30 Years Later, Real Genius is Still the Geek Solidarity Film That Nerd Culture Deserves

It’s interesting to me that Revenge of the Nerds, while still full up of the nostalgia that the 80s lends us, is lately being repositioned in the zeitgeist. What was viewed for many years as a bit of harmless fun that waved the banner for nerds everywhere is finally being called out for exactly what it is; an Us vs Them revenge fest that never lets go of racism or misogyny, and damages the image of geek culture more than it applauds for it. That shouldn’t be surprising—RotN was always just a frat house comedy with a thin nerdy gloss applied to it. And that’s fine with me, because that was never my go-to movie for feeling the geeky solidarity.

No, my friends. That movie was Real Genius.

Real Genius was loosely (very very very loosely) inspired by actual events that took place when university students were working to crack laser technology. But in Real Genius, this is being done on the fictional Pacific Tech campus, where the students are unknowingly creating that laser for the CIA to use in government sanctioned hits from space. They don’t know this because their odious professor, Dr. Hathaway (played to a tee by William Atherton), obviously isn’t letting them in on the secret. He’s too busy skimming off the funds that the government is providing to the project, so he can renovate his house.

Real Genius, Mitch Taylor

Our protagonist is fifteen-year-old Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarrett), who is accepted early to Pacific Tech because, well, he’s a genius. He’s assigned to the laser project, working with his new roommate Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), a senior at the school who appears to have given up on taking college all that seriously. So… burnt out upperclassman plus eager-to-please, impressionable freshman? We’re already set up for some prime Odd Couple shenanigans. We’re introduced to a guy named Kent and his cronies, who are also working on the laser project. Unlike Chris, Kent is the ultimate sycophant and only too happy to throw other students under the bus provided he gets to be top dog. So now we have a rivalry. Mitch meets a lot of strange people at Pacific Tech, one of them being Jordan, one of the campus’ few women who happens to size Mitch up and make him a sweater the day after meeting him, which she excitedly presents to him in men’s room while he’s peeing. So now we have a love story.

And… that’s pretty much where the comparisons to most college flicks and Real Genius ends. Because the film is about a lot more than that, for all it is a very 80s campus comedy. For one, the movie is better at portraying geeks in ways that don’t just melt down to old tropes of pocket protectors and bow ties and awkwardness. It communicates that having an outrageous IQ can be isolating, but doesn’t make all smart people out to be socially undeveloped shut-ins. It also shows us how being driven toward answers can blind even the most optimistic, well-meaning folks into making terrible mistakes. And it communicates what it’s like to study for finals more realistically than any film I’ve ever seen, which is an accomplishment and a half.

Real Genius, Chris Knight, Val Kilmer

No really, there’s a scene where everyone is gathered around a communal table to cram for the exam, and one guy just gets up and starts screaming at everyone before running from the building. Everyone else is unresponsive and some other dude sitting on the room’s perimeter moves into his vacated seat without comment. That’s basically the experience distilled into its purest form.

Also, did I mention that it ends on a Tears For Fears song? Because that should be enough to recommend it right there.

Real Genius, 1985

Another great thing about this film is how it doesn’t couch itself in the “nerd versus jock” dynamic. It’s a boring cliche that rarely bothers to examine the realities of persecution due to differences. Instead, it herds people into group stereotypes and activity negates character complexity. Real Genius knows this, and most of the rivalry here is geek-on-geek. We watch the very real dynamic of people in the same social circle trying to one-up each other to gain status, stroke their own egos, or flat out cause trouble for fun. When we reach the “party with hot girls” part of the film that so many college movies unthinkingly provide, the narrative beelines away from any form of non-consensual action; the party is full of student beauticians who are keen to meet some boys, and when the guys from Pacific Tech balk at having to talk to them, Chris Knight points out that they might try using their brains to impress them. The most uncomfortable person at the party is not any of the female attendants, but Mitch… understandable because he’s fifteen and this is probably the highest concentration of bikinis he’s ever witnessed. He finally starts having fun when he realizes that Jordan is there, testing scuba equipment in the pool.

The virtually opposing approaches to life that Mitch and Chris represent is the focal point of the tale, the paragon of straight-laced nerd-dom juxtaposed with the free-wheeling, frenetic creativity that Knight gears his mind toward. Mitch is distraught by the fact that a student he’d previously idolized appears to be nothing more than another party-hard slacker who doesn’t seem to care one bit about their work they’re doing. It’s not until later that he finds out this attitude is new; Chris was once just like Mitch, but he relaxed into this new mindset when he followed a man into their dorm room closet. (I swear that’s not a metaphor.) That man—Lazlo Hollyfeld—was a big shot student at Pacific Tech in the decade previous, who went a little out of his mind when he found out that his inventions were being used to harm others. Seeing this, Chris realized that spending his life focused on work for work’s sake was a mistake.

Real Genius, Dr. Hathaway, William Atherton

Unfortunately, Knight’s new groove is making it harder for Dr. Hathaway to meet his laser deadline, so the professor decides to spitefully ruin Chris’ life—giving Kent the post-school job he was already promised and flunking him out of the Pacific Tech program, preventing him from graduating. With a little pep talk from Mitch, Chris throws himself back into their project and makes real headway on the laser just to prove Hathaway wrong. It’s only after they deliver it to Hathaway that Lazlo leaves the steam tunnels below their closet and points out that what they created was likely intended for a very specific purpose—to kill people. From space. From that point on, the crew is on the clock to ruin the laser’s presentation for the military and CIA and to get even with Dr. Hathaway for using them. (Also to prank Kent because he kind of deserves it for being a lapdog and generally horrible to Mitch just because the kid is younger and smarter than he is.)

The film makes it a mission to prove that what geeks and geniuses are best at isn’t memorizing math formulas and elements off the periodic table; it’s their ability to be creative and in doing so, change the world around us. The students do get even with Dr. Hathaway, but they do it in an inspired way that essentially harms no one except him—they redirect the laser so it goes off at his home, where they’ve situated a giant ball of unpopped popcorn. Ka-blooey. Essentially, they destroy the thing that Hathaway was siphoning money off of the laser program to gain, his fancy house. It makes the project seem like a bust, effectively ruins Hathaway, and punishes him for being dishonest. As revenge schemes go, it’s a remarkably fair-minded one that’s fun to boot. And it’s not about proving their superiority over another group, but instead about taking back control over what they’ve created.

Real Genius, popcorn house

The film doesn’t showcase as many women as we might hope for (and the Pacific Tech campus is also blindingly white overall, though Chris’ friend Ikagami is present and happily avoids most of your average Asian stereotypes aside from smartness), but the way it treats the majority of those women is impressive, particularly for this era in filmmaking… no doubt largely due to the movie’s female director, Martha Coolidge. There are few instances of pure objectification just for the sake of it in Real Genius; even though the co-ed party shows plenty of girls in swimsuits, the shots that reveal them are often at a distance, never lingering. While Knight is blunt in his sexual overtures to women, the ones he encounters are more than capable of tackling his advances and throwing them back in his face when he’s not up to snuff. His directness gives him no power, which is extremely important because it indicates that not every woman is automatically going to swoon over that kind of come-on. (Which, in turn, suggests that women are real, unique individuals with different preferences.) And when they aren’t interested, Chris is never entitled or angry about it—he simply moves on.

I really can’t talk about women in this film without focusing up on Jordan Cochran. While she does occupy a typically female place in the plot (Mitch’s love interest), her portrayal by Michelle Meyrink is nothing short of revelatory when it comes to broadening the variety of women that we should expect in fiction. To start, Jordan is not a conventionally attractive girl, certainly not in a California/feature film sense. She has a weird haircut and a child-like cadence to her voice, and she’s not particularly fashionable. It’s also entirely possible for this character to read somewhere on the autistic spectrum, though by way of a Hollywoodified lens; she is uncertain of common boundaries (visiting Mitch in the bathroom and being perturbed by his inability to pee in front of her), she has severe insomnia (it’s suggested that she drove her roommate to a nervous breakdown by never ever sleeping), she misunderstands the social cues of others (she frequently assumes the ends of Mitch’s sentences incorrectly), and her idea of what constitutes an everyday activity would hardly pass for your average citizen (Mitch finds her sanding her dorm room floor late one night and she uses the beautician party as an excuse to test a rebreather she designed herself). It’s not the fact that she might be on the spectrum itself that’s remarkable, but the fact that the film never suggests that Jordan should be viewed differently because of it. It doesn’t make her “special” in a manic pixie dream way, but it doesn’t make her pitiable either. She’s simply who she is, and that person is still portrayed as desirable and engaging and brilliant.

Real Genius, Jordan Cochran

It helps that she’s very much her own kind of genius. Jordan makes most of her own equipment, clearly comfortable with a variety of tools and practical materials. She isn’t involved in the laser project whatsoever—in fact, we’re never told what Jordan is at Pacific Tech to do aside from being some sort of eclectic savant who cares about sled velocity on ice and the smoothness of her floors. She comes off as a kind of mad scientist, probably the sort of person to invent a few hundred incredibly useful patents throughout the course of her life and hopefully retire rich with a giant lab/workshop in her basement where she can create gorgeous metalwork in peace. Prior to Real Genius, Meyrink appeared in Revenge of the Nerds as one of the members of Omega Mu, the nerd girl sorority. In that movie, she and her Greek sisters were figures to be laughed at. Here, she is an odd force to be reckoned with. There is simply no comparison; one of these characters is inspirational to young women, and the other is decidedly not. In the end, Jordan’s status as Mitch’s girlfriend has very little to do with her place in the story (outside of letting her meet these characters and form friendships with them), an effective 180 from her position as Gilbert’s love interest in Revenge of the Nerds. Jordan is a heroic character in Real Genius, whereas Judy is largely a trophy for the (male) hero in RotN.

What’s also impressive about Real Genius is that it allows its focal character, Mitch Taylor, to be as young as he is, with all the embarrassment and strangeness that being fifteen entails. Mitch calls his parents crying because college isn’t working out the way he’d prefer, and he begs to come home. Mitch is cornered alone by an older, more experienced woman who clearly wants to teach him “the ways of the world,” but he runs from the scenario, owning up to his discomfort and knowing that he’d rather be with Jordan. The film never makes fun of Mitch for being less advanced than his peers or a perceived “square,” never sniggers at him for being the straight-laced one who cares about his work. It’s never suggested that he should simply play along, act older, learn to enjoy things that don’t interest him. Chris Knight has to convince him to loosen up by presenting real, hard data on why sticking too hard to the work might hurt him in the long run. And even then, Mitch doesn’t become a mini version of his mentor—he simply takes Knight’s advice to heart and figures out what his own version of relaxed is.

Real Genius, Mitch Taylor, Chris Knight

Rather than placing geeks on someone else’s playground, forcing them into an opposing socially-constructed box and proving that they can “play the game” better than everyone else by virtue of being smarter, Real Genius shows that nerds have their own games. They don’t need to run faster or get more pledges or give themselves makeovers to have fun and prove their worth. Mitch wakes up to a hall full of ice one morning; Ikagami has somehow created a gas that turns into the slippery stuff, and then back into a gas after a few hours. Chris hails the accomplishment as “Pacific Tech’s: Smart People on Ice!” The walls of the dorms are covered in strange graffiti, people shuffle back and forth between common areas and rooms in their weird-looking pajamas and towels. Knight has appointed himself as the dorm resident in charge of fun, trying to get people away from their books with “Mutant Hamster Races” and “Madame Curie Lookalike Contests.” In short, it’s like any other college campus, complete with overworked students. Nerds are not a rare and exotic breed of people, but they do make some awesome stuff, and that’s why they make for good movie plots.

It also helps that Real Genius might be one of the most quotable films on the planet. Even Joss Whedon would cry at how snappy the dialogue is, which is recommendation enough over most college movies where dialogue can be horrifically contrived. Chris Knight is the primary conduit of said snappiness, and you have to wonder how many of Kilmer’s lines are ad-libbed, because it seems like it might be a lot of them. It’s encouraging to have a character who at the start appears to be such a parody of himself—the super-smart-guy-who-can-also-be-a-jerk-because-he’s-good-looking-and-snarky—turn out to be a genuinely decent person who cares about people. And he proves that by changing his tactics with others; when he realizes that Mitch is not responding to devil-may-care antics, he quits the act and explains his reasons for exhibiting rather extreme senioritis. It comes clear very quickly that his primary reason for asking Dr. Hathaway to make Mitch his roommate is to make certain that Mitch doesn’t make his (or Lazlo’s) mistakes. Without realizing that they’re already being lured into the same gambit that snagged Lazlo years ago, Chris is already trying to provide Mitch with the tools he needs to avoid the scenario. He may be a cynic, as he says, but he’s inciting campus rowdiness to protect everyone’s health and expand their horizons, not to encourage them to blow their educations.

Real Genius, Chris Knight, why do I bother gif

In that way, Real Genius occupies an interesting middle ground in how it portrays education for a film that’s all about brainy, bookish people. It’s not suggesting that going to college should be one long non-stop alcohol-fueled party haze, but it’s also not suggesting that what you learn at a higher education facility is the only valuable knowledge you will ever absorb. Life experience is shown to be equally (or even more) valuable. And while it can be easier to retreat into books when you’re a certain kind of person, the tale cautions that it’s important to stay aware of the world around you–otherwise you might miss when you’re being taken advantage of. For a film that’s already 30 years old, the wisdom it displays is universal; value your emotional development as much as your intellectual development; use your abilities to improve the world; question authority; definitely don’t make dangerous weapons for your college professors.

So you can keep Revenge of the Nerds, if that’s your thing, and all the other films of its ilk. They do a fairly poor job of committing the experience of social outsiders to memory. For a film that offers a chance to laugh with people rather than at them, to appreciate what college truly teaches most of us, to embrace what’s really fun about being an unabashed geek, I’d recommend Real Genius every single time.

Gif from Panda Whale.

Emily Asher-Perrin was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates, who said: “…I drank what?” You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

18 Comments

Subscribe to this thread