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Real Genius

by Alex Kirschenbaum Aug 07, 2020

Grab some popcorn and pull up a chair, it’s a moral imperative that we celebrate the 35th birthday of Martha Coolidge’s science whiz classic Real Genius!

The wise-cracking Val Kilmer starrer, which details the adventures of a group of brilliant physics undergrads at the fictional Pacific Tech University (clearly a stand-in for Caltech), stands as a wonderful slice of ’80s fun. It’s the kind of feel-good adventure that can be watched over and over again, spun like a favorite album.

Kilmer plays Chris Knight, a senior at Pacific Tech on the verge of burnout after years spent working with a special research team under the tutelage of the sleazy Dr. Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton). Chris, now prone to wearing goofy t-shirts and slippers and generally flaunting any sort of authority with playful jabs, convinces Hathaway to let him room with brilliant freshman Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret), a 15-year-old winter term addition to campus. Another former physics stud, the mysterious Lazlo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries), might live in their closet.

As Chris takes the precocious Mitch under his wing, Mitch meets hyperkinetic insomniac Jordan Cochrane (Michelle Meyrink) and the good-natured Ick Ikagami (Mark Kamiyama), both of whom relish applying their genius towards wacky extracurricular inventions. Mitch and Chris frequently bump heads with dorky bully Kent (Robert Prescott) and his toadies (Beau Billingslea and Tommy Swerdlow) as they strive to create a five-megawatt laser for Dr. Hathaway. Meanwhile, comely groupie to the geniuses Sherry Nugil (Patti D’Arbanville) stalks the campus, concentrating her lust on several of our heroes.

Unbeknownst to the students, Hathaway has been contracted by the CIA to create a lethal remote weapon on behalf of a proposed international assassination program, “Operation Crossbow.” As the CIA pressures Hathaway  with rapidly compressed timelines for the completion of their killer space laser, Hathway in turn cranks up the heat on Chris and Mitch. Atherton, the ultimate ’80s jerk who also graced the screen in similar capacities for the first two Die Hard films (1988 and 1990) and the original Ghostbusters (1984), is terrific here as the crooked, dog- and popcorn-loathing, classist Hathaway, profiting off the backs of his students’ hard work while leveraging their futures against them to meet his own deadlines. Be warned, fair readers, spoilers may abound from this moment forward.

The film started enlightening theatergoers on August 7th, 1985, amidst a wave of movies about science whizzes. The broader John Hughes sci-fi comedy Weird Science was released five days ahead of Real Genius, the Dennis Hopper-starring alien conspiracy teen comedy My Science Project two days after. Another teen sci-fi comedy, the immortal Back To The Future, hit screens on July 3rd, 1985. Among these, only Back To The Future, first out of the gate, made much of a box office dent at the time.

In an era of crude, crass college and high school movies (even Back to the Future has an incest subplot), Real Genius celebrates smart, motivated kids and their achievements (albeit with plenty of fairly PG, innocuous sex humor), and puts a premium on morality in the sciences. In an excellent piece for the AV Club, Scott Tobias explores the relatively innocent glories of Real Genius amidst its competitors in the college comedy space. He’s definitely on to something.

This is the kind of noble-minded moviemaking that basically no longer exists… which is a shame, because it’s quite great. And it’s the kind of inspirational storytelling designed to uplift intellect and studiousness. If you don’t want to study harder for everything after watching the movie’s many, many amazing ’80s montages, contact a cardiologist because they clearly need to check for a heart.

The screenplay is credited to Neal Israel, Pat Proft, and PJ Torokvei, though Martha Coolidge, plus Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, did extensive uncredited rewriting. Coolidge herself discussed this during a 35mm film print screening of Real Genius at Los Angeles’s great revival house the New Beverly Cinema in May 2019. Coolidge’s thorough prep apparently included detailed interviews with Caltech students and aggressively pouring over laser technology and CIA methodologies to keep the film as authentic as possible.

The script leans heavily on what feels to be realistic dialogue among the CIA bigwigs and the physics students, peppering in pleasantly silly banter between every character outside of stressed straight man Jarret. All this is excellent and stands up well to exhaustive rewatching. Another great feature of the script is the touching romantic relationship that develops between Mitch and Jordan. These are both very specifically realized, sensitive, brilliant characters. Their connection feels genuine and uniquely personal, a rarity in most movies, but a downright endangered species in hormonal ’80s college comedies.

Coolidge is also responsible for the excellent star-crossed lovers SoCal romantic comedy Valley Girl (1982), plus the solid Meyrink vehicle Joy of Sex (1984), the excellent Patrick Swayze family fantasy Three Wishes (1995), and the underrated latter-day Matthau-Lemon comedy Out To Sea (1997). She specializes in family-friendly genre fare that doesn’t talk down to youthful viewers, and roots most of its humor in character with a certain effervescent whimsy.

Special mention should be made of the film’s terrific 2.39:1 widescreen cinematography courtesy of Vilmos Zsigmond, who also brought his unique visual sensibilities (perpetual camera movement and prioritizing wider shots over only a selective and very intentional application of close-ups) to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and The Deer Hunter (1978). He makes the fictive Pacific Tech, played by Pomona College in Claremont and Occidental College in Los Angeles, look like the most desirable destination for higher learning in the history of the planet.

The soundtrack, featuring a potpourri of great ’80s pop, works in tandem with Thomas Newman’s synth-heavy score to evoke a very specific cultural moment. The Comsat Angels’ “I’m Falling” and Chaz Jankel’s “Number One” accompany two of the movie’s best studying montages, perfect for a good rewatch before any sort of epic intellectual pursuit like, say, researching Real Genius for an extensive 35th anniversary appreciation article.

Kilmer, hot off his debut in the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker slapstick classic Top Secret! (1984), is magnetic here, able to charismatically sell the heck out of his fast-talking prankster wunderkind. Whether or not the Julliard alum knows anything about laser technology is immaterial, because you believe every syllable he utters when addressing the subject. This numbers among the all-time Hall of Fame Kilmer performances, along with his incredible early ’90s run that included a note-perfect Jim Morrison in The Doors (1991), a conflicted cop in Thunderheart (1992), and the eternally bad-ass historic sharpshooter Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993).

Do the kids eventually sabotage Dr. Hathaway’s nefarious scheme and re-train the laser during a demonstration to pop popcorn at the new house Hathaway is building using misappropriated funds from Project Crossbow? To quote Ick, “I’m not saying.” But also, yes.

Do our heroes then eat said popcorn in slow motion as Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” blasts over the soundtrack and the end credits roll? Maybe.

Like most movies, Real Genius is best appreciated in front of a huge crowd, in a film print, on a big screen. This critic has had the privilege to experience it this way twice, once at the New Beverly and once as part the Vic Theatre‘s great Brew and View revival screening series on a hot Chicago summer night many moons ago. Obviously, this critic has also seen the flick dozens of times in various home video iterations, too. So much so that he may have procured several pieces of Chris Knight’s wardrobe from Found Item Clothing, a site that specializes in painstakingly recreating clothing from retro movies and TV shows (primarily ’80s movies and TV shows).

Point being, Real Genius might have just turned 35, but it never gets old. I wish I could live in the world of this movie. Thankfully, with some online detective work, all of the film’s many gorgeous Southern California locations can be explored any time.

In a modern world where science is perpetually doubted, it’s a refreshing treat to see hardworking, kind-hearted, intellectual people outwit cruel, sinister government forces in service of the greater good. If only real life worked this way, too.