It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Comic Con time. What started as an unceremonious gathering of likeminded geeks in 1970 has since grown into such a media frenzy that there’s hardly any room left for the comic books. That’s no exaggeration, either. I’m a bitter man, folks. I remember a day back when videogame controllers had no analog sticks, the internet was a high tech contraption only public libraries could afford and comic book conventions were for hardcore geeks, not publicists. But whether you have nothing but love for San Diego Comic Con or heartfelt reservations about its meteoric rise to corporate relevance, there’s one safe bet: You’re probably not going this year, because it sold out forever ago.
So for all of you geeks who couldn’t attend the convention because the Twilight fans couldn’t resist the urge to pack Hall H again (bad news kids, there’s nothing there this year… well, nothing of consequence anyway, maybe you should have waited before you bought those expensive tickets, hmm?), Julia Rhodes, Dan Fields and I (William Bibbiani, who actually is covering the event for Geekscape, mwa-ha-ha!) present The Weekly Listicle a couple of days early. Think of it as our Preview Night.
Please enjoy our tribute to some of the very best movies made by Geeks, for Geeks, and about Geeks… in no particular order folks. Comic Con is about bringing people together. The “Con” doesn’t stand for contest.
The Last Starfighter (dir. Nick Castle, 1984)
Although there were many great movies for geeks before it, Nick Castle’s The Last Starfighter may qualify as the first great “Geek Movie.” In this sci-fi classic, Halloween II’s Lance Guest stars as Alex Rogan, a hopeless dreamer living in a trailer park in the middle of nowhere whose one skill – if you can call it that – is a hard-won talent for a videogame called “Starfighter.” One night, after totally pwning the hell out of the arcade cabinet, Alex is approached by Centauri (The Music Man’s Robert Preston, playing off of that lovable con man role here), an alien who reveals that “Starfighter” was in fact a training module for an interstellar squadron of fighter pilots trying to save the galaxy from the evil tyrant Xur (Norman Snow of “As The World Turns”).
It’s a simple geek premise that you’ll see revisited on this Listicle many times: the fantasies that inspire normal geeks like those in the target audience are revealed to be real, and the protagonist’s seemingly pointless obsession with these supposedly fictional worlds make them uniquely capable of becoming a great hero as a result. But The Last Starfighter is more than mere wish-fulfillment: It’s an unusually well-made science fiction story, with a great cast, a classic score, stunning (for the time) special effects and a surprisingly strong screenplay. Alex meets his destiny as a Gunstar pilot not with “Gee Whiz” enthusiasm but with understandable reluctance, making his ultimate journey all the more believable. And the stakes are very high by today’s standards. Death is a very real presence in the film, even though some of main characters believe that “Death is a primitive concept” and “prefer to think that (the dead) are fighting evil in another dimension.”
And hey, further geek cred? Directed Nick Castle was the first man to play Michael Myers, way back in John Carpenter’s Halloween. It doesn’t get much cooler than that.
Monster Squad (dir. Fred Dekker, 1987)
Fred Dekker’s Monster Squad remains the ultimate monster team-up movie, and follows Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and The Creature from the Black Lagoon as they menace a small American town in search of an amulet that will open the gates of hell. Naturally, the only people adequately prepared to fight these monsters are the only ones who still think monsters are real, a group of kids who spend most of their time in a treehouse debating monster mythology. They are The Monster Squad, and under the watchful eye of director Fred Dekker (the equally wonderful Night of the Creeps) and co-writer Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) they easily surpass their more famous contemporaries The Goonies as the coolest gang of evil-fighting adolescents in 1980’s cinema.
Although Monster Squad’s A-Story is about as straightforward as they come (Monsters want the Amulet, Find the Amulet, Lose the Amulet, Oh There’s The Amulet, etc.), it’s the filmmakers’ dedication to making the movie totally badass that makes it the classic that it is. Once again, death and violence are particularly prevalent for a film aimed at youngsters, and despite a PG-13 rating the film contains children blowing up the Wolfman (Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Gries) with TNT, shooting The Creature from The Black Lagoon with a shotgun, and Dracula picking up a little girl by the face and calling her a “bitch.” Not that Monster Squad is all blood, guts and profanity: the kids befriend Frankenstein (a perfectly-cast Tom Noonan of Manhunter and House of the Devil) in a heartwarming subplot, and have hilarious arguments about whether or not “Wolfman’s got ‘nards.” But Monster Squad is unique amongst many such films in that it’s not afraid to take itself seriously, and subplots about Nazi Concentration Camp survivors are given the respect they deserve.
A little silly (except for the Nazi Concentration Camp stuff, obviously), but the Universal Monsters have never had a better team-up, and rarely have young geeks been treated with this much respect by any filmmaker. Monster Squad is a classic genre tale that has recently been rediscovered, and rightfully so.
Galaxy Quest (dir. Dean Parisot, 1999)
With over ten years of hindsight, 1999 has rapidly become the new 1939, since both years saw an unusually large number of classic films released over their respective 12 month periods. An abbreviated list: American Beauty, Fight Club, The Matrix, Toy Story 2, Magnolia, The Iron Giant, Being John Malkovich, All About My Mother, Three Kings, The Virgin Suicides and probably at least a dozen more worth mentioning but too time-consuming to bother with. But to that list must be added Dean Parisot’s Galaxy Quest, a film which might on the surface be just a sci-fi rendition of Three Amigos, but thanks to perfect casting, a flawless screenplay and skilled direction may rank among the best comedies ever made, and easily among the very best geek movies to boot.
Tim Allen, brimming with appropriate bravado, stars as Jason Nesmith, a washed-up actor most famous for playing an iconic starship captain in an old sci-fi TV series called “Galaxy Quest.” Like the rest of his co-stars, played by Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Daryl Mitchell and Sam Rockwell, he lives in the shadow of his former glory. Before long an alien race led by “Veronica Mars’s” Enrico Colantoni arrives, seeking their aid. It turns out that lying is an alien concept to these aliens, who believe that the “Galaxy Quest” transmissions are in fact historical logs. They have reverse-engineered all of the technology from the series and now need the original crew – a group of oblivious actors – to helm the ship and fight off the evil overlord Sarris (Robin Sachs).
Sound familiar? Of course it does. In addition to obvious parallels to Three Amigos, A Bug’s Life and even The Last Starfighter, Nesmith and his crew are clear analogues to the original cast of “Star Trek,” with a little “Next Generation” thrown in for fun. But in aping “Star Trek,” Dean Parisot and his screenwriters David Howard and Robert Gordon also benefitted from the series’ perfect dynamics of characterization and creativity, and constant asides to the “Star Trek’s” little flaws – Sam Rockwell played a Red Shirt on the series, and is constantly afraid of dying as a result – make Galaxy Quest more than just a throwaway family adventure. Once again, dramatic consequences have a palpable weight, and audience involvement is unusually high. This isn’t just a geek movie about the cast of “Star Trek” actually saving the universe, it’s a great movie that’s as funny as it is engaging. Now wonder J.J. Abrams once called it his favorite “Star Trek” episode ever.
Freddy vs. Jason (dir. Ronny Yu, 2003)
Let’s face it: If you’ve ever had an argument about “Who Would Win In A Fight” between two fictional characters that lasted more than five minutes, you’re probably a geek. One of the great hypothetical match-ups has always been classic movie monsters, and in 2003 geeks finally got to see a showdown between two of the most popular horror icons of all time: Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. And unlike 2004’s Alien vs. Predator, it didn’t suck more than anything had ever sucked before. Getting the two dynamically opposed villains in the same place at the same time was a chore (and it still feels pretty contrived) but once they start trading blows you stop caring and just start making your bets.
It’s been quite a few years since Freddy Krueger last terrorized Springwood, and the city has finally returned to peaceful serenity after officials realized that Krueger’s power was based on his legend. He can’t invade a person’s subconscious if he isn’t already in there somewhere. In what can only be called a desperation move, Krueger invades Jason Voorhees’ dreams, pretends to be his mother, and commands Jason to kill the teenagers of Springwood. This in turn causes the teenagers to wonder what’s going on and uncover the mystery behind the original Freddy Krueger murders. It’s a ridiculous plan but it works like a charm until Krueger realizes that Jason doesn’t exactly have a kill switch. Soon, Voorhees is stealing Krueger’s murders and a showdown between the two unstoppable killing machines is inevitable.
Freddy vs. Jason might have a lot of “Boo Scares” but it’s more action-oriented than most of the previous entries in either franchise. As such, they got a more action-oriented director, namely Ronny Yu, who skillfully blends the fight sequences, horror and comedic elements into a non-stop thrillride that takes itself just seriously enough to make you actually care about who wins in the end. Even though they may seem mismatched (with Jason essentially a zombie serial killer and Freddy pretty much a telepathic demon), Freddy’s history as a child-murderer and Jason’s childhood tragedies make for an emotionally charged showdown between the two. Clever and faithful asides to past films, like Nightmare on Elm Street III’s Westin Hills psychiatric hospital, make Freddy vs. Jason easier for horror geeks to accept into canon. And of course the final showdown is a no-holds-barred magical slugfest like none you’ve ever seen.
Ridiculous but wonderfully entertaining, Freddy vs. Jason remains the finest “Who Would Win” movie so far… at least until Freddy vs. Jason vs. Ash finally gets greenlit.
High Fidelity (2000, dir. Stephen Frears)
There are as many sects of geekdom as there are trivial subjects on which to educate yourself. Meet Rob (John Cusack), Barry (Jack Black), and Dick (Todd Louiso), three overlords of musical esoterica who happen to run the corner record shop. Anyone who has gone looking for a hard-to-find album or videotape in real life has met these guys. Make the wrong choice and suffer their scorn. Pick something they respect and be prepared to fend off their skeptical sniping.
Whether berating customers for their unrefined tastes or baiting one another with increasingly pretentious chapter-and-verse exercises, the characters find true delight in parading their own eccentric preferences. Against this backdrop, Rob tries to make sense of his life and his failed relationships. Through his reasoning process, which consists exclusively of “Top Ten” lists and mixtape analogies, we learn that for him it’s not all just a hobby. It’s a way of thinking, behaving, and ordering the world in a way he can readily grasp. Even if it’s only to find out he’s been wrong about some very important things.
To sum up the whole ordeal of talking to guys like this, watch and enjoy:
So there you have it. Guys like this have to be experts on something, because when it comes to making friends, finding love, and influencing people outside their own kind, they’re a few steps behind. However, a cursory glance at the world around them proves they’re no worse off than the average jerk on the street. And as the movie cheerfully demonstrates, they have the latent potential to impress and find love with the right person, if they work at it just a little.
Pi (1998, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Before Darren Aronofsky tore out our hearts with The Wrestler and shot our blood full of misery with Requiem for a Dream, he papercut our brains with his indie cult favorite Pi. Shot in searing black and white, and full of painful subective angles, the film depicts a brilliant young mathematician (Sean Gullette) losing his grip on reality as he chases that one big equation that might explain the universe. Since Jean Epstein’s 1928 Fall of the House Of Usher, few films have rendered madness so vividly. Apparently impressionism isn’t quite dead.
Questions of style aside, Pi is a cautionary tale about the perils of advanced geekdom. A gifted but extremely lonseome nerd tries to shut out the world in order to push his understanding past ordinary human levels, only to find that his mind may not be able to take it. And if he does succeed, there are plenty of cruel and sinister figures ready to exploit his brain for its power. Without knowing lesson one about number theory, Kabbalah, Go strategy or any of the film’s other misty themes, I can say Aronofsky does a great job laying out the topics in layman’s terms and cobbling them together into a clever suspense tale. Whatever liberties he may have taken with the concepts – almost all movies do – it’s a fascinating portrait of a brainiac wasting away in a leaky vacuum.
The Wizard (1989, dir. Todd Holland)
The Who’s Pinball Wizard concept gets an 8-bit upgrade in this supremely goofy romp featuring Fred Savage, Luke Edwards, and little Jenny Lewis. Critics accused this underplotted adventure of being a shameless feature-length Nintendo commercial. Well, of course it was!
Nintendo, already on top of the world with the fabled Entertainment System, had a host of products to unleash just in time for the holidays, including the legendary Super Mario Brothers 3. Children of the 1980s can scarcely remember a time without that game. The ability to back up such a blatant promo with a game that’s popular twenty years and countless consoles later is the only justification to be found in the whole of the production.
But come on! It’s three kids on the run, getting into trouble, hustling video geeks, all in the interest of a large cash prize in a gauntlet known as “Video Armageddon.” How great is this, at least to the target audience? Director Todd Holland seems to be cultivating his warped and madcap view of the American family that would later grace us with Malcolm In The Middle. But the real reason for the movie’s inclusion on this list is its fantastic subtext. It offered a generation of budding nerds the comforting validation that video game prowess was a brand new therapy for self-expression. Oh what a wonderful thing for a child to discover! I’ll bet our parents were pretty steamed about that one.
Scream (dir. Wes Craven, 1997)
Horror maestro Wes Craven’s Scream manages to toe the line between a straight-up slasher and homage to the greats. Writer Kevin Williamson (an avowed geek himself) uses old tropes and revamps them for new audiences…but those of us who are horror nerds take thrice the pleasure from the one-liners, in-jokes, and fantastic kills derived from our old favorites.
I mean, consider the opening of the film: only a true horror geek would know that the killer in the original Friday the 13th wasn’t Jason. Likewise, we thrill in the uber-spooky line from Psycho, uttered at the best of moments: “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”
As a critic interested in feminist criticism of horror, I know I’ve sometimes thought grumpily, “[Horror] is always some big-breasted girl running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting.” Sidney (Neve Campbell) bemoans this phenomenon. The killer’s last name is Loomis, likely derived from Dr. Loomis, the man whose warnings about Michael Myers no one heeded in the Halloween films.
The real geek of the film, though, is corporate movie store slave Randy. “What’s that werewolf movie with E.T.’s mom?” a customer asks. “The Howling, horror,” Randy answers without even looking at her. Having worked at video stores for five years, I know this guy (I was this guy), and I love him despite the obnoxiousness.
I could go on and on about Scream and its appeal to horror geeks/nerds, but that would be silly. Instead I’ll only say it’s by far the last truly good horror movie Craven made, and hope to the powers that be the fourth one will be more rewarding than the godawful third.
The Dreamers (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)
Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci specializes in the sexy, the controversial; his films are those movies that verge on dirty (but don’t quite cross the line, as say, Vincent Gallo’s piece of s&*% Brown Bunny did). The Dreamers had been described to me as “like porn but not quite,” and though that’s true, the film also appeals to anyone who’s totally geeked out about film history.
The movie follows American student Matthew (Michael Pitt) as he immerses himself in the French film revolution in 1968s. Director Jean Luc Godard, the inimitable French film periodical “Les Cahiers du Cinema,” and French New Wave cinema provide the background to a film that, yes, features a lot of nudity and a lot of edgy sex. When he isn’t sitting rapt in front of a flickering screen, Michael is staying with a pair of French siblings, Isabelle (former Bond girl Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel, whose film career has focused pretty heavily on possible incest and fetishes). Three sexy and curious young students in one apartment—you may be able to guess what happens next…but as told by Bertolucci, the three use their favorite films to role-play, to reward one another, to punish one another, and to keep their brains occupied during their seclusion together. Acting out scenes from classic French New Wave films is a large part of the film.
The protagonists’ love of film is what brings them together, and in a way what tears them apart in the midst of the student riots of 1968. Films for and about film geeks: these are my kind.
Shaun of the Dead (dir. Edgar Wright, 2005)
Shaun (Simon Pegg) says, at one point, “Don’t say the zed word!” because you’ll notice that very, very rarely do zombie movies actually call the walking dead “zombies.” Shaun’s mother’s name is Barbara, and Ed (Nick Frost) says, “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!” which is of course the iconic line from the original Night of the Living Dead. Shaun works at Foree electric, which is undoubtedly a reference to actor Ken Foree, who was in both the old and new versions of Dawn of the Dead. The movie also makes metric tons of references to the Wright-and-Penn-created Brit series “Spaced.” For anyone who enjoys British TV or zombies, this movie is geek heaven. On top of that, it’s downright hilarious.
What’s YOUR favorite Geek Movie?