the course, Velma virtually is Mystery Incorporated.

Her only real weakness is whenever her glasses inevitably get knocked off, but if she ever gets her hands on a set of contacts she’ll be unstoppable. Velma was played in the first two live-action Scooby Doo films by Linda Cardellini who, along with Matthew Lillard and his impeccable Shaggy, delivered one of the most accurate portrayals of a cartoon ever.

4. Doc Brown — Back to the Future

No matter when in time you look, Dr. Emmett Brown was always a nerd, all the way back to his earliest days of devouring Jules Verne paperbacks and precociously idolizing the likes of Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison. It just took some time for all his daydreaming to pay off in the coolest looking, two-door, flux capacitor-powered time machine. H.G. Wells, eat your heart out.

While we love Doc for Christopher Lloyd’s manic performance and equally manic hair, what makes him such an endearing and enduring movie nerd is his devotion not just to studying where we’ve been and where we’re going but to respecting and preserving the flow of history. However much Doc’s time-hopping may jeopardize the genetic integrity of the McFly family or accidentally turn the peaceful suburb of Hill Valley, California into a scene from Escape From New York, he always leaves time just as he found it—or better!

3. Ian Malcolm — Jurassic Park

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While he seems pretty content doing Wes Anderson cameos and commercials these days, Jeff Goldblum made a name for himself playing tall, dark, and handsome nerds—sometimes winding up with the dame and a cigar (David Levinson in Independence Day), sometimes winding up a puddle of protoplasmic gloop (Seth Brundle in The Fly). But by far the most iconic movie nerd Jeff Goldblum ever played is Jurassic Park’s improbably cool, impossibly snarky chaotician, Dr. Ian Malcolm.

Steven Spielberg apparently never considered anyone else for the part, and Goldblum’s portrayal was so well received Michael Crichton decided to retcon the character’s death in his first book so Malcolm could be the star of the sequel. With fashion sense fit for the runway and peak levels of unflappability, the eccentric mathematician perhaps just qualifies on the score of what makes a nerd a nerd with his brainy disposition and fixation on chaos.

There’s no question Ian Malcolm made being a nerd cool. Few other cinematic nerds could ever hope to find themselves immortalized in a meme that re-envisions Michelangelo's Creation of Adam with them in it as has the world’s greatest proponent of chaos theory.

2. Brian Ralph Johnson — The Breakfast Club

Movie nerds don’t always do battle with ghosts or supervillains or dinosaurs or big cephalopods, nor must they always overcome the laws of physics or transcend the boundaries of space and time. Sometimes they just know how to write a really good essay and are packed a nutritional lunch by their mothers.

John Hughes’ classic teen dramedy The Breakfast Club first presented and then deconstructed five high school stereotypes and in so doing introduced audiences to one of the most memorable and most human movie nerds of all time: Brian Ralph Johnson.

In the hands of John Hughes and Anthony Michael Hall, the stalwart trappings of brainy glasses, asthmatic breathing, and fuddy-duddy wardrobe were shattered to reveal the inner life of a character everyone thought had it together but who was actually collapsing under the pressure of overwhelming expectations. To some, the ability to make an elephant-shaped lamp with functioning trunk pull-switch must seem a perfectly frivolous thing—to others, it means the world.

More so than any other nerd in cinema, Brian Ralph Johnson helped audiences see beyond the nerd to that which we all share in common.

1. Indiana Jones— uh…Indiana Jones

Though often pictured with fedora and bullwhip, fleeing poisonous darts or slugging muscle-bound thugs into plane propellors—the kind of figure who wouldn’t be at all out of place on the cover of a bodice ripper—Indiana Jones is indeed unquestionably a nerd.

Professor Indiana Jones, that is.

His nerd interests just happen to take him to some of the most exotic locations and on some of the greatest adventures committed to celluloid.

Archaeology is not a passing interest for Dr. Jones. It’s an obsession—a lifelong pursuit—and if anyone dares jeopardize his hobby of putting artifacts into museums he will stand on a ledge with a shoulder-mounted grenade launcher and shout his opponent down with all the passion and fury of an OG Indiana Jones fan decrying the sacrilege of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Do not tell me this man is not a nerd.

Despite Harrison Ford’s approaching relic territory himself, audiences will get to see Indiana Jones nerd out on museum pieces one more time in the yet-to-be-titled fifth Indiana Jones film due in 2023. But if there’s anything Dr. Jones taught us himself in Raiders of the Lost Ark it’s that “it’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”

Mike Ettel is a freelance journalist who enjoys watching, reading, and writing science fiction. He’s still waiting for the day dinosaur cloning is made a reality.