Episode #171: Reflections on Rewatching Real Genius (1985)
Today, we’re talking about the 1985 film, Real Genius, one of my personal favorites that I could probably watch over and over without getting tired of it. It’s the story of a group of college students at a thinly veiled version of Cal Tech who are working on creating a high powered laser for a sleazy professor (played to a t by William Atherton) who has a secret government contract to create a high altitude assassination laser gun for the Air Force (look for Ed Lauter from The Rocketeer and Louis Giambalvo from Weekend at Bernie’s as officers). When the students discover his true intentions, they decide to get even in their own unique way.
I first saw the the film when I was a kid, years before I attended college myself. And for years after, it became my internalized representation of what college might be like – plenty of zany characters, dorm room hijinks, intense hours of study, self important professors, and the exhilaration of solving seemingly impossible problems. All those things ended up being true, in a way, though some things were more tolerable in a movie than they were in real life – especially the intense hours of study, the all nighters, the self important professors, the social class differences, the awkward interactions with possible significant others, rivalries with other student groups, stress over grades and struggles to understand classroom material despite putting in hours and hours of work with little to show for it … yeah … sometimes it’s easier to remember the fun parts of schooling minus all the headaches.
Luckily, that’s essentially what this movie is – on one hand an entirety fantastical, fun version of college, and on the other, a surprisingly believable version that, despite its outward appearance as a Revenge of the Nerds clone or just another teen movie, was clearly carefully researched (Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge was at the helm) and aligned with a specific demographic (college students, especially those that went to an academically intense and/or technical/engineering focused school, grad students, and now, 35 years later, folks that lived through the 80s or like aspects of that decade – the music, the zeitgeist of the times, video game arcades, lasers, etc.)
Check out this page for much more info on all the inside jokes and references people have come up with in the film to the real life Cal Tech. Even if you have no desire to be or have been a student at an intense place like that, it’s interesting to read about all the little details they stuck in the movie (or appeared coincidentally) that could be appreciated by those in the know. As for myself, though I was never a student at Caltech and was just a kid when this movie came out, I do recall a number of specific things that were definitely still true (some referenced above) when it was my turn to be a college student (e.g. the infamous little blue books used for written final exams, the forays into the steam tunnels, the coin op arcade machines in the dorms – in my case, Tekken 3). There are a number of other fun facts about the film and its real life inspirations (like the Frito Lay contest) here and here.
Speaking of the Frito Lay contest, one of the more unusual characters in the film is Lazlo Hollyfeld, played by Jon Gries, the burned out former student now living in the steam tunnels (the entrance of which is the closet in Mitch (Gabe Jarret) and Chris’ (Val Kilmer) room. He was so memorable in his quirky, shy weirdness that my brother and I took to calling the movie “The Guy Who Lives in the Closet” (as in “Do you want to watch The Guy Who Lives in the Closet tonight?”). We were too young at appreciate the double entendre of a nickname like that, but what can I say, anyone who lives underground, spends his days entering a contest to win prizes and then succeeds instead of working a 9-5 job like the rest of humanity seems pretty good when you’re a kid.
In case you were wondering about the science behind the film – in other words, whether we have laser weapons as powerful as the one they made in the film, well, yes and no. There are portable ones the US military has, but nowhere near as powerful as the 5 megaWatt cannon they make in the movie. There are ones that are much more powerful now, though not nearly as portable as the one in the movie. So, it’s still somewhat of a fantasy (as a frame of reference, the laser pointers you can commonly buy as pointers for lectures are often 5 milliWatts or less, a billionth of the power the one in the movie supposedly had. And even those made by Wicked Lasers, supposedly the most powerful handheld ones you can buy are under 5 Watts – more than a millionth of the power of the Real Genius laser. Still, check out the site above for ads for their products – still cool as hell, though I’m not entirely sure what you’d do with one, unless you want to pop some popcorn with one, like in the film).
Speaking of popcorn, it’d be hard to imagine the film’s ending credits, popcorn flying and all, without Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” a bittersweet anthem for a movie about making weapons and human domination (though for me, it was always bittersweet since it meant the movie was over).
Click on the poster below to find a copy of the film:
Enjoy a little collection of animated gifs from the film:
A cameo by Deborah Foreman, who was also in Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl. Below her is Michelle Meyrink (also in Valley Girl) as Jordan, who in her words, “never sleeps.”
The real geniuses (minus the guy in the closet, who’s just driven off with a significant portion of the winnings of the Frito-Lay contest): Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), Mitch (Gabe Jarret), Chris (Val Kilmer), and “Ick” (I think it kept calling him Ish on the show, played by Mark Kamiyama).
Did this ever happen to you in college? I love how no one reacts to the meltdown except that some dude steals the guy’s chair.
The montage sequence where the gang gets ready to exact revenge with a great score piece done by Thomas Newman:
Between Two Worlds, the synth EP follow up to Long Ago Not So Far Away is now out for streaming on Bandcamp.
The bonus track, called “Flight of the Cloudrider” has a 80s movie mashup music video (see if you can identify all the movies!) which is available on youtube. This app was largely created with the iphone app Auxy.
Stay tuned. Follow along on Spotify! There is also a growing extended Thirteenth Hourplaylist on Spotify with a growing number of retro 80s songs.
As always, thanks for listening!
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