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Film / Real Genius

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Real Genius is a comedy/science fiction film produced in 1985, starring Val Kilmer, Gabriel Jarret, Michelle Meyrink, and William Atherton.

The movie starts out about Mitch Taylor, a 15 year old boy who designs a cutting edge laser for his high school science fair. This gains him the attention of professor and educational TV show (think Cosmos: A Personal Voyage with Carl Sagan) host Jerry Hathaway, who offers to enter the wunderkind at Pacific Tech as an accelerated student. There, Mitch takes classes taught by tape recorder and meets the irreverent Chris Knight; who tries to teach the younger Mitch that he can't take everything in life so seriously, particularly when Mitch ends up as the Butt-Monkey of the school's Jerkass, Kent.

As it turns out, Chris and Kent are competing for the same post-graduate position under Hathaway, and while Chris's lighthearted quasi-slacker attitude rankles the professor, Kent shamelessly toadies up and finally seems to triumph over the heroes when he sabotages Chris and Mitch's laser project work.

The final straw comes when Chris and Mitch discover that Hathaway has secretly contracted with the CIA to turn their laser into a weapon and take all the credit. Chris doesn't approve, and recruits the genius kids of the university to help him take revenge on both the greedy Hathaway and Kent during the laser's first live-fire exercise.

This film provides examples of:

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  • Academic Alpha Bitch: Kent is a male example - good enough to be a student teaching assistant (he teaches Dr. Hathaway's lower curriculum courses), but aggressive in his academic superiority and ruthless to anyone he perceives as a threat to this primacy.
    Kent: You'll rue the day.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: The first time Chris goes to Dr. Hathaway's house, Hathaway tells him he wants to see more of him at the lab, to which Chris replies, "Fine. I'll gain weight." Dr. Hathaway chuckles at this.
  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents:
    • After speaking with Mitch's parents at the science fair, Dr. Hathaway asks them if, by any chance, Mitch is adopted.
    • Mitch has to assure Jordan that the reason he won't take her to meet them is that he's ashamed of them, not of her.
    • After watching Hathaway on TV, Mitch's mother has only one question: is his hair real?
  • Apple for Teacher: Chris hands a red apple to Dr. Hathaway, who dismissively throws it in the trash. However, it turns out to be a disguised bomb.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Some of the college pranks, like Ick's "ice", toe the line because nobody bothers to explain exactly what it is. On the other hand, the laser technology in general is real, but Chris's breakthrough on the five megawatt laser is pure Technobabble. Word of God is that they used real cutting-edge research into high-energy lasers, but purposefully screwed it up a little so anyone with the resources to re-create it couldn't hurt themselves.
  • Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: Jordan Cochran definitely seems to fit somewhere on the autism spectrum, but since the film was made in the 80s, it wasn't as well known as it is today.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Chris uses liquid nitrogen to freeze ice which he then cuts coin slugs from with a filament knife just to avoid paying for vending machines. Even putting aside the fact that he doesn't have to pay for the gas itself if he uses university resources, he still has to freeze it into a shape that fits into the coin slot and registers as a coin.
  • Badass Boast: After finishing Hathaway's final, Chris passes a note to Hathaway that reads, "I aced this."
  • Balloonacy: Some trailers and promotional material depict Chris floating in a deck chair held aloft by balloons. This didn't make the final cut of the film, however.
  • Big Blackout: Chris Knight causes one when he turns on his laser beam pathway for the "Tanning Invitational." It's not known how widespread the blackout is; the audience only sees the Pacific Tech campus.
    Chris Knight: "Relax. That's just the fuses at the substation, they'll have it back on in a minute. Maybe I shouldn't have shorted across the building transformer. But more important: did we get a charge?"
  • Blaming the Victim: After Kent sabotages the laser, he tells Knight that it was his own fault for not inspecting the optics before running it.
  • Breakout Character: It's hard to remember that Chris Knight wasn't the main character. Even the DVD box cover gives Kilmer the only billing, and uses only his photo.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Chris has spent much of his senior year involving himself in diversions in an attempt to avoid responsibility.
    Hathaway: When you first started at Pacific Tech you were well on your way to becoming another Einstein and then you know what happened?
    Chris: I got a haircut?
  • Call-Back:
    • "It's a moral imperative," used first by Chris to inspire Mitch; later Mitch returns the favor.
    • Mitch, having fallen asleep while studying, has a nightmare. "No, not the mailbox again!"
  • Chekhov's Gun: Hathaway hates popcorn, as Chris finds out when he visits the professor's house. The protagonists later use popcorn in a spectacular way during their revenge scheme by turning Hathaway's house into a giant Jiffy-Pop.
  • Cargo Ship: Implied in-universe with Kent and a bowl full of Jell-O, as mentioned by Chris.
  • Coin Walk Flexing: In one scene, Mitch walks into class to talk to Chris, but Chris blows him off and leaves. During this scene, Chris is knuckle rolling a coin with each hand and keeps it up as he gets up from his desk and walks away.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Lazlo Holyfeld, who lives in underground steam tunnels accessed via Chris and Mitch's closet.
  • Closet Sublet: Lazlo, as described above, appears at first to live in the closet.
  • Comically Missing the Point: A frequent source of zingers for Chris.
    Dr. Dodd: (in an office setting) Why is that toy on your head?
    Chris: If I wear it anywhere else, it chafes.
  • Coming of Age Story: A major theme of the film — Mitch is the primary example, but Chris, Jordan, and Lazlo get to do some growing up by the end.
  • Coin-on-a-String Trick: Chris creates slugs for the vending machine from ice, frozen with liquid nitrogen.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: Kent winds up in a house being filled to the breaking point with laser-popped popcorn...and has an absolute blast. In fact it seems to give him a better disposition in the end.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Chris.
    • Dr. Hathaway has his moments, especially in the scene where Mitch is introduced.
      Old Woman: "What is Mr. Einstein really like?"
      Dr. Hathaway: "Dead."
  • Deuteragonist: Chris. The plot starts out with Mitch as the protagonist, but eventually this role gets shared between him and Chris.
  • Disastrous Demonstration: Invoked by the heroes to ensure the space-laser will never be deployed.
  • Does Not Like Spam: Hathaway hates popcorn, and dogs. No points for guessing what his Humiliation Conga involves.
  • Energy Weapon: The plot centers around building a big one, for use in a Kill Sat. It behaves like a real laser, though.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Kent is a huge Jerkass to everyone that he isn't sucking up to, and he even sabotages Chris' prototype, which Kent knows will lead to Chris flunking out. However, even he is appalled to learn that the laser work he's contributed towards will be used as a weapon.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: The team are celebrating creating the prototype when Lazlo interrupts and asks them to think of what they've created: A high-yield beam that unleashes a blast of energy too powerful to be used longer than fifteen seconds and not feasible for anything but one specific purpose:
    Lazlo: Look at the facts. Very high powered. Portable. Limited firing time, unlimited range. All you's need is a tracking system and a, a large spinning mirror and you can vaporize a human target from space.
    (Through his talk, Chris' grin has slowly faded and he's stopped chewing his food as the others all share looks of stunned understanding.)
    Chris: This is not good.
  • Faux Affably Evil: David Decker. A completely amoral CIA agent who orchestrates the creation of a Kill Sat without any oversight from the President, the DOD, or any other responsible agency. When an underling disagrees with him, he casually orders the man's murder. Don Carnagle warns Hathaway that Decker is "dangerous" implying that they both might be killed if they don't finish the laser.
  • Fictional Counterpart: Pacific Tech for Caltech. What's really cool about it is that at first, Caltech was eager to help make the movie... at least until they learned it was critical of the Strategic Defense Initiative in general and Edward Teller in particular; as Caltech operates and manages NASA's neighboring Jet Propulsion Laboratory, they couldn't afford to critique the man, let alone be involved in a movie which cast William Atherton as his counterpart. But it all turned out perfectly anyway, as a Caltech alumnus came out of the woodwork to provide assistance - and load the film with Easter Eggs.
  • Foreshadowing: At the beginning of the movie, Kent tells Mitch that orders go "...from God, to Jerry, to me." Later on, "Jesus" talks directly to Kent, changing the middleman as it were.
  • Friendly Address Privileges: As the star pupil of the school, Chris is allowed to call Jerry by his first name. Kent isn't.
  • Genius Slob: Chris dresses like a beach bum and his room is a complete dump.
  • Genki Girl: Jordan is hyperactive to the point of not sleeping, never stops talking, and glomps Mitch almost as soon as he shows up.
  • Giant Food: Mitch is offered a cherry the size of a baseball by another student. "I grow them myself."
  • Give Me a Sign: Invoked on Kent, making him think "Jesus" is talking to him. Later played straight when he's standing outside Dr. Hathaway's house.
  • God Guise: Jordan implants a radio transceiver in Kent's braces, whereupon Mitch pretends to be Jesus to learn what Hathaway plans to do with the laser.
    Mitch: "And from now on, stop playing with yourself."
    Kent: "It is God!"
  • Hard-Work Montage: Several, including Mitch settling in at the college, and Mitch and Chris working on the laser.
  • Heroic BSoD:
    • Lazlo is suggested to have gone through one. He loved solving scientific problems, but paid no attention to what his work was used for. When someone told him his work was killing people, he "cracked, severely."
    • Chris has one once he learns the laser's true purpose.
  • Highly Visible Password: Lazlo's attempts to hack into the military computer are masked while typing, but then subsequently displayed anyways. PASSWORD: ###### (trying "AAAAAD"). This would likely be normal behavior for a brute-force script, as it would produce such comments as local notifications. However, it was shown that Lazlo was typing the entries by hand.
  • High-School Hustler: Chris Knight, although this is in a university.
  • Hollywood Provincialism: An unusual case where the issue is mistakes in California law. Sherry Nugil appears to be waiting for Mitch to turn sixteen; age of consent in California is eighteen.
  • Humiliation Conga: At the end, for Hathaway. His project is ruined and likely going to be audited, which will uncover his skimming off the top to pay for renovations on his home. Said house has been destroyed... by popcorn, which he hates. And finally the dog that he can't stand shows up to commiserate.
    • And it's even possible that he will be killed later: Major Carnagle warned him that Decker is dangerous. And then Hathaway sleeps with his daughter.
  • I Ate WHAT?!: The Trope Namer, though the actual example isn't related; Chris talks Mitch into tasting something, and when Mitch asks what it is, Chris says, "I don't know, I found it in one of the labs," then, after a lot of spitting, lets on he was joking; it's just yogurt. The actual Trope Namer comes from something Chris says later in the movie "I was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates who said, 'I drank what?'"
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Kent offers Chris condolences for his meltdown...which Kent shouldn't know about.
  • Ignored Epiphany: A year before the film takes place, Lazlo tells Chris the story of how he snapped and ended up in the steam tunnels. From this he learns the perils of solving problems without thinking through what the things he creates will be used for. He forgets this when Hathaway attacks his ego, and ends up creating a weapon. He later laments on this fact and says "I'm such an asshole." Lazlo helpfully replies: "I know how you feel, Chris, and you're right."
  • The Insomniac: Jordan.
    Jordan: I never sleep, I don't know why. I had a roommate and I drove her nuts, I mean really nuts, they had to take her away in an ambulance and everything. But she's okay now, but she had to transfer to an easier school, but I don't know if that had anything to do with being my fault. But listen, if you ever need to talk or you need help studying just let me know, 'cause I'm just a couple doors down from you guys and I never sleep, okay?
  • Insult Backfire: Chris delivers one to Dr. Hathaway:
    Chris Knight: "You unbelievable bastard."
    Dr. Hathaway: "Count on it."
  • Intelligence Equals Isolation: Mitch is fairly disconnected from the social scene due to his high intelligence being off-putting to others. Chris talks to Mitch about being much the same when younger.
  • The Jailbait Wait: Sherry Nugil appears to be waiting for Mitch's 16th birthday. (However, the age of consent in California is eighteen.)
  • Jerkass:
  • Jerk Jock: Kent is the closest you'll find at a school full of nerds.
  • Kick the Dog: Kent records Mitch's teary phone conversation with his parents and later plays it over the cafeteria loudspeakers to humiliate Mitch.
  • Kids Are Cruel: "They stuffed me into a mailbox — did I ever tell you that?"
  • Kill Sat: The film opens with a CIA mockup presentation of a laser beam used to conduct precise orbital assassinations. Hathaway has the contract to build the genuine article. However, the plan is not to put the laser on a satellite but aboard a shuttle that would launch, conduct an assassination, and then land.
  • Kubrick Stare: Mitch, as the recording of him crying to his parents is playing on the cafeteria Public Address system.
  • Landline Eavesdropping: When Mitch calls home after being humiliated in front of Prof. Hathaway by Kent, Kent and his two friends pick up an adjacent phone to spy on him as well as recording it for later humiliation.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: ...Pun intended? Hathaway is completely and utterly FUBAR specifically because he acted like a dickless weasel. He embezzled project funds to renovate his house, instead blackmailing his students to do all the development on the laser. His abuse led to them sabotaging it, which means the project is kaput and he'll be caught in the ensuing audit. Given that Knight's popcorn prank destroyed his renovated house, he can't even sell it in a half-assed attempt to replace the funds. Hell, his career is a very public failure, so all his connections will abandon him, meaning whatever measures he took to flunk Chris out of college/ruin his career are going to fall by the wayside. Oh, and he exposed to scrutiny the kind of black ops sociopaths who asked for an assassination laser in the first place, which is not good for one's life expectancy...
  • Licked by the Dog: Hathaway. Naturally, he can't stand dogs.
  • Like Parent, Like Spouse: Jordan has the same mannerisms as Mitch's mother. In modern times, she would possibly have been diagnosed with ADHD.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Jordan, who bursts in on Mitch while he's in the bathroom and all but glomps him — entirely innocently; she wants to give him a sweater she knitted for him overnight. Part of her Character Development occurs when Mitch starts paying serious attention to her; she calms down and develops a personality other than "hyperactive girl".
    • Additionally, Chris acts as a Manic Pixie Dream Boy for Mitch, teaching him to loosen up and enjoy life instead of studying all day, every day.
  • Men Can't Keep House: Chris Knight's half of the dorm room is an unabashed disaster area, even in comparison to the rest of the dorm.
  • Motor Mouth: Mitch has two.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Downplayed, but when Mitch (as the voice of Jesus) points out just what Hathaway has built and how Kent unknowingly helped him, Kent is visibly and audibly upset to learn that he's helped build a weapon.
    • Played straight with Chris as Laslo explains his conclusion of the laser's intended purpose at the restaurant. Chris slowly stops eating his food and gets a thousand yard stare before saying flatly, "This is not good..."

  • Nerds Are Sexy: Sherry Nugil seems to think so, as she sets out to seduce the ten smartest men in the world, and despite Mitch turning her down, eventually ends up with Lazlo.
  • Never Win the Lottery: Inverted with Lazlo. He uses a computer and automated writing rig to enter the Frito-Lay sweepstakes millions of times, "no purchase necessary." He figures to win "32.6% of the prizes, including the car". Chris points out, "That kind of takes the fun out of it, doesn't it?" His response, "They set up the rules." Later, he shows up driving an RV hauling a trailer stuffed with other prizes.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Kent sabotaging the laser after finals is responsible for Chris making a breakthrough on how to build an even more powerful laser.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • We never do find out much about Lazlo's big project in The '70s, aside from Chris mentioning that it was killing people and drove Lazlo into a Heroic BSoD.
    • There was apparently an incident where Chris found Kent naked with a bowl of Jell-O.
      Kent: I was hot, and I was hungry!
    • There's also mention of mutant hamster races and a Madam Curie lookalike contest.
  • No OSHA Compliance: While the laser lab appears up to spec on the surface, some of the kids' practices while utilizing it are anything but. At one point, Chris handles supercooled materials with oven mitts and tongs, and is seen using a welder's mask in place of safety goggles. Most horrifyingly, when the five megawatt laser is fired, it goes through the cinder blocks, the wall, and halfway across town — it's a miracle nobody was killed.
  • Not So Above It All: Despite the prickly, standoffish demeanor he maintains for most of the movie, Kent most certainly doesn't share Dr. Hathaway's distaste for popcorn, and when the climactic "popcorn eruption" occurs he seems to be enjoying himself as much as the other students.
  • Not What I Signed on For: The students were led to believe that the laser they were designing was meant for industrial applications, and Mitch's high-school science project was about their potential for fusion reactors. When they realize it's actually a Kill Sat, they are pissed.
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Hathaway isn't one but he plays one on TV. He's a physicist, but when we see the taping of one of his shows he's talking about the colon (a medical subject).
  • Out Of Control Popcorn: Invoked. The heroes hijack the test of the giant space laser, redirecting it to Dr. Hathaway's house, which they had previously filled with unpopped popcorn kernels. The popcorn all pops and explodes out of the house.
  • Out with a Bang: Poor Professor Hostetler...
  • Practice Target Overkill: Some college students discover a way to raise the power output of a lab laser, and secretly modify it for a test firing. These wonderballs calculated a beam in the megawatt range; the beam produced was in the terawatt range, which burned a hole completely through a concrete safety shield, then the lab's cinder block walls, then a bronze statue of the college's founder, a tree, and a billboard which dropped flaming debris onto a restaurant's roof, before likely carrying on into space.
  • Running Gag:
    • Mitch's classmates for one lecture keep disappearing, leaving recording devices in the room so they can skip class. Eventually Mitch is the only one remaining, as even the instructor has ditched class and left a tape playing in his stead.
    • Kent likes to play with himself, which gets used against him near the end when Mitch does his God Guise through a transmitter implanted in Kent's braces to get information out of Kent.
  • Satellite Love Interest: Sherry Nugil is a variation. Out of the three scenes total that she appears in, the first features her flirting with Chris, and the other two are spent as a willing love interest for Mitch and Lazlo, respectively.
  • Science Hero: The entire cast is made up of science and engineering students at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
  • Sexy Shirt Switch: Susan comes part-way downstairs wearing Jerry's shirt.
  • Shame Accusation: Zigzagged. After Mitch suggests he doesn't want to introduce Genki Girl Jordan to his parents, she demands to know if it's because he's ashamed of her.
    Mitch: No, them.
    Jordan: (understanding) Oh.
  • Shout-Out: "Drain Experts, Inc." and "Darlington Electronic Instruments" are references to... well, let's just say they're references and leave it at that. Enter if you dare.
  • Shown Their Work: It's debatable how much is this and how much might be considered Easter Eggs, but, aside from the over-arching Hollywood Physics plot, the number of minor, technical details that are accurate probably represents how many "not-Cal Tech" alumni crawled from the woodwork to flesh out the details of Pacific Tech campus life and the general science scenes.
  • Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter: Kent after he goes into Jerry Hathaway's house after being warned not to go inside by Jesus and by his fellow students cries out, "Okay, God, let me have it!" It is then that the student's laser project is activated from the plane and projects its beam straight through the window of the house to activate what amounts to a giant Jiffy-Pop.
  • Stealth Pun: Hathaway goes from calling Don an "asshole" and then doing an educational show about the colon. He's then framed next to an educational model of said organ, clearly implying that he's an asshole.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: As smart as Mitch is, it's not the least bit surprising that he still struggles in college; it's not only difficult for anyone to assimilate into a new scenario and being away from home for the first time, but since he was only 15, he's even more out of place with people at least three years older than him. This isn't even getting into how due to his parents' influence, he was already more focused on his studies than other aspects of school, including activities and honing his social skills.
  • Technological Pacifist: Lazlo, as well as Chris and Mitch to some extent.
  • There Is a God!: Kent's reaction to hearing the voice of "Jesus" (actually Mitch through a transceiver in Kent's braces) telling him to stop playing with himself. Played for Laughs, although it does seem to convince Kent to have a Heel–Face Turn.
  • The Three Faces of Adam: Mitch Taylor is the Hunter, Chris Knight is the Lord, and Lazlo Hollyfeld is the Prophet.
  • Token Good Teammate: Bodie. Even though he hangs out with Kent and his group of bullies, he isn't spiteful towards Mitch or laughs at the pranks they pull on him. He even makes one of the film's best lines against Kent:
    Bodie: Well, I guess it goes from God, to Jerry, to you... to the cleaners. Right, Kent?
  • Tomboy with a Girly Streak: Jordan is a short-haired, genius scientist who builds an underwater breathing apparatus, but also knits sweaters just for the hell of it.
  • Truth in Television: The way in which the characters feel such guilt over their unintentional work on weapons projects is similar to many of the physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project. Notably, physics rock star Richard Feynman said something similar based on his experience. He was so caught up in the demanding and intellectually stimulating work that he never stopped to question whether what they were doing was a good idea.
  • TV Genius: Averted, most of the kids, minus some hyperactivity disorders, speak rather like normal humans. Notable in the ice scene when Ick says that the ice is going to go from solid to gas and doesn't use the actual word for this process, sublimation.
  • Underdressed for the Occasion: At a job interview, no less. This is deliberate on Chris' part, however; he is trying his hardest not to be taken seriously, at least until Hathaway threatens to throw him out.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight:
    • Pacific Tech seems to run on this, but it's most egregious in one scene when a student walks down the hall, right past Chris and co. wearing gas masks while gassing Kent's room, and merely says "hi."
    • The guy who freaks out cramming for finals. Nobody even reacts to him, except for Ick taking his seat at the table.
  • Vanilla Edition: The sole DVD release doesn't have any deleted scenes, cast/crew commentary, or trailers or TV spots for the movie itself. But it does have trailers for Hook and Jumanji.
  • The Voice: Invoked. Jordan, Chris, Ick and Mitch stick a transmitter in Kent's braces to make him think God is talking to him.
  • You Remind Me of X:
    • Chris sees himself in young Mitch.
      Chris: You see Mitch, I used to be you. And lately I've been missing me so I asked Dr. Hathaway if I could room with me again and he said sure.
    • Later on, he sincerely expands on this; Intelligence Equals Isolation. It's why he keeps screwing around with Mitch, he's trying to help him not be so isolated, and have a more normal life than he did.
      Chris: When I was three years old, I balanced my father's checkbook. They sent me to school and fired their accountant. My father was so intimidated, he stopped speaking to me. My teachers disliked me because I was smarter than they were. My classmates hated me because I blew the bell curve. Sound familiar? My mother dressed me in white shirts, hush puppies and a briefcase, guaranteeing that no girl would ever talk to me.
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle!: The second to last laser prototype that was successful until Kent sabotaged it.


Video Example(s):


Chris's two-handed coin walk

Chris shows off his dexterity by doing a coin walk with each hand.

How well does it match the trope?

Example of:

Main / CoinWalkFlexing

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