Friday, March 20, 2015

Film Friday: Real Genius (1985)

The film Real Genius came up in our discussion the other day and that reminded me that I’ve been meaning to review that film. Real Genius is a film that I found to be ingenious in its writing, its casting and its story. It was funny, clever and inventive, and I truly enjoyed it, with one huge caveat... its politics piss me off.
The Plot
Written by Neal Israel, Peter Torokvei and Pat Proft (Hot Shots, The Naked Gun), Real Genius is the story of Mitch, an overachieving genius teenager who gets into Pacific Tech University long before his age should allow it. He gets into PTU because Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) needs Mitch’s mind to shake up his research team.
The team, led by Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), is working on a laser which, unbeknownst to them, will be used by the military to conduct assassinations from space. The team, however, is stuck and has become distracted by Kilmer’s short-timer attitude; he will graduate soon and really doesn’t care about the project.

Mitch arrives and immediately discovers that he doesn’t fit in. The team is self-obsessed and into partying. They view him as too serious. The other students ignore him because he’s too young. The bully and his friends decide to make Mitch’s life hell. In the process, they humiliate him. Mitch is soon overwhelmed and crying to his mother to come home.

Meanwhile, Kilmer finds himself threatened by Atherton. If he doesn’t solve the problem of the laser burning out every time it is fired, then Atherton won’t let him graduate and won’t recommend him for jobs.

This lights a fire under Kilmer and he decides to fly right. He helps Mitch fit in and focuses the rest of the team. Soon, they get the laser functioning. They celebrate. At their moment of success, however, mystery character Laslo, a burned out genius who keeps walking into Mitch’s closet and vanishes, comes to them and tells them that the laser they are working on is really a weapon. They are horrified and they arrange to sabotage the test of the laser the military is preparing, with hilarious results involving popcorn.
The Good, The Bad and the Angry
I really liked this film. The story was fun and original. The film was also populated with original, interesting characters with bizarre flaws, which is always fun to watch. The writing was clever too. In fact, I can still recall a bunch of the jokes twenty years since I saw the film the last time. For example:
Atherton: I want to see more of you around the lab.
Kilmer: Fine. I’ll gain weight.

Kilmer: Do you mind if I name my first child after you? Dipshit Knight has a nice ring to it.

Kilmer: If there’s anything I can do for you, or more to the point to you—
Susan: Can you hammer a six-inch spike through a board with your penis?
Kilmer: Not right now.
Susan: A girl’s gotta have her standards.
Notice that these involve completely unexpected turns of phrases. The setups to get to this point are well thought out too, i.e. these lines don’t just drop out of the blue. And what’s more, the whole film is packed with them.
Making the writing all the better, the film is very well cast. Kilmer in particular was about to hit as a major actor with serious talent... before burning out with a reputation for being impossible to work with, and he was at the top of his game here. Indeed, he displays excellent timing, a real feel for how to play each scene, and strong screen presence. Atherton too was the perfect choice for the vile Professor Hathaway. He was so convincing, that I honestly can’t separate out the character he plays from what I expect his real-life personality to be like. The supporting cast was good too. Each fit their role perfectly as the team of misfit and malcontents.

The story is strong too. The film hits many themes that appeal to us all, such as fitting in, dealing with sneering underlings and credit-stealing bosses, and getting revenge against bullies. Moreover, the plot is believable, but just insane enough to keep the story light-hearted even when its topic can get kind of heavy.
So I recommend this film without reservation, right?

Well, no. I do enjoy this film and I recommend it highly, but it has one serious problem: its politics are noxious. To understand this, a comparison to War Games is in order. War Games involved a political message that nuclear war could never be “won” and that the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction was so insane that anyone who played basic strategy games, i.e. tic tac toe, should know it was untenable.

Whether you agree with that or not is not the point, and I note as an aside that the left would soon flip flop from being anti-MAD to having great reverence for MAD once Ronald Reagan announced the SDI initiative, which they saw as ending MAD. But as I said, that’s not the point. The point is that the politics of the film doesn’t offend. And the reason it doesn’t offend is that the film makes its points honestly and it earns them. Indeed, before we are told that MAD and nuclear war are insane, we go through an hour’s worth of game play which shows us that a real nuclear war would destroy everything, i.e. there would be no winners. Moreover, the film never uses straw men characters, like evil generals who talk about acceptable losses and seem to relish the idea of killing hundreds of millions of civilians. Instead, you get earnest people who don’t want to hurt anyone, though they are prepared to do their duties, and you watch them struggle when faced with the reality of an actual war.

It’s hard to feel offended by that because the facts they present are well founded, the moral dilemma is a genuine one, and neither side is treated with disrespect.
Real Genius, by comparison, never earns its political message. To the contrary, it throws its message in your face as a fait accompli and with the assumption that everyone automatically agrees with the point... except the retarded bullies (Hathaway’s assistant), the evil money-grubbers (Hathaway), and the mouth-foaming murders (CIA). In other words, the film tells you what to believe without supporting its position, it presents its opinion as a settled matter which is beyond debate by reasonable people, and it demonizes those on the other side. That’s an offensive way to present a controversial message.

And what message does this film send? It tells us that all moral scientists will refuse to create weapons for the military. Well, that’s bullship. How anyone can argue that the building of weapons to defend a peaceful democracy against an aggressive, murderous communist empire is immoral is simply beyond me. Sure, I get that some people are pacifists, but that is a personal choice and their view does not morality make. There is nothing in morality besides pacifism which suggests that defending yourself is immoral.

Nor was this a widely-held view. In fact, I was in engineering school shortly after this film and I can tell you that not a single person I met bought this line of crap. Yet, here is the film telling you that this is the only acceptable position reasonable people could hold and that anyone opposed to it is a self-interested, murderous retard. That’s propaganda.

It really is to the credit of the strength of the film that I can recommend it despite this twisted message, but make no mistake that the message grates on me every time I see the film.



Tennessee Jed said...

I think I am too old and too curmudgeonly to like this one. The time frame also probably made certain it slipped by me, and I freely admit I never heard of it. I appreciate what you are getting at, but it really is not the kind of film that really appeals to me. I admit to enjoying War Games. Just not my genre, and then there is the matter of the grotesque politics.

TJ said...

Thanks for the review, Andrew. I love this film. As a misfit myself growing up, I love these quirky characters. I especially love how they get back at the bullies. I understand and agree with what you're saying about the politics, but I overlook it because this movie is so much fun and so quotable:

"Your mom puts license plates in your underwear?"

Another couple of films that I really relate to with regard to bullies and how the misfits overcome them are The Bad News Bears (the original from 1976) and My Bodyguard. I would love to read your takes on those if you ever get a chance.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, In all honesty, I doubt this film would be up your alley. In terms of the politics, I should add that the politics of the film were still light enough that today they might not even be noticed, not compared to the hyper-partisan stuff Hollywood often produces these days. It's still there and it felt anti-Reagan to me at the time, but it wasn't enough to ruin the film for me. Today, everything is sharper and harder to overlook.

AndrewPrice said...

TJ, You're welcome! I love the misfit angle too. I'm always a fan of the outsider and the people doing things differently. And I love their revenge! Both the popcorn ball and what they do to Kent... "Kent, this is God..." LOL! Wow are Kent and Hathaway are unlikable!

The politics of the film has always bothered me, but like you, I overlook it and enjoy the film for what it is because it really is a fun and clever film. I just roll my eyes when they start whining about having built a weapon.

I love that license plate line. I love how quick witted the writing is!

djskit said...

This was my college roommate's favorite movie back in the day. It never terribly appealed to me as it appeared that they were trying too hard to be clever. Kilmer's lines came off as being written with the sub-text of "I've read this script a hundred times and these are by far the cleverest things to say".

Erik in Texas said...

I loved this movie as a kid (I was 11 when it came out), and at the time I loved it for the same reasons you do: witty dialogue, not fitting in, etc. Also, it was VERY quotable "Have you ever seen a body like that in your life?" (still my favorite), but indeed the politics were and are obnoxious. I find many films of my youth to be unwatchable now; I'm curious, if this one popped up on TV again, could I watch it now, as an adult? I don't know...

AndrewPrice said...

TJ, I'm sorry. I completely spaced answering your question. I LOVE the original Bad News Bears. On the other hand, I don't remember My Bodyguard enough to give an opinion.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it. I thought his deliver was perfect.

AndrewPrice said...

Eirk, I watched it for the review and, sadly, it did feel dated.

In terms of today versus then, I think that times have changed in the sense that we are much more cognizant of the nasty intent behind leftist political messages. In 1985, these messages just seemed misguided. Today, the left seem much more rotten.

ScottDS said...

Believe it or not, I've only seen this film once in its entirety. And that was years ago. I do remember liking it, though I can't remember enough of it to call myself a member of the "cult," so to speak. :-)

It's a shame Val Kilmer seems to be stuck in direct-to-video land. The man hasn't stopped working, but it would be nice to see him in a big hit again. The man has talent.

And after all the crap he got for playing a dick in Ghostbusters, I'm surprised William Atherton continued to play dicks throughout the 80s!

BTW, this film is known among home theater enthusiasts for its piece of shit DVD artwork. Hopefully a future Blu-Ray will correct this. :-)

Kit said...

Never seen this one. Your review does not make me want to jump up and go buy it but I may watch it one day. One day.

Rustbelt said...

Scott, the fact that Atherton played a jerk in this film truly is amazing given how he was received after 'Ghostbusters.';According to Harold Ramis on the commentary on my 1999 DVD copy of 'Ghostbusters,' (or it could've been the producer or director Ivan Reitman, I forget), Atherton stopped him in the street once. Ramis thought he was going to celebrate the success of the film. Instead, Atherton ripped into him. He said it reached a boiling point when an entire bus full of people rode by one day, recognized him, and proceeded to boo him and give him the finger en masse. Needless to say, he was ready to kill poor Ramis.

And Andrew, I haven't seen this film. However, the politics remind me a lot of the HBO film "Fat Man and Thin Boy." It's a historical film about the making of the first atomic bombs during the Manhattan Project. (The title is a reference to the first two bombs' nicknames, based on their shapes.) The film portrays the scientists as losing their zeal to make the bombs as Germany falls and there's no more need to match the threat of atomic war from the Nazis. Several of them even petition to scrap the project. The government (of course), is portrayed as just wanting the bomb for the sake of having of having it. Later, a doctor (a Hawkeye Pierce clone if there ever was one), accuses the military of lying about the bomb being made to beat the Axis because he learned that the they plan to make many such bombs. (This comes after he treats a scientist suffering from radiation poisoning after a botched experiment and has no chance of survival.*) He accuses the military and government of building up an arsenal to dictate policy and that they're the real bad guys. (Because, of course, they have no regard for the possible consequences.)
Never mind that building many bombs was the plan all along. Contrary to the film, project head Dr. Oppenheimer wanted to build the bomb and many like it for the purpose of policy. He believed that the threat of the bomb would make future wars impossible. In fact, you might call him the father of M.A.D. BTW, nearly all of the scientists working on the project agreed and didn't suffer the crisis of conscience depicted in the film.
But it is interesting how Hollywood rewrites history to suit their own means.

(*- The situation was based on an actual death during the Manhattan Project. However, the scientist who died from radiation poisoning apparently botched the experiment himself by not following safety guidelines. He was also quite a jerk and it seems he wasn't really missed after he died.)

ScottDS said...

Rustbelt -

Ramis' anecdote on the commentary is exactly what I was referring to!

Speaking of HBO films, I must review John Frankenheimer's Path to War one day. It's about Vietnam, seen through the eyes of LBJ and his people, and it doesn't feature any bloodthirsty generals—only a group of people trying their best to deal with an increasingly bad situation.

Anonymous said...

I heard about this movie maybe a year or two after it came out as I saw it at the video store (remember those?), but for some reason I never got around to watching it, which from the review is a bad thing. I think if I saw it now the politics you mentioned might annoy the hell out of me, but when I was a kid (when it came out) I would not have realised what was happening... Oh well if I get a chance to, I'll watch it.

TJ, I love Bad News Bears (even though I don't care about baseball) and I really love My Bodyguard and as a kid I wished I knew someone like Ricky (Adam Baldwin from Firefly/Chuck in his first movie) to back me up as I used to get picked on a lot so that movie really spoke to me (and I took the moral of the story to heart and stood up for myself).


TJ said...

Scott, The Bad News Bears was my favorite movie when I was 13. I must have seen it about 10 ten times in the theater. I was a tomboy and loved to play baseball and kickball, so that movie was so much fun for me.

My Bodyguard had a good message to it and I too wish I had had a friend like Ricky to back me up.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, It's a enjoyable film, but I'm not sure how younger people would respond to it today, especially as it does feel a bit dated today. I first saw it as a teenager and still think of it fondly. Obviously, you wouldn't have that experience. But I would say it's definitely worth giving it a shot.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I thought Kilmer was a fantastic actor, but he struggled to find good movies and then he seemed to implode after Island of Dr. Moreau. It's too bad because it feels like he squandered a great career.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt and Scott, That has to be difficult. But it is also a testament to how well he plays the bad guy. Like I said in the review, it's hard to separate him the person from the characters he plays because he plays them so well.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, The politics aren't in your face, but they are prominent in the sense that the premise of the film is that making weapons is something only evil people would do. That is annoying. But all told, the film is enjoyable and is worth seeing. :D

AndrewPrice said...

TJ, The Bad News Bears always takes me back to a more innocent age, when people weren't yet freaked out about everything. I appreciate that very, very much.

Michael K said...

I am aging myself but I saw this movie at the theater. Left the theater underwhelmed. Part of the problem was there other similar themed movies, for example, "Weird Science".

shawn said...

This and Sneakers are two movies I love despite their politics.

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