A top secret weapon is being devised, one that will be able to shoot a death ray from the skies and destroy with pinpoint accuracy whatever it is aimed at. The military have high hopes for it, even though the United States are supposed to be at peace, but there's one problem: the laser has not been built yet, and they have to apply the finest minds in the land to solve its impracticalities. Step forward popular science television show host Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton), who is overseeing a training course for budding geniuses, setting them to work on the weapon without their knowledge...
Real Genius was concoted by the writers of Police Academy, which was released about the same time, although this was ostensibly a more family friendly escapade in spite of some near the knuckle humour (though no strong language, and what there was erred on the side of caution). For this reason a generation grew up with the movie, which offered it a following that might not have rivalled contemporaries such as Marty McFly or Ferris Bueller, and didn't lead on to a whole series of Boffin Academy as the writers' other major hit did, but many look back on it fondly for its wisecracking cool, embodied by one of the main characters.
Funnily enough, that was not the actual main character, for he was Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret), an actor who went on to be far less famous than the star of the show, Val Kilmer. He tended to overshadow just about everyone else in the story, apparently by design as he received the lion's share of the quips and the genius of the title, as if to reclaim the popular idea of the nerd by rendering his Chris Knight persona the amalgamation of both the intellectual and the eternal party mood, thereby showing that the two were not mutually exclusive. How true that was in real life was debatable, but in Chris the smart kids had someone to look up to, and possibly even try to emulate.
Hence the appeal, as the character the target audience was probably most like was Mitch, something of an outcast at school who embraces the idea of an establishment of learning on his own level of intelligence. However, when he gets to the university he finds he doesn't quite fit in there either, as the eccentricity is piled on in heaps to show what a great time these kooky students are having in between poring over textbooks and producing superpowered science projects, with the two fields crossing over when they get to, say, turn the dormitory into a skating rink. Director Martha Coolidge works so hard to create a fun atmosphere that it all starts to look exhausting.
Unlike Police Academy, it seems there was a serious message underlying these hijinks, as Atherton's slick, boo-hiss professor applies all this thought to solving the death ray problem, telling us that today's ker-ay-zee kids are tomorrow's lords of destruction in the science world. But they cop out of this, preferring to stick with typical anti-authoritarian clichés of the teen genre, no matter that the students' intelligence might have made them more responsible. As far as the bullies go, that's not the case, as the school divides into two factions, with Chris heading our heroic pioneers who intend to show Hathaway what for by sabotaging the military's plans, leading to the film's most famous, popcorn-based sequence, which arrives at the end. Which is all very well, and they knew how to present a happy ending with everyone getting what they deserve (Mitch gets ditzy Michelle Meyrink as a girlfriend), but the fact remains the bad guys still have their death ray, and it's the good guys' fault. Still, Real Genius was an amusing trifle, depending on your threshhold for smartassery. Music by Thomas Newman.