Viking Night: Real Genius

By Bruce Hall

December 20, 2011

They're gonna be burned alive when the butter rains down.

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I will have to kill you after I tell you this, but I can’t keep it inside any longer. Someone must know, so...sorry. It’s nothing personal. Just business. My terrible secret is that when it comes to writing these articles, I particularly enjoy two kinds of films. First up would be the ones that are so unspeakably, intolerably awful that there’s no reason to pull any punches. It’s like writing fiction about Nazis. You’re free to make them look as bad as you want; absolutely nobody is gonna complain that you made Hitler look like an asshole.

Second place goes to any movie that is so hilariously zany, so ridiculously over the top that normal rules of critique cannot be applied. The only real point of the thing is to be funny, and if by the end of the movie you’ve got six pack abs from laughing so hard, what is there to bitch about? This would be the deal with Real Genius. Director Martha Coolidge, who gave us the overrated, badly dated Valley Girl, followed up two years later with what remains her greatest contribution to Western civilization. On one level, Real Genius is a thinly veiled, fairly conventional satire of the so-called military industrial complex. War is wrong, weapons are bad, blah blah blah.

Typical Hollywood drivel. But on every other level, Real Genius is a relentlessly hysterical collegiate farce worthy of comparison to the best of the genre - only it involves real geniuses instead of Nerds. Val Kilmer instead of John Belushi. Val Kilmer, you say? That bloated lobster stuffed manatee seen wallowing along the beaches of southern California in a recent set of rather unfortunate tabloid photos? The same. I don’t care what anyone says, Kilmer is an outstanding actor, and one of the best of his generation. But his ample comedic talents have gone untapped for some time and I’m afraid there’s nothing funny about him now.

But in 1985 he was young, hip, and very, very funny. And so was Real Genius.


The Crossbow project is a top secret space laser designed to vaporize a human sized target from low earth orbit - the perfect toy for the CIA, provided they can keep the president from finding out. A cabal of Good Old Boys within the government is hell bent on getting the thing operational, despite the objections of one of their number who seems to have an overdeveloped sense of morality. This man, “George”, is played by Beau Billingslea - no doubt because in 1985 Morgan Freeman was busy playing second fiddle to people like Emilio Estevez. In fact, so much is made of his objection and the potentially ominous consequences that it’s a little surprising we never hear anything about this character ever again. This will be my last complaint with Real Genius.

Aside from the fact it’s immoral and unethical, the problem with Crossbow is that the hyper-advanced laser system is underpowered and has no targeting system. This displeases the CIA, since they need it to drop the hammer on freedom haters around the world sooner rather than later. To this end, they’ve enlisted the help of brilliant physicist Dr Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton). He’s kind of a Carl Sagan type, crossed with that slimy reporter from Die Hard crossed with that slimy EPA agent from Ghostbusters. Which is funny because all three characters (not Sagan, he was real) were played by the same guy. Uncle Sam has bet the house on the good doctor, and isn’t willing to wait until Christmas to unwrap this most perilous of presents.

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