Cinophile: REAL GENIUS

4 min read
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Oh Val Kilmer, what has become of you? The notoriously difficult actor has certainly fallen from grace in the last decade or so. It is almost hard to believe that in his day Kilmer was one of the hottest and most talented new actors to arrive in movies. There are several stand-out moments in his career, such as Top Gun or The Doors. But the first time Kilmer really leaped to the attention of audiences was in Real Genius (with a tip of the hat to the criminally underrated Top Secret!). How good was he? Even today the world thinks that Kilmer was actually the lead in this film…

It is easy to see why one would come to this conclusion. The movie appears to be all about Val. He is on the poster and the trailer has been cut to really make this look like a story about his mad genius. In a sense it is: Kilmer plays a young student with clearly unlimited intellectual potential, potential he prefers to squander than follow the instructions of Prof. Jerry Hathaway, a self-entitled and corrupt academic who has a foot in the door with the military.

But the movie is actually about Gabriel, a 15-year old wunderkind who arrives at the college to help Hathaway complete a delicate laser project. This is in a sense another of the Eighties ‘campus’ genre films, made so infamous by classics such as Animal House and Revenge Of the NerdsReal Genius struck a similar tone, but would have been a rather mediocre addition were it not for Kilmer. There is even a sense that part of the film, especially towards the end, have been re-edited to give Kilmer’s character more prominence. Today his goofy antics seem a bit toned down, particular in this post-Van Wilder era. Ditto for the ample amounts of science and tech thrown around in the film.

But in 1985 all of this was very fresh and Kilmer’s strange character was a nice departure from both the slacker and hardcore nerd heroes of the era. It worked so well that Gabriel, the lead character, isn’t even on the poster.

Real Genius isn’t exactly a work of genius. It is rife with1980s movie cliches, including more than one musical montage and a penchant for incredibly girl-next-door romantic interests. But you can do a lot worse as far as Eighties kitch goes. As mentioned, without Kilmer it would probably have failed completely. But Val knows how to play funny, something audiences rarely get to see, such as in the more recent Kiss Kiss Bang BangReal Genius is a reminder of just how good Kilmer was in his prime. Later he would ruin all of that through fistfights with Tom Cruise and pissing off just about everyone in Hollywood. But at least for a brief moment there was no question who the real genius was.

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Real Genius took some inspiration from stories about students at the California Institute of Technology aka. Caltech. The movie was even shot on the Caltech campus and numerous of the extras were actual Caltech students. Though the movie contains a lot of fictional science, much of it was based in reality. For example, the laser design used in the film was a theoretical concept that a real physicist, Martin A. Gundersen,  came up with. Gundersen consulted on the movie and can be seen on-screen at the maths teacher.
It took three months to create all the popcorn used in the movie’s climatic scene. All the popcorn was treated with flame-retarding chemicals to avoid fire hazards. As a result the popcorn had to be frequently covered and hidden from birds, which would have died if they ate any of the stuff.
Val Kilmer was already demonstrating his credentials as being a hard actor. At the audition he insulted the producer as a way to portray his character, an egotist who is not a congenial person. Kilmer would also disappear for periods from the set, though he did not disrupt the filming schedule.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: October 27, 2014

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