Viking Night: Revenge of the Nerds
By Bruce Hall
April 9, 2013
It wasn't always socially acceptable to be a geek. Long ago a physics-knowing, computer-loving, Tolkien-obsessed Trekkie like yourself would have been mocked and abused. You would also sustain regular beatings and humiliation by what were then called “jocks". Atomic wedgies would be given, scientific calculators would get slapped out of hands, and lunch money would be confiscated. Legend has it that some were even hunted for sport. Such abuses might have gone unnoticed or worse, unpunished - were it not for one courageous group of fearless trail blazers. Like Odysseus and the mighty Aragorn, son of Arathorn before them, these heroes longed only to be ordinary men.
Lewis Skolnick (Robert Carradine) and Gilbert Lowell (Anthony Edwards) are best friends, and freshman at Adams College - home of the Adams Atoms (get it?). Drawn there by the prestigious computer science program, Lewis and Gilbert dream of designing the perfect artificial intelligence algorithm, or at least how to use the wonders of computer animation to lure impressionable girls to your room. But their excitement is tempered by the reception they get when they arrive on campus. Dedicated academics who take pleasure in the pursuit of knowledge are considered pond scum here. Their only sanctuary is the freshman dorm; their only hope is to blend in with everyone else whose only crime is being an underclassman.
“Nerds”, as they’re called, are hated and reviled by the widest possible cross section of this thoroughly mediocre student body. But no one hates them more than the Jocks, who call the infamous Alpha Beta house their home. Led by quarterback Stan Gable (Ted McGinley), the Alphas live up to their name, dominating the student body and getting away with whatever they want, whenever they want. Jocks and Nerds are natural enemies, and that antagonistic truth is physically enforced by Ogre (Donald Gibb), the school's star linebacker and head of Stan's goon squad. Backed up by their brutally angry coach (John Goodman), not even the school's sympathetic dean can contain the Jocks. And when a wild keg party burns down the Alpha house, no one can stop them from appropriating the freshman dorm and evicting the Nerds.
It is said that suffering makes greatness out of that which it cannot destroy. And these Nerds - these men of destiny - will not easily be destroyed.
To their credit, and through their ingenuity, the Nerds find a new place to live - a battered old two story that they restore using nothing but elbow grease and the power of an old school construction montage. With a place to live, study and program their computers in peace, all seems well - until Stan decides that Nerds do not deserve happiness. With the help of the equally hateful Pi Delta Pi sorority, the Alphas begin a relentless campaign of harassment and psychological warfare. When the Nerds appeal to the Greek Council, they discover that not only is Stan the president, but that they must themselves belong to a fraternity to have any hope of challenging the Alphas' stranglehold on power. And so the Nerds arrive at a crossroads. Do they cave under the jackboot of Alpha oppression, or do they fight back? And how does one even combat an enemy who refuses to recognize your fundamental right to an existence, let alone a happy one?
Yes, I know what you're thinking. The ramifications of the Nerd-Alpha conflict of 1984 can still be seen in places like Kosovo, Lebanon, Iran and even North Korea. The only real question is, can we learn from it today? What can Lewis, Gilbert and their friends - Poindexter (Timothy Busfield), Wormser (Andrew Cassese), Lamar (Larry B Scott) and of course, Booger (the immortal Curtis Armstrong) - teach all of us about courage, persistence, and fostering healthy interpersonal relationships with people who are your intellectual inferior, yet possess three times your physical strength? The answer might surprise you. Not only is Revenge of the Nerds a lot of fun, but there's significant (yes) and unexpected warmth to it. Rated R comedies have an unfortunate tendency to rely too much on raunch, and while Nerds has more than its share of gratuitous nudity and pointlessly inane social humor, it operates on a wavelength that's not all that hard to get behind.
No, I'm not saying that you need to use this movie to teach your kids about tolerance. And as I mentioned, time has not been kind to some of this film's depiction of blacks, Asians, and gays. And yes, there's a fair amount of gratuitous lady parts, but obviously I'm totally okay with that. But when you consider there are four writing credits on this film, it's a wonder the story is as coherent as it is. And luckily, director Jeff Kanew (whose name appears in this column for the first and last time) has sense enough to get out of his own way and let a fundamentally entertaining story and a well assembled, if not quite distinguished cast do their jobs.
Revenge of the Nerds is also less a product of its time than you might think. Except for the soundtrack, and the gigantic size of all the home stereo equipment, this is a pretty accessible story that could easily be retooled for any generation. And I’m not kidding when I say that there are more than a few moments that will make you realize that you’re more invested than you thought in what happens to these characters. A hero is a hero in any age, and on any continent. And the brave struggle of a handful of fearless Nerds back in the summer of ‘84 will continue to reverberate through time, long after our generation has turned to dust.
Nerds of the world, live long and prosper.