Real Genius turns 35—celebrating this cult classic is a moral imperative

Enlarge / Mitch (Gabriel Jarret) and Chris (Val Kilmer) play young science whizzes trying to build a 5-kilowatt laser in the 1985 film Real Genius.TriStar Pictures

Back to the Future justly dominated the summer box office in 1985, but it's too bad its massive success overshadowed another nerd-friendly gem, Real Genius, which debuted one month later, on August 9. Now celebrating its 35th anniversary, the film remains one of the most charming, winsome depictions of super-smart science whizzes idealistically hoping to change the world for the better with their work. It also boasts a lot of reasonably accurate science—a rare occurrence at the time.

Real Genius came out the same year as the similarly-themed films Weird Science—which spawned a 1990s TV sitcom—and My Science Project, because 1980s Hollywood tended to do things in threes. But I'd argue that Real Genius has better stood the test of time, despite being so quintessentially an '80s film—right down to the many montages set to electronic/synth-pop chart-toppers. The film only grossed $12.9 million domestically against its $8 million budget, compared to $23.8 million domestically for its fellow cult classic, Weird Science. (My Science Project bombed with a paltry $4.1 million.) Reviews were mostly positive, however, and over time it became a sleeper hit via VHS, and later, DVD and streaming platforms.

(Spoilers for the 35-year-old film below.)

Fifteen-year-old Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret) is a science genius and social outcast at his high school. So he is over the moon when Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton), a star researcher at the fictional Pacific Technical University, stops by the science fair to inform Mitch he's been admitted to the university. Even better, Hathaway has hand-picked Mitch to work in his own lab on a laser project. But unbeknownst to Mitch, Hathaway is in league with a covert CIA program to develop a space-based laser weapon called "Crossbow," designed for precisely targeted political assassinations. The only remaining obstacle is the weapon's power source: they need a 5-megawatt laser, and are relying on Hathaway to deliver.

The first act is a nerdier version of the classic fish-out-of-water tale, as Mitch arrives at Pacific Tech and tries to fit in. His roommate Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), is a senior who was once a bright young star like Mitch, but has since rebelled against the high-pressure academic grind and embraced a goofy YOLO approach to life, urging his fellow students to allow themselves to blow off a little steam now and then. Mitch butts heads with Kent (Robert Prescott), a less gifted older protege of Hathaway's who is jealous of the attention Mitch receives. He finds friends and allies not just in Chris, but also fellow science nerds "Ick" Ikagami (Mark Kamiyama) and Jordan Cochran (Michelle Meyrink), a hyperactive young woman who rarely stops talking or inventing gadgets, and by her own admission almost never sleeps.

Then there is Lazlo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries), a former star student who cracked under the pressure and is now an eccentric hermit living in the dormitory steam tunnels. Fun fact: Lazlo's steam tunnel hideout, accessible through Mitch's closet, is an elaborate homage to Leonardo da Vinci. As depicted when Mitch finally figures out how to gain access, it features a multidirectional elevator built out of a small car controlled by a rotating screw. The car descends to a horizontal track and propelled forward by a hidden drive chain. The automated scribbler Lazlo uses to submit over a million entries to the Frito-Lay Sweepstakes was inspired by a sketch in one of Leonardo's notebooks.

Eventually, Mitch and Chris succeed in solving the power problem for their laser, only to realize (thanks to Lazlo) that it will be used to build a powerful directed-energy laser weapon. The five of them team up to foil Hathaway's big military test of the system, in their usual eccentrically ingenious way.

  • 15-year-old Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret) is admitted to the fictional "Pacific Tech" to work on lasers. TriStar Pictures
  • Mitch's rival, Kent (Robert Prescott) and his rather shady mentor, Dr. Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) TriStar Pictures
  • Mitch's roommate is the equally brilliant but idiosyncratic Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) TriStar Pictures
  • Jordan (Michelle Meyrink) surprises Mitch in the men's room with the sweater she knitted TriStar Pictures
  • Lazlo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries) is a former genius who cracked and keeps mysteriously going into Mitch's closet—and vanishing. TriStar Pictures
  • Mitch discovers the passage to Lazlo's secret lair. TriStar Pictures
  • Conked out TriStar Pictures
  • Of course Chris sleeps like a pretzel. TriStar Pictures
  • Chris engineers a "pool party" so everyone can let off some steam. TriStar Pictures
  • Jordan and "Ick" Ikagami (Mark Kamiyama) help Chris and Mitch take revenge on Kent. TriStar Pictures
  • "Is that you, Jesus?" TriStar Pictures
  • Yes that is a giant pile of unpopped popcorn in Jerry's foyer. All it needs is a bit of heat. TriStar Pictures
  • Hacking a defense department laser weapon provides that heat. TriStar Pictures
  • Hathaway realizes his system has been hacked. TriStar Pictures
  • The team celebrates a job well done. TriStar Pictures

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