Today I want to bring to your attention an overlooked movie, a hidden geek gem. It’s a movie about super-smart physics students, lasers, being too cool for school and… financial fraud? This is Real Genius.
Today I’ll be talking about Real Genius. An overlooked movie, a hidden geek gem of the ’80s.
This was a time before the Internet and digital gadgets and media of any type. Paradoxically though, it was also the time in which computers were the most powerful and dangerous things on the planet, wielding the power to both spawn life as well as extinguish it. All of which encased in wonderful ‘80s fashion and music.
Real Genius is the story of Mitch, a very precocious 15-year-old student accepted into a super-duper college where he’s immediately tasked to work under Professor Hathaway on his laser development project.
Professor Hathaway is our wonderfully arrogant, hateabIe villain. He has an equally stereotypical ass kissing teacher’s assistant, but he’s not the villain because he’s the hard-ass teacher, oh no-no, that would be much to foreseeable. Instead he is the villain because he’s using his team of students to work on a secret and rather shady government contract, developing a laser weapon which can be outfitted to orbiting spacecraft.
The movie was made in 1985, so the Cold War was still a thing and the Strategic Defense Initiative – better known in popular culture as the Star Wars programme – was announced two years prior. The general idea of the SDI being that it would protect the US from enemy ICBMs by detonating them from spaaaaace, with lazorz. It’s a bit more complicated than that but that’s the gist of things.
So anyway, back to our villain. Unknowingly making your students develop a weapon is pretty bad, but it doesn’t stop there. He’s also funneling all the money for the project into upgrading his house. Since his research and development team is working for student credits basically and uses the resources of the school, he’s in a win-win…win situation. Also he hates popcorn and dogs, so double fuck him, amirite?
But that’s where our very lovable and identifiable protagonists come into play. Or at least it’s easy to identify with them if you are interested in anything that is somewhat science related, whether real or fictional. Sure, the technology they had back then is quaint by today’s standards, but the essence of the characters is the same.
In pure ‘80s movie fashion, Real Genius has not one, but two montages. It’s in part a coming of age story for Mitch – our sort of protagonist – and has a budding romance thrown in there, but the focus is definitely on Chris Knight and his hijinks during the final year of college.
He’s played by Val Kilmer – of Batman Forever and The Saint fame – who embodies the dreams of every geeky kid in school as far as looks and social abilities goes. The other main protagonist is more in tune with how things tended to play out in reality for the quirky, awkward, smart kid.
There’s also an Asian dude but he’s at a science college so he’s supposed to be smart, not that big of a stereotype there. But interestingly enough, the female protagonist isn’t a love interest, I mean she is but that’s very downplayed, more important to her character is that she’s hyperactive and the engineer of the group, having a more hands-on approach to things than the guys have.
There are awesome practical jokes, great lines, laser meltdowns, the obligatory eureka moment, a double cross and lots of moments where the brilliant students use their technical know-how to go through the story. During the movie, they not only manage to develop a laser more powerful than the most capable lasers we have today, but they also manage to do it with a theory that has since then been proven to not work in that type of application, fuck yeah speculative fiction! But they also manage to somehow hack themselves access to a secured military base, throw around some random computer science words that makes it sounds like they know what they’re talking about.
The even better part is that the end of the movie manages to tie up and together everything that was of any real importance during the movie with a scene of awesomely choreographed comedic payback.
Everyone’s acting is pitch-perfect and hits every perceivable mark of comedic timing, facial expressions and just overall reactions. This is a great, light-hearted comedy, even though it deals with some arguably serious subjects, it keeps those in the background and chooses to focus on the students’ perspective.
This, combined with the likeable characters and Val Kilmer’s exuberance as Chris Knight make Real Genius an incredibly entertaining watch. Go check it out!