Real Genius

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Real Genius
Real genius.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Martha Coolidge
Produced by Brian Grazer
Robert Daley
Screenplay by Neal Israel
Pat Proft
Peter Torokvei
Story by Neal Israel
Pat Proft
Music by Thomas Newman, The Textones
Cinematography Vilmos Zsigmond
Edited by Richard Chew
Delphi III Productions
Distributed by TriStar Pictures
Release date
  • August 7, 1985 (1985-08-07)
Running time
108 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $12,952,019 (North America)

Real Genius is a 1985 science fiction comedy film directed by Martha Coolidge. The film's screenplay was written by Neal Israel, Pat Proft, and Peter Torokvei. It stars 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 laser.

The film received positive reviews from critics. It grossed $12,952,019 at the United States and Canadian box office.


The CIA is secretly developing "Crossbow", a space shuttle-mounted laser weapon precise enough to incinerate a single target, planning to use it for illegal political assassinations. However, they struggle with its power source and have hired Professor Jerry Hathaway at Pacific Technical University to develop this. Unbeknownst to the CIA, Hathaway has assembled a group of genius students in physics to do the work for him, though outside of sycophantic graduate student Kent, he purposely does not tell them the real reason for their research.

Hathaway recruits 15-year-old Mitch Taylor to join the team. Mitch is roomed with fellow team member Chris Knight, a "legend" in the physics area. Mitch is dismayed to learn Chris is more of a goof-off than a hardworking student. He also meets fellow students Jordan and Ick, Sherry Nugil (who aims to have sex with all the "top 10 minds in America"), and the mysterious Lazlo Hollyfeld, a slightly older man who lives in a steam tunnel accessed by his and Chris' closet. Despite his youthfulness and inexperience, Hathaway replaces Kent with Mitch as team leader.

Hathaway is pressured by the CIA to hurry the project, and Hathaway assigns the team a rigorous timetable. Chris dismisses this and instead convinces Mitch to join him at a pool party one night. Kent reports this to Hathaway, and in turn, Hathaway lambastes Mitch in public. Mitch calls his parents and tearfully tells them he wants to drop out, unaware Kent and his two cronies are recording the call. The next day, they play the recording over the school's public address system, further humiliating Mitch. Chris takes Mitch aside and explains the reason for his lackadaisical outlook on life; Lazlo, the man in their closet, was once an even more brilliant student at Pacific Tech than themselves, devoting his life to his studies, but when he discovered his research was being used for weapons, he had a breakdown and became the recluse he is today. After learning this, Chris decided to not let the same to happen to him, and puts his enjoyment of life before studies. With that, Chris convinces Mitch to help get back at Kent, and with the help of Jordan and Ick, they deconstruct Kent's car and reconstruct it inside his dorm room. Mitch also begins a relationship with Jordan, and Lazlo gradually becomes less reclusive by befriending Chris and Mitch.

As the project is still lagging, Hathaway decides to blame Chris and tells him he is flunking him out of school and will ensure he never has a job in any science-related industry. Mitch encourages Chris to get back at Hathaway by staying at school and completing the project anyway. After Chris and Mitch achieve a breakthrough, Kent sabotages the laser but accidentally exposes himself as the saboteur to Chris, which leads Chris to an epiphany that finally finishes the project. Chris, Mitch, Jordan, and Ick go out to celebrate, but Lazlo finds them and makes them realize a laser that powerful could only have one use, as an offensive weapon. By the time they return to the lab, they find the laser equipment has been taken by Hathaway.

The five of them are able to drug Kent so they can implant a radio transmitter in one of Kent's fillings, using it to speak to him as Jesus; through this, Kent divulges the location of a nearby Air Force base where Hathaway will be demonstrating the equipment. The group then formulates their plan for revenge against Hathaway. Chris and Mitch sneak into the base and remove the circuits that would prevent the laser from overheating. Lazlo re-positions the targeting of the laser to aim at Hathaway's home (which Hathaway has been using his payment from the CIA to renovate), and they also fill the house with a mass of un-popped popcorn, a food Hathaway hates. As the test starts, the laser hits a prism on the house's stained-glass window, heating and popping the popcorn, which fills and eventually collapses the house completely. Kent, who entered the house before the laser hit, is saved from the chaos by Chris and Mitch. As the test has failed, the CIA dismisses Hathaway from the project. Chris, Mitch, Jordan, Ick, and others look on in amusement while Lazlo, who has been using his intelligence to win a mass of prizes from a junk-food sweepstakes, arrives with a newly won RV and Sherry, with whom he has fallen in love. That evening, Hathaway returns to the popcorn-filled ruins 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.[1] The screenplay was extensively rewritten, first by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, later by Coolidge and Peter Torokvei.[2]

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.'"[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

The dorm in the film is based on Dabney House at Caltech, and Caltech students served as consultants and played extras in the film.[6]


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.[7]

Critical response[edit]

Real Genius received mixed reviews.

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".[8] 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".[9] 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".[10]

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".[11] 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".[12] 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".[13]

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.[14]

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.[14]

In January, 2011, it was further demonstrated on video[15] 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.[16]

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 given a citation in an academic publication which detailed the scientific basis behind the laser.[17]


The character of "Jordan" was the basis for the animated character Gadget Hackwrench in Disney's Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers.[18]

TV series[edit]

Reports surfaced in September 2014 that a potential TV series was in the works,[19] with NBC was set produce the comedy series with Sony TV, Happy Madison and 3 Arts Entertainment,[20] however, as of December 2017 there are no updates on the production.


  1. ^ Attanasio, Paul (August 7, 1985). "The Road to Hollywood: Director Martha Coolidge's Long Trek to Real Genius". Washington Post. 
  2. ^ Attanasio, Paul (August 7, 1985). "Fun With the Whiz Kids". Washington Post. 
  3. ^ Ascher-Walsh, Rebecca (June 30, 1995). "Cool Hero: Val Kilmer". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved September 2, 2009. 
  4. ^ Ryan, Kyle (April 21, 2010). "Random Roles: William Atherton". The Onion A.V. Club. Retrieved April 21, 2010. 
  5. ^ Deans, Laurie (August 2, 1985). "Howard, Keaton hope to make a splash". The Globe and Mail. 
  6. ^ "References to Caltech in _Real Genius". 2013-03-26. Retrieved 2013-04-04. 
  7. ^ "Real Genius". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved March 30, 2009. 
  8. ^ Maslin, Janet (August 7, 1985). "Real Genius". The New York Times. Retrieved January 3, 2017. 
  9. ^ Ansen, David (August 26, 1985). "Hollywood's Silly Season". Newsweek. 
  10. ^ Kempley, Rita (August 9, 1985). "Real Genius Reels, Falls". Washington Post. 
  11. ^ Ebert, Roger (August 7, 1985). "Real Genius". Ebert Digital LLC. Retrieved January 3, 2017. 
  12. ^ Alaton, Salem (August 12, 1985). "This time the teen antics are funny Real Genius is a real gem". The Globe and Mail. 
  13. ^ Schickel, Richard (August 12, 1985). "Guess Who Flunked the IQ Test?". Time. Retrieved January 3, 2017. 
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ Stevenson, Scott, Arctic Lasers Pop Popcorn - Pocket Blue Lasers Popping Popcorn 
  16. ^ Burns, Matt (Jan 14, 2011), Popping Popcorn With Lasers Is Awesome And Healthy 
  17. ^ 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).
  18. ^ 1989 Tad Stones Interview published in "Furtherance", Issue 3, Winter 1991
  19. ^ Michael Kennedy. "'Real Genius' TV Series in Development)". Screenrant. Retrieved 2015-03-09. 
  20. ^ Andreeva, Nellie. "'Real Genius' Movie Reboot Set As NBC Comedy Series With Happy Madison & Sony TV". Retrieved 3 December 2015. 

External links[edit]