Movie Review 30: Real Genius

1985 was an exquisite year for movies.  As a morbidly weird exercise, I am going to review some of the movies I watched as a 14/15-year-old  from the perspective of a wiser 44/45 year-old. Let’s begin with Real Genius.

Real Genius 1985 rating: B;  2015 rating A-

(NB My rating system will be like academic grades, e.g., A+ for the best ever, A for excellent, A-, B+,…, D- for let’s set fire to the celluloid, and finally, F for a crime against humanity.)

Real Genius is a movie that has held up remarkably well over the years.  Superficially, it is a teen, coming-of-age comedy in which the characters grow, fall in love, and make crude jokes about sex; if that’s all it was, then this is a movie that would have been forgotten long ago.  But of course, it’s way more than that.

This movie has held up so well simply because it doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence.  This is a movie about how science really gets done in America: the military wants a new toy, a lead investigator at a prestigious university wins a grant to build an aspect of the new toy, and the lead investigator has junior scientists carry out the work.

In this case, the lead investigator is Prof. Jerry Hathaway (Bill Atherton, who I guess played a lot of slimy characters we loved to hate in the ’80s), a “dean” at Pacific Tech (a stand-in for CalTech).  Hathaway is the sort of guy who wins these types of grants all the time.  Hathaway is a celebrity scientist who has his own TV show (like Carl Sagan?) and carries the domineering personality that one might expect of an apparently successful, hyperintelligent dude.  He is certainly good at what he does – laser physics – as evidenced by his ease with the equipment his slaves team built for him in the scenes at the end of the movie.

Now, the way a university grant works is that the grant proposal names the people who will be working on the project, as well as their salary requirements.  The university then pays these people accordingly as the grant money arrives.  Other money is used for stuff like lab equipment, conference travel, support staff, and overhead.  If all goes well, the lead investigator reports progress on the project to the funding source (the military here) and presents deliverables according to a schedule.

However, the central premise of this movie is that Hathaway doesn’t quite do this.  Rather, Hathaway, for reasons I can only guess are related to his dean-ship, manages to divert his grant funds to other scientific endeavors such as extensive home renovations.  One might also guess that his grant proposal listed his graduate students as his junior investigators for whom he listed salary requirements.  Hathaway likely used some of the money to pay tuition for his students and for lab equipment, etc.  But the rest of the money likely went to salaries that were never going to be paid out to people doing actual work.

Now we imagine that the military (the Army I think) has provided a very generous dollop of dough to Prof. Hathaway and thus has expectations of a finished product as likely promised.  As no finished product is even close because, well, his junior investigators are mostly semi-competent graduate and undergraduate students who are kept in the dark about essentially everything, the Army overseers are applying the screws to Prof. Hathaway, at one point hinting at a possible felony conviction for his creative accounting with the grant.  So Hathaway, who already is a Type A that thinks he is better than everyone else, is stressed out beyond belief.  This is all his students’ fault of course.

Most of what I just described is barely presented in the movie, but the movie is so good that this stuff doesn’t need to be said.  Again, the audience is assumed to be intelligent.  However, all of what I did present now explains how Prof. Hathaway came to recruit 15-year-old phenom Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarrett, who never really did many films yet did an excellent job capturing the awkward kid who just wants to please): Hathaway was desperate.  His wonder boy, Chris Knight (a young and excellent Val Kilmer in a role that would prove to be so very against type), who had been driving the project, has questioned his one-track existence and thus progress is not being made.

Progress on what?  What Prof Hathaway and the audience knows, and what the students do not, is that the deliverable is a weapon deployed in space that can vaporize a person anywhere on the ground.  The movie immediately makes clear the moral outrage of such a weapon when a morally outraged Army guy who leaves the project is “liberated.”  (“You mean liquidated?” “Let’s get some lunch.”)

Nevertheless, to Chris and his fellow students, Prof. Hathaway merely demands the solution of a “power problem,” which apparently is the generation of a 5 MW laser beam; this beam needs such power to vaporize a human target from space.  For those not in the know, 5 MW is extremely powerful, but its real use can only be measured in Joules of output, or power over time.  For example, a recent article claims production of a 2 PetaWatt beam in Japan, which is several hundred million times the power density of the 5 MW laser that Hathaway needs.  But the Japanese version only lasts for 2 pico-seconds, so the actual energy output couldn’t even heat your leftovers.  On the other hand, the 5 MW laser lasts 5 or more seconds, and even longer when deployed in the air so the energy density of this contraption is truly lethal.

Because Chris has no idea of the true purpose of his work, he merely thinks Hathaway is irritable for some odd reason.  (“But – and I am only saying this because I care – there are a lot of decaffeinated brands on the market today that are just as tasty as the real thing.”)  Chris seems genuinely baffled as to why Hathaway all of a sudden is demanding the solution of a far-out scientific problem pronto.  To him, the threats are almost comical – until Hathaway, in true desperation, and against every ethical and moral rule, states outright that he is failing Chris out of school and blacklisting him from employment in physics.

The movie makes it very clear that the true victims of Hathaway’s corruption are his students.  Hathaway has to put the squeeze on any way he can so that he can achieve his deliverable and not get convicted of fraud.

In one of the most horrifying scenes in the movie, Hathaway angrily belittles 15-year-old Mitch because he took a few hours off from the lab to go to a party.  Mitch, so young and impressionable and far from home, becomes despondent and begs his parents to allow him home.  When I watched this movie as a Mitch, I thought the scene was overdone.  I thought I was pretty independent from my parents emotionally (turned out to be inaccurate in ways I didn’t understand then) and couldn’t understand why Mitch took being berated like that so hard.  However, as a parent of a Mitch, I watched the scene in horror.  This kid is too young to know that he is paying for this jerk’s crime with such emotional abuse.   I wish Prof. Hathaway ill.

And it gets worse for Mitch.  Mitch instantly angered the alpha graduate student Kent (Robert Prescott, whom some of you might recognize many years later as a thug in the excellent film Michael Clayton) by making intellectual mincemeat out of him in the lab in front of Prof. Hathaway.  Kent is one of the least appealing characters in the movie because I feel the character is over-the-top pathetic.  Kent too is a victim of Hathaway’s, but Kent is a willing slave.  He gets Hathaway’s dry cleaning and teaches his undergrad class, and for these trifles, expects the success that comes with actual achievement. So Kent, a man in his mid-20’s, becomes so enraged at and fearful of a 15-year-old boy that he utterly humiliates him in front of a cafeteria full of students by taping and replaying Mitch’s pleadings with his parents.  (The students all laugh at Mitch, which makes me wonder WTF is wrong with people.)  Kent also turns Mitch into Hathaway for the “crime” of taking a few hours off from the lab.

This low point of the movie is the catalyst for the expected bonding of Chris and Mitch.  I think Kilmer and Jarrett have really good chemistry together as senior and junior research associates.  Their characters rightly benefit from each other’s presence: Mitch is able to stand up for himself better (and gets an older woman to boot), and Chris is able to find the balance between being loose and being successful.  Mitch of course plays the straight man and Jarrett does that well.  Chris, on the other hand, has the majority of the great lines in the movie, and Kilmer, not yet the superstar, is more than up to the task.  Not only that, the characters are clearly comfortable rattling off scientific reasoning as the scenes demand.  (“Bromide in an argon matrix…radiatively coupled to the ground state…10^21 photons per cubic cm”; not easy stuff to say with conviction.)

One other character stands out: John Gries as Laslo Hollyfeld, the mysterious bearded dude that seems to live in Mitch’s closet.  One watching the film today might get angry at Gries’ character as being a ripoff of David Foster Wallace…until one realizes that this movie came out two years before an unknown Wallace released his first book (Broom of the System) after graduating from Amherst College.  Yes, so DFW may actually be a ripoff himself of Laslo Hollyfeld (although Hollyfeld has no bandana).

Real Genius takes a few twists and turns and so keeps the audience on its toes.  Chris has an epiphany about solving the power problem, and he and Mitch successfully carry the solution out in front of a gleeful Hathaway and an incredulous Kent.  Mitch and Chris’s celebration is cut short because Hollyfeld informs them of the true purpose of Hathaway’s nagging.  Horrified, the kids (along with an unwitting Kent) take revenge by infiltrating the demo that Hathaway is giving his Army patrons and causing the laser to fire at Hathaway’s house and pop a literal shitload of popcorn in the house. (Hathaway expressed disgust for popcorn earlier.)

So what can I say: good plot, mostly good characters, quotable dialogue, excellent science, respect for its audience.  Overall a terrific movie…but I do have a few parting questions:

  • Mitch pairs up with Jordan (Michelle Meyrink, who in hindsight is not bad to look at).  Jordan is 19, Mitch is 15.  A little questionable, but good for Mitch.  However, at some point in the film, Mitch is propositioned by one Sherry Nugill, whose goal is to sleep with the smartest people ever; Sherry is easily in her 30’s (a quite hot Patti D’Arbanville) and…don’t hot chicks in their 30’s get jailed for sleeping with young boys?
  • The finished product is not only the laser, but also a tracking system.  The tracking system is barely mentioned until deployment, but it seems to be Kent’s baby.  Why is Kent even working on this piece?  Wouldn’t this go to another group whose expertise is in…tracking systems?  And if Kent is able to develop and complete the tracking system as well as “contribute” to the laser development, doesn’t he deserve more credit?

Postscript:

Upon a second read of my review, I find more than a little sexism.  I apologize.  I gave short shrift to the quirky character Jordan played by Michelle Meyrink.  That is another thing this movie gets right: in the 1980’s (and 90’s), women in very high-tech campuses are few and far between.  So there are not too many like Jordan.  But she is as adept at science and tech thinking as any of the guys, and makes no bones about it.  Another great character.  (See more in depth about women in science and this movie here.)

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Ron Gordon

Math nerd in his early 40’s who seems to have an opinion about everything and an inability to keep it to himself.