Real Genius

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Real Genius
Real genius.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMartha Coolidge
Produced by
Screenplay by
Story by
  • Neal Israel
  • Pat Proft
Music byThomas Newman
CinematographyVilmos Zsigmond
Edited byRichard Chew
Delphi III Productions
Distributed byTriStar Pictures
Release date
  • August 7, 1985 (1985-08-07)
Running time
106 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$8 million[1]
Box office$13 million (North America)

Real Genius is a 1985 American science fiction comedy film directed by Martha Coolidge, written by Neal Israel, Pat Proft and Peter Torokvei, and starring Val Kilmer and Gabriel Jarret. The film is set on the campus of Pacific Tech, a science and engineering university similar to Caltech. Chris Knight (Kilmer) is a genius in his senior year working on a chemical laser. Mitch Taylor (Jarret) is a new student on campus who is paired up with Knight to work on the project.

The film received positive reviews from critics, and grossed $12 million at the North American box office.


The CIA is secretly developing "Crossbow", a space shuttle-mounted laser weapon precise enough to incinerate a single target from outer space, planning to use it for illegal political assassinations. However, they struggle with its power source, and have covertly hired Professor Jerry Hathaway at Pacific Technical University to develop this. Hathaway has assembled a group of brilliant physics students to do the work for him, though, outside of his graduate student Kent, purposely does not tell them the reason for their research. Hathaway is also embezzling the CIA provided funds intended for research so that he can upgrade his house.

Hathaway recruits high school student Mitch Taylor to join the team. Mitch is roomed with Chris Knight, a "legend" in the physics area. Mitch becomes dismayed that Chris is more of a goof-off than a hard-working student. Chris introduces Mitch to some of the other ingenious students, including Jordan, "Ick" Ikagami, and his nemesis, the less intelligent Kent. Despite his age and inexperience, Hathaway assigns Mitch to lead the team due to his fresh and inventive ideas, hoping that he will remind Chris of how he used to be.

Hathaway is pressured by the CIA to hurry the project, and Hathaway assigns the team a rigorous timetable. Chris continues his carefree attitude, eventually inviting Mitch to a pool party. Kent reports this to Hathaway, pulling him away from filming his television show. In front of Kent at the party, Hathaway lambastes Mitch who in tears calls his parents and tells them he wants to go home (unaware Kent and his friends were recording the call); the next day, Kent plays the recording over the school's public address system at lunch, embarrassing Mitch. Chris takes Mitch aside and confides in him why he is the way he is by telling Lazlo's story, he was a brilliant student, devoting his life to his studies. One day, he discovered his work was being used for weapons and he had a breakdown, becoming the recluse he is today. Chris does not want the same to happen to him, so he puts his enjoyment of life before studies. Mitch agrees to stay and Chris states that he must then exact revenge on Kent (by placing his car in his dorm room cycling the Peugeot's air suspension so it appears to be sleeping).

As the project is still lagging, the CIA contact puts pressure on Hathaway to produce the laser. In turn, he threatens to wrongly flunk Chris out of school and ensure that he never works in that field again. Faced with his mentor leaving, Mitch begs Chris to stay to attain their goal with the laser, they almost achieve it but Kent tampers with their sample, which causes a disaster. However, it ends up giving Chris ideas for a new way to achieve the desired outcome for the laser project. Lazlo gifts Chris every question Dr. Hathaway has ever asked on a final, ensuring he aces it. After passing the final and presenting the new powerful yet stable beam to Hathaway, Chris is told he will graduate and receive the job; the team goes out to celebrate, but Lazlo arrives and questions why a beam like that would be needed. They then realize that there was a purpose for which it was expressly created and that it's hostile. By the time they return to the lab, they find the laser equipment has been taken by Hathaway along with a spinning tracking mirror created by Kent.

The students are able to implant a radio transmitter in one of Kent's fillings, and Mitch uses it to speak to him through it making Kent believe Mitch is Jesus; Kent divulges the location of a nearby Air Force base where Hathaway will be demonstrating the equipment. Chris and Mitch sneak onto the base and reprogram the onboard computer to allow them to control it so Lazlo can reposition the target of the laser. Along with the rest of their team, they go to Dr. Hathaway's home and prepare something involving a small prism mirror on the outside of one of the windows and many boxes inside, they gather outside of the home to watch with one of the school's other professors and a Congressman. Kent, who was told by "Jesus" to go to the house but remain outside, arrives and goes inside; as the laser test begins, the changes cause the target to be Hathaway's house so it hits the mirror prism, heating and popping the large amount of popcorn inside. Before long, the house fills with popcorn, eventually causing it to burst at the seams, sending Kent out through the front door. Due to the laser hitting the wrong target, Hathaway investigates where the blast did go, only to find his house. Chris, Mitch and the others look on at the popcorn mess in amusement as kids jump around in it like snow. Lazlo, who had entered a number of sweepstakes contests with calculated mathematical odds, arrives in his recently-won RV and other prizes with his lady love. At dusk, Hathaway arrives to see what has become of his house.



To prepare for Real Genius, Martha Coolidge spent months researching laser technology and the policies of the CIA, and interviewed dozens of students at Caltech;[2] the screenplay was extensively rewritten, first by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, later by Coolidge and Peter Torokvei.[3]

Producer Brian Grazer remembers that when Val Kilmer came in to audition for the role of Chris Knight, he brought candy bars and performed tricks. Kilmer remembered it differently. "The character wasn't polite, so when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"[4]

To achieve the house filled with popcorn for the film's climax, the production team popped popcorn continuously for three months; the popcorn was treated with fire retardant so it would not combust and covered so that it would not be eaten by birds and possibly poison them. The popcorn was then shipped to a subdivision under construction in Canyon Country, northwest of Los Angeles, and placed in the house.[5]

To promote the film, the studio held what it billed as "the world's first computer press conference" with Coolidge and Grazer answering journalists' questions via computer terminals and relayed over the CompuServe computer network.[6]

The dorm in the film is based on Dabney House at Caltech, and Caltech students served as consultants and played extras in the film.[7]


Box office[edit]

Real Genius was released on August 9, 1985 in 990 theaters grossing $2.5 million in its first weekend. It went on to make $12,952,019 in North America.[8]

Critical response[edit]

As of January 2019, Real Genius holds a rating of 74% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 27 reviews.[9]

In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "the film is best when it takes [the students] seriously, though it does so only intermittently".[10] David Ansen wrote in his review for Newsweek, "When it's good, the dormitory high jinks feel like the genuine release of teen-age tensions and cruelty. Too bad the story isn't as smart as the kids in it".[11] In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, "Many of the scenes, already badly written, fail to fulfill their screwball potential... But despite its enthusiastic young cast and its many good intentions, it doesn't quite succeed. I guess there's a leak in the think tank".[12]

Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert awarded the film three and a half stars out of four, saying that it "contains many pleasures, but one of the best is its conviction that the American campus contains life as we know it".[13] In his review for The Globe and Mail, Salem Alaton wrote, "Producer Brian Grazer craved a feel-good picture, and she [Martha Coolidge] turned in the summer's best, and she didn't cheat to do it. There's heart in the kookiness. Real Genius has real people, real comedy and real fun".[14] Richard Schickel of Time praised the film for being "a smart, no-nonsense movie that may actually teach its prime audience a valuable lesson: the best retort to an intolerable situation is not necessarily a food fight. Better results, and more fun, come from rubbing a few brains briskly together".[15]

Scientific accuracy[edit]

In the MythBusters episode, "Car vs. Rain", first broadcast on June 17, 2009, the MythBusters team tried to determine whether the final scene in the film, the destruction of Dr. Hathaway's house with laser-popped popcorn, is actually possible. First they used a ten-watt laser to pop a single kernel wrapped in aluminum foil, showing that popping corn is possible with a laser, then they tested a scaled-down model of a house; the popcorn was popped through induction heating because a sufficiently large laser was not available. The result was that the popcorn was unable to expand sufficiently to break glass, much less break open a door or move the house off its foundation. Instead, it ceased to expand and then simply charred.[16]

It was also specifically stated in the program that a five-megawatt laser still did not exist, even in military applications, and that the most powerful military laser they knew of was 100 kilowatts.[16]

In January 2011, it was further demonstrated on video[17] in a home setting that a kernel of corn directly exposed to laser light from accessible consumer level lasers could be popped as reported by TechCrunch.[18]

The solid xenon-halogen laser proposed and built by Chris in the latter half of the film, though in the realm of science fiction, was based on theory of the time. Real Genius, through consultant Martin A. Gundersen (who played the math professor), was later cited in an academic publication which detailed the scientific basis behind the laser.[19]

Television series[edit]

Reports surfaced in September 2014 that a potential television series was in the works,[20] with NBC was set produce the comedy series with Sony TV, Happy Madison and 3 Arts Entertainment;[21] as of December 2017 there are no updates on the production.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Attanasio, Paul (August 7, 1985). "The Road to Hollywood: Director Martha Coolidge's Long Trek to Real Genius". Washington Post.
  3. ^ Attanasio, Paul (August 7, 1985). "Fun With the Whiz Kids". Washington Post.
  4. ^ Ascher-Walsh, Rebecca (June 30, 1995). "Cool Hero: Val Kilmer". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved September 2, 2009.
  5. ^ Ryan, Kyle (April 21, 2010). "Random Roles: William Atherton". The Onion A.V. Club. Retrieved April 21, 2010.
  6. ^ Deans, Laurie (August 2, 1985). "Howard, Keaton hope to make a splash". The Globe and Mail.
  7. ^ "References to Caltech in _Real Genius". 2013-03-26. Retrieved 2013-04-04.
  8. ^ "Real Genius". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved March 30, 2009.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Maslin, Janet (August 7, 1985). "Real Genius". The New York Times. Retrieved January 3, 2017.
  11. ^ Ansen, David (August 26, 1985). "Hollywood's Silly Season". Newsweek.
  12. ^ Kempley, Rita (August 9, 1985). "Real Genius Reels, Falls". Washington Post.
  13. ^ Ebert, Roger (August 7, 1985). "Real Genius". Ebert Digital LLC. Retrieved January 3, 2017.
  14. ^ Alaton, Salem (August 12, 1985). "This time the teen antics are funny Real Genius is a real gem". The Globe and Mail.
  15. ^ Schickel, Richard (August 12, 1985). "Guess Who Flunked the IQ Test?". Time. Retrieved January 3, 2017.
  16. ^ a b "Car vs. Rain". MythBusters. Season 2009. Episode 11. June 17, 2009. Discovery Channel. Archived from the original on March 7, 2010. Retrieved December 24, 2010.
  17. ^ Stevenson, Scott, Arctic Lasers Pop Popcorn - Pocket Blue Lasers Popping Popcorn
  18. ^ Burns, Matt (Jan 14, 2011), Popping Popcorn With Lasers Is Awesome And Healthy
  19. ^ Fajardo, Mario E.; Apkarian, V. A. (1987-02-13), "Simulated Radiative Dissociation and Gain Measurements of Xe2Cl in Solid Xenon" (PDF), Chemical Physics Letters,, 134, p. 51, doi:10.1016/0009-2614(87)80012-x — Citation number 7 on p. 54 in the paper (on p. 4 in PDF).
  20. ^ Michael Kennedy. "'Real Genius' TV Series in Development)". Screenrant. Retrieved 2015-03-09.
  21. ^ Andreeva, Nellie. "'Real Genius' Movie Reboot Set As NBC Comedy Series With Happy Madison & Sony TV". Retrieved 3 December 2015.

External links[edit]