In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1995 and seven from 1985 (the extra coming in this month’s double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
It’s nigh Pavlovian to hear “1985 sci-fi comedy” and think of Back to the Future. (Strange but true: As I wrote this and hit Shuffle on a 2,000-song playlist, “Back in Time” spun first. Even computers feel the same.) And why wouldn’t you think first about a rollicking, inventive ride that pops the bubble of peerless post-war prosperity by playfully poking at the era’s perversions and peccadilloes?
And yet Back to the Future was but a bellwether of a mostly banner summer for sci-fi comedies, even if most of their fortunes got lost in its wake: the family-friendly eccentricities of Joe Dante’s Explorers; the second-team Spielberg pleasures of D.A.R.Y.L.; the titillating, tremendously funny Weird Science.
Per this column’s rules, any of those three could have taken this space. But yet two more won out — Real Genius (whose sci-fi bona fides I acknowledge are tenuous at best, but, hey, there are lasers!) and My Science Project, a film title so terrible that a 14th-place opening weekend seems a surprisingly generous finish. (In a shamelessly derivative, but unquestionably smarter, move for foreign markets, Touchstone Pictures renamed the movie Timebusters to conjure up a movie from a year earlier.)
In its own way, My Science Project proves as instructive about nostalgia’s rose-colored peril as Back to the Future. Unfortunately, that’s because the movie is worse than you probably remember.
I recalled My Science Project as a reasonably breezy slot filler for the chunks of time in my youth not given over to Back to the Future. Its VHS cover, too, beckoned to young, wide eyes, as a gaggle of unlikely teenaged heroes amassed like a small army — wielding automatic weapons and one of those plasma balls you could play with at Spencer Gifts that emitted huge bolts of lightning. Plus, the movie delivered a wowzer kitchen-sink climax in which the heroes saved Earth by battling time-traveling Nazis, Neanderthals, gladiators, Vietnamese soldiers, dinosaurs and mutant survivors of a future apocalypse of unknown origin.
Such is the power of a strong, big-idea ending on a young, impressionable mind. To watch My Science Project after 25 years is to realize this segment takes up, at most, 20 minutes of a painfully slow 95-minute movie that feels like a cheap, hastily wrapped assembly-line product.
Coming off his script for 1984’s The Last Starfighter, writer-director Jonathan Betuel was a hot commodity, but My Science Project quickly iced his career. His next, and last, feature credit? Theodore Rex, a human-dinosaur buddy-cop comedy for which producers sued star Whoopi Goldberg to keep her from bailing. Science feels like a forced-hand, budget-shrinking rewrite on a freshman filmmaker in whom the studio had shaky faith. Here is a movie in which a presumably alien gadget unravels time and space, sends weather patterns topsy-turvy and disrupts Earth’s energy field. And its big finish feels like a well-done Jaycees haunted house. From Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure to Jumanji and even Thor: The Dark World, other filmmakers later unleashed its finest ideas with more verve and visual panache.
Honestly, the less said of My Science Project, the better, but there are a few bright spots. As Bob the science teacher (“Only the pigs call me Mr. Roberts,” he says), Dennis Hopper is a brown-acid Doc Brown. He waxes psychotically about “the headwaters of creation” before he’s sucked into the time stream and returns to declare the future “a funky Bali Ha’i” after it spits him back out. Fisher Stevens also draws chuckles as Vince, a wiseacre sidekick to hero Mike (John Stockwell, who sounds like he re-recorded all his dialogue battling either a cold or a towel wrapped around his face). And the score by composer Peter Bernstein (son of Elmer) at least twinkles with a certain John Williams whimsy.
Any similarity it bears to Real Genius starts and ends with two circumstances: They opened in the same week, and designer Ron Cobb created the scientific gadgets that are central to both films’ plots. There is indeed more to marvel at in the opening-credits montage of Genius than in the entirety of Science; set to Carmen McRae’s “You Took Advantage of Me,” it charts a chronology from cave-painting slaughters to contemporary apocalyptic schematics. Such is the cautionary idea that mankind has perverted scientific discoveries into instruments of destruction for a very long time. From a college-comedy perspective, it’s like the closing credits of Dr. Strangelove with a dirty thirty under its arm. It’s also a pretty powerful mission statement that shows you’re not in for the puerile piffle you may have expected from those behind Police Academy and Bachelor Party.
Just how much of Neal Israel and Pat Proft’s material made it into the final film is up for dispute. Peter Torokvei, the professional name of transgender comedy writer P.J. Torokvei (Back to School and WKRP in Cincinnati), is also credited. Plus, director Martha Coolidge and ’80s script-doctor supermen Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Oscar-nominated for Splash) made uncredited contributions. Perhaps its provenance is akin to The Hangover, in which the greatest aspects everyone loves came from sources secondary to the final credits.
Regardless of the cobbled-together feel, Real Genius emerged a comedy classic — a witty, whip-smart and wise film that filled every crowd-pleasing box of college-campus tropes (rivalry, romance, clashing personalities) with a unique mark all its own. Coolidge was fired from 1984’s Joy of Sex after cutting gratuitous nudity (but claimed the credit anyway), so consider this both her true follow-up to Valley Girl, her 1983 debut, and the finest female-directed teen comedy ever. (Sorry, Amy Heckerling.)
Set at a barely fictionalized version of Cal Tech called Pacific Tech, Genius never treats its story’s geeks as oddball curiosities or the butt of obvious jokes. Hell, it even has an eventual soft-spot for the deeply unlikable Kent (Robert Prescott), an entitled dolt whose tight-wound orthodontia yanks at his brain and whose ass-kissing knows no bounds. Instead, it depicts a close-knit society of people with fiendishly inventive ideas that they test, re-test and test again, who still fret over their fears about fulfillment just like anyone else, and who must roust their minds and mettle to negotiate the tricky world around them.
It’s the minefield of modern academia, whose mindset Genius nails, in which education often places a laughably distant second to the commercial potential of research. To cite one of the film’s many eminently quotable lines, a question asked by many campuses capitalizing on intellectual property isn’t “What have you done for me lately?” It’s “What have you done for me today?” There is little that curdles innovation faster than when it is solely a commodity to exploit. And I’m pretty sure anyone who went to college saw, or experienced, something like this response to being pushed too far too fast.
And yet Genius is cheerful enough to reinforce optimism in education as not a sucker’s bet but one you should place over and over to keep things interesting … and weird. That’s because it joyously asserts the power of creativity, curiosity and compassion alongside cognitive skills it takes to make big breakthroughs that matter. Again, to paraphrase the script: What the hell kind of a life could we possibly enjoy if it’s all science and no philosophy?
“Maybe you are smarter than me. But can you do this?” says resident goofball Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) of his new roommate, the 15-year-old wunderkind Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarret), who has been thrust into college early. Chris asks the question while executing a wacky move on a dorm-hallway ice rink, created via chemical reaction that turns gas to ice to gas again without the melty mess of a liquid. But what Chris really means is can Mitch unclench every once in a while, stay pure and passionate about what and who in life is most important to him, and find the confidence to deflect the many obstacles the world will forever erect in front of him?
Genius develops their mentor-mentee dynamic perfectly, never suggesting Mitch become a spitting-image protégé of Chris nor that Chris is impervious to subterfuge of those surrounding him. Mitch relents, but in his own time and in his own way, and a plot twist lets Jarret break free from a constricting straight-man role to spur Chris with a dose of his own medicine.
The female characters are also more formidable than those found in most campus comedies. When it comes to ribald verbal flirtation, Chris finds his equal in the daughter of a Department of Defense stiff. Another woman, though a sexpot, is exclusively targeting the world’s 10 greatest minds (as determined, presumably, by her own metrics). And then there’s Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), who speaks in the same 60-mile-a-minute pace at which her mind races and takes a liking to Mitch. Jordan is no lovable weirdo whose beauty, charm and smarts are somehow “other.” Neither is she some sort of trophy prize or deliverance for Mitch. You sense Jordan slowing down and Mitch lightening up whenever they’re around each other. Plus, the hesitancy and honesty with which they eventually confess feelings for each other is a refreshing, welcome respite to the rowdy-caveman claims of many other campus comedies.
This is not to say Real Genius is priggish or overly saccharine. It’s riotously funny in matters both cerebral and bawdy, thanks largely to Kilmer’s performance. Everyone knows about Kilmer’s penchant for edgy intensity. But before Iceman, Jim Morrison, Doc Holliday and Bruce Wayne, Kilmer’s work suggested a tremendously promising comic career. (Pair this with 1984’s phenomenally funny spy spoof Top Secret! for a perfect double-feature.) Here, we meet Chris at a job interview … wearing rainbow shoes, a ridiculous T-shirt and toy antennae protruding from his woke-up-this-way hair. That’s because this job was Chris’s months, if not years, ago, and he knows it.
Ingratiatingly infantile and armed with an arsenal of retorts, Chris carries himself with bon vivant buoyancy. “I want to see more of you in the lab,” shouts his taskmaster professor. “Fine. I’ll gain weight,” Chris puckishly pipes up. Who knows why Kilmer either avoided, or wasn’t offered, an opportunity to showcase this easygoing comic magnetism and effervescent mania for nearly 20 years (until the equally excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). But Kilmer also uncovers all the complexity he needs within Chris, which is to say a sweet center inside his hard-candy shell of cynicism. In explaining his senioritis to Mitch, Chris eventually shifts from an ad-lib quote machine to an ad hoc counsel. To him, it’s about broadening horizons, not brushing off studies — an application of the exploratory wonders of science to social interactions.
Thanks to Kilmer’s unexpected reserves of sensitivity, Chris takes his place among the actor’s most iconic performances. (Chris’s story also dovetails nicely with that of Lazlo Hollyfeld, a mysterious figure who roams Pacific Tech’s halls … and walls. Played by Jonathan Gries of Napoleon Dynamite fame, Lazlo boasts very specifically quirky traits that reverberate in everything from Punch-Drunk Love to The Internship.)
At one point after solving an important quandary, Chris cackles and runs maniacally across campus — the camera seeming to carom off walls and pillars right along with him. It’s as great a moment to observe Real Genius as one of the best-shot comedies of all time, thanks to the pedigree and poise of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.
After winning an Oscar Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Zsigmond shifted to prestige dramas (The Deer Hunter) and paranoid thrillers (Blow Out). On paper, he hardly sounds like the first choice for something like this. But with each pan across the halls of the college — its walls covered with manic doodles, scrawled signatures, inside jokes and other marginal memoirs of mischief and youthful zest — you sense Coolidge chose Zsigmond to shore up the geography of an immersive world. It’s an important aesthetic choice that plays into your rooting interests; whether it’s a lecture hall turned into a pool party or playful jumps into a supernaturally large pile of popcorn (more on that later), you’ll want to live in the world of these Pacific Tech students — not to escape but to more fully embrace their ethos. (Today, Zsigmond’s TV work springs The Mindy Project’s vision of New York similarly full-bodied life.)
Eventually, Real Genius shifts into a caper mode as Chris and Mitch must get out from under the thumb of their professor, Jerry Hathaway, played by ’80s movie asshole extraordinaire William Atherton. Extol the venality of pencil pusher Walter Peck (Ghostbusters) or sleazy journalist Richard “Dick” Thornburg (Die Hard) all you want, but Jerry Hathaway is Atherton’s masterwork of pompous W.A.S.P. dickweedery. Jerry exploits his students’ work to propel what is essentially a black-ops assassination laser for the U.S. government, hosts a TV show with the insufferably prickish title of “Everything with Jerry Hathaway,” builds a mansion for himself with money he’s thus far gathered from fraud, and, at one point, holds Chris’s future hostage without even batting an eye.
The movie isn’t naïve enough to suggest someone else might not figure out the laser, but Chris and Mitch aren’t interested in becoming modern-day Oppenheimers while Jerry profits. Thus, they embark on a sort of intellectual insurgency culminating in one of the most unforgettable sight gags of the ’80s — the destruction of the two things Jerry loves, his reputation and his house, with popcorn. LOTS of popcorn. It’s vengeance that obliterates only what it needs to, ethically even-handed and enormously entertaining. And if the movie still isn’t great enough for you, it ends with one of the best songs ever.
Like the most inspiring graduation speeches, Real Genius conveys themes as timeless and true today as they were then. Pursue your passions … but never to the point of paralyzing social psychosis. Keep your ratio of wonder to cynicism healthy, as that’s what keeps up both your guard and your spirits. College, like life, should soar on the totality of experiences, not a single-minded slog through the same-old, same-old. Make the world a better place however, whenever and in whatever way you can. Use your creativity to shape the world, even if it’s just in small tweaks, the way you’d most like it to be. And be able to skillfully tell — and lose yourself in laughter at — a very good dick joke.