The timelessness of any film is difficult to gauge. I’ve found that the films I hold dear, and declare timeless, have in fact aged along with the rest of us mortals. The hairstyles and costumes show their age, just as much as my old middle school yearbooks do. But what does not age is nostalgia. In fact, nostalgia grows stronger as timeliness fades. But logically we know that there must be certain films that hold their own, despite our emotional attachment to them. Beyond the quality of a film, there are certain factors that prolong its shelf life when compared to its contemporaries.
REAL GENIUS exhibits all of the signs of a film that should not have aged well. Released in 1987, it could easily have been riding the wave of nerd-centric films in that era. Just three years after REVENGE OF THE NERDS, and the same year as that same film’s unfortunate sequel, the 1980s’ fascination with brainiacs was coming to an end. REAL GENIUS was rife with nerds, but these were instead incredibly intelligent college students, and not caricatures of pocket protector-wearing dweebs.
Mitch (Gabriel Jarret) is such a nerd that he heads off to college before even finishing high school. Recruited from his school’s science fair, Mitch’s understanding of lasers surpasses that of even some faculty at his future university. Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recognizes Mitch’s potential and takes the boy under his wing and into his research lab. The intensity of this lab is well-known, and has a history of pushing students to the point of mentally breaking- and beyond. There are even sightings of a student of years past named Lazlo (Jon Gries) living inside the dorm walls. Mitch’s roommate Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) has not lost his marbles quite yet, but has a flamboyant and laissez-faire work ethic. This flippant attitude makes Chris one of the more charming, smarmy, and quoteable characters of all 1980s cinema. The uptight, underage Mitch is quite the contrast to the partying wildman of the physics department. What fun they will have!
Rather than labeling and reducing Mitch and Chris as one-note characters, REAL GENIUS treats these guys as three dimensional, complicated people. Mitch is dealing with homesickness, learning to flirt, and also learning the not-so-subtle art of pranking. Chris’s emotional birth comes later in the film when he realizes that his school project has been adapted for nefarious purposes.
You see, Professor Hathaway is the villain of the film. Not only does he hold Chris’s and Mitch’s academic and professional futures in the palm of his hand, but he also likes to pad his own wallet with contracts from the Department of Defense. Hathaway got Mitch and Chris to design and create a super laser. They pursued this project for the love of science, never even imagining what the laser’s purpose would be for, other than grants and scholarship. Hathaway, meanwhile, has a deadly plan to use their brains for his gain. When Chris learns of this, his character shifts. He was always capable of understanding when a situation was serious, but he also understood that college is a rehearsal for the real world, and that nothing there truly matters, as long as you graduate. Designing a killing machine against your will, without knowing, can be a massive wakeup call.
It can be argued that REAL GENIUS has validity in our current world climate of drone warfare and the newly forged ethics of war from afar, but I would argue that the film reaches beyond this faux allegory. Yes, it does have a special relevance to our current permi-war status, but its grander theme of innocence lost is applicable to nearly any time. Though we initially identify with Mitch’s fish-out-of-water status at the university, Chris ultimately has the more tragic story in the film. It is Chris who believes in the pure pursuit of knowledge, with no awareness of money and profit to be had from his genius. Chris may be the older roommate, but he also had the harder lesson to learn.
It is this honest portrayal of humbling innocence lost which makes REAL GENIUS timeless. And this film had quite the uphill battle. From the turtleneck and braces-wearing, yellow-Porsche-driving Hathaway henchman, to the quite fabulous 1980’s pop soundtrack and references to the mail-in Frito-Lay contest, everything in REAL GENIUS screams of a specific era. But the film was not only about those references. They serve as garnish to the major moral education which Chris and Mitch are forced to undertake. And who doesn’t want to celebrate a bad guy’s demise with popcorn and Tears for Fears?