Movies to See Before You Die: Real Genius
Confession: I’ve never seen Animal House all the way through. On the occasions that I do watch it, I catch a small portion of it on cable or something, and I’m always only halfway paying attention to it. Blasphemy, right? I mean Animal House is revered as not only one of the best comedies of all time, it’s also one of the best, if not the best, college comedies of all time. So why my ambivalence towards it? I already have a go-to college comedy, one that speaks directly to me, and always has, since I first watched it oh so many years ago.
Real Genius was released in 1985 and was directed by Martha Coolidge. It features a young Val Kilmer in my favorite role of his (apart from maybe his roles in the fabulous Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and 1984’s Top Secret!)
The plot centers on Mitch, played by Gabe Jarret, a precocious genius who is recruited into a university program aimed at creating a high energy laser. There, he meets living legend Chris Knight (played by Kilmer) and begins working with him on the project. The project was commissioned to Chris and a group of young scientists by Professor Jerry Hathaway, played with the perfect amount of uptightness by William Atherton. While working on the project, Chris helps Mitch enjoy himself, partly because it is college, after all, but mostly because Chris sees himself in Mitch. Chris was much like Mitch before he learned to be able to mix business with pleasure.
As the plot thickens, the group of young scientists, which now includes the hyperactive but cute Jordan, played by Michelle Meyrink, and the completely disconnected Lazlo Hollyfeld, played by Jon Gries, discovers that the laser project they have been working on has malicious intent. After the final project has been completed, it’s confiscated and put to its intended use: military weaponry. The group then hatches a plan to show those figures of authority who would take advantage of their scientific advancements for violence.
There are three themes prevalent in this movie that I’ve never gotten over. The first is the misuse of science for the purpose of harming others. The opening credits feature a series of artworks and blueprints that all show the development of weapons throughout human history. From the spear, to the arrow, to the revolver, to the machine gun and finally the bomb, each design is shown while Carmen McRae sings “You Took Advantage of Me” in the background. The movie then opens on a war room type setting, where various unnamed politicians and military figures discuss the ominous-sounding Crossbow Project. It’s a great comment on how science is misused.
The second theme I refer to is this: that science is fun. Through the entire movie, there are myriad examples of how the characters develop ways to make math and science work for them. Take for example, Chris retrieving his morning coffee from the vending machine by cutting a rod of frozen liquid nitrogen into coins, or Ick’s (played by Mark Kamiyama) foray into turning an entire hallway of their dorm into a skating rink, only to watch the ice he created sublimate (science word!) directly into vapor. There’s also the scene where Chris uses reflected lasers to lead the campus to an indoor pool party filled with buxomed young ladies. For math people, there’s Lazlo’s method for winning the Frito-Lays sweepstakes. He determined that a particular number of entries should win him a certain percentage of the grand prizes.
I don’t think anyone who’s seen this movie would let me get away with talking about it without discussing the iconic popcorn scene that serves as the climax of the movie. For those of you that haven’t seen this movie, I won’t spoil it for you. Just imagine the expanding power of a popcorn kernel, and then imagine that times, like, a billion. It’s the ultimate revenge plan hatched out by a group of geniuses, using their own creation against those who coopted it for the destruction of man.
From beginning to end, Real Genius is such an entertaining movie. It’s got heart, it’s got humor, and its underlying theme of misusing scientific gains for evil intent is ever-relevant in our society. For all of those reasons and more, it’s a moral imperative that you see Real Genius before you die.
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