The '80s was a decade synonymous with the teen movie trend wherein the "nerds rule" subgenre took up most of the space on VHS racks across the country. However, one teen movie stands triumphantly above all others: Real Genius. This underappreciated and genuinely wild film is more than just a vehicle for Val Kilmer to spew comedic lines. It's a darkly humorous examination of the war-obsessed culture that began in the '80s, though most of the political themes get buried under a mountain of cheesy ploys and one-liners.
Despite the political subtext, this movie is far from a grim dirge, and it's downright ridiculous at times. It's got everything you want in a teen movie: pranks, parties, and guys who live in closets. However, each set piece has a depressing subtext that adds a sense of desperation to all of the fun everyone's having, as if it's the last time anyone will party before the nuclear winter. Real Genius is genuinely a product of its time that's far more bizarre than you may recall.
Despite being the film's crux, the main characters don't know they're working to create super-weapons until about 70% of the way through the movie. Both the villains and viewers are aware of this, but Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) and the rest of his hard-partying nerd crew don't realize they're building a laser and tracking system that can be used to kill people from space. It's difficult to laugh along with their goofy college antics when you comprehend the horrendous implications that could arise from their absurd lack of knowledge.
It's especially trying to watch the students celebrate their accomplishments in the two montages that break up the film when you understand that they have no clue they could be accessories to mass destruction.
Midway through the film, Lazlo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries) gets introduced (he lives in Chris Knight's closet). It's later revealed that Lazlo is a genius who was also exploited to create weapons of mass destruction when he was attending Pacific Tech University in the '70s.
When he realized what his brilliance was being used for, he suffered a mental break, leading to his closet-dwelling lifestyle. This implies the government was using children, teens, and young adults to develop weapons for generations.
Early on in the film, Dr. Hathaway (William Atherton) mentions that Pacific Tech once accepted a 12-year-old student who had "cracked under the pressure." Lazlo, Chris, and Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret) aren't the first - or the last - students to have their brilliance abused.
Lazlo, the grown man who lives in Chris's closet, is a super-genius who has obtained free housing by building a room in the steam tunnels of Pacific Tech. It's a cool idea, but to get to Lazlo's apartment, the characters have to take an impractical Disneyland-style theme park ride into the recesses of the dorm building.
It's cumbersome enough that Lazlo has to enter and exit through a mechanical panel in the back of a closet, but he also has to ride a homemade elevator that goes through a Temple of Doom-like mineshaft that snakes through the school's interior.
One would think a genius could think of something a bit more practical.
After the protagonists discover the CIA is using their laser as a weapon, they find out where the invention is being transported to after they gas Kent (Robert Prescott), their sycophantic nemesis, and install a tiny speaker in his braces. They then use the speaker to convince Kent that he's hearing God's voice so they can question him about the laser and make him expose personal details. This scene is ridiculous and cruel, making it hard to root for the protagonists.
Not only are our heroes knocking out a guy and bugging him as a prank, but they're also convincing him that he may have a mental illness before informing him he's speaking to God. The whole thing is so convincing that Kent almost gets shot by a laser because he thinks it's part of God's plan.