Real Genius (1985, USA)
Director: Martha Coolidge
Writer/s: Neal Israel and Pat Proft (producer: Brian Grazer)
Women in the production team: Janet Hirshenson, Jane Jenkins (casting); Marla Schlom (costume design); Edie Panda (hair design); Erin Cummins (set design); Anna Boorstin, Virginia Cook, Roxanne Jones, Christy Richmond (sound editing); Deborah Cichocki, Alex Leviloff (assistant editing); Becky Mancuso (music supervisor); Joanie Blum (script supervisor).
This review contains **SPOILERS**
From the opening credits I was sold on Real Genius’ approach to the history of science and technology. The opening credits take us through science history from the arrowhead to nuclear weapons – a hark back to my own history as an A-Level student studying the history of weapons technology. Martha Coolidge’s research into the science behind the film surprised me because of the film’s comedic and light 1980s blockbuster framing.
Real Genius is about a group of oddball teenage geniuses who are working on developing a high-powered laser for a university project (oof, after Évolution I am pleased for a high-concept movie). When it is revealed that their professor has been funded by the military with the intention of turning their work into a space-based military weapon, they decide to humiliate him and ruin those plans. The story follows Mitch (Gabriel Jarret), a 15-year old freshman at Pacific University (a thinly veiled reference to CalTech), and his interactions with the undergraduate research team developing the laser, and in particular the zany antics of Chris Knight (Val Kilmer).
Brian [Grazer]’s original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes. It was ahead of its time
Premiering in the blockbusting summer of 1985, Real Genius was released within three days of two other science-based teen movies: Weird Science and My Science Project. This summer also saw the release of SF classic Back to the Future and the Ethan Hawke/River Phoenix SF Explorers that was rushed to release and directed by Joe Dante. Dante’s earlier hit Gremlins was also re-released that summer alongside Ghostbusters and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Real Genius was reviewed positively at the time and was distinct from its contemporaries as Coolidge worked with scholars at MIT and the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) to create an accurate set and feeling for the movie. Real Genius brought military, weapons development, and university experts into the production a fair few years before science advisors became a more common part of the pre-production process.
As fun as Real Genius is as a comedy, it also manages to cover some pretty deep ethical issues concerning the politics of science. In particular it considers how science and technology produced by scientists might be used – knowingly or otherwise – within the military or by a government who are also often the source of science research funding. Although Prof. Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) is presented as a greedy but undoubtedly naive fool, the challenges and ethics of research funding are actually covered in quite a nuanced way. Academics are all about jumping those hoops.
Real Genius is ahead of its time as it promotes the need for STEAM, an extension on the acronym STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The added ‘A’ is for the arts – and the clarion call that scientists need arts training.
It is the combination of humor, the truth of the story and the real science in this picture that has made it successful for so long and has influenced many people to go into the sciences
Chris explains to Mitch that it is important to find a work/life or rather study/party balance. He says that ‘all science, no philosophy’ is the reason that the reclusive graduate Lazlo (Jon Gries) – who of course lives in the steam tunnels – cracked. After working for a chemicals company Lazlo found out his research was being used to kill people. He had not thought through the ethical implications – the history, politics, philosophy – of how science can be used and politicised. As Chris concludes: ‘when you’re smart people need you, [but] you can use your mind creatively.’
Of course, this STEAM narrative is awesome and important in a film that was intended to and likely has inspired people to enter into the sciences. But as Lyle (who was [wo]manning @WomenMakeSF twitter account) pointed out in the live-tweet:
Where are all the women?!?!?! Women science, even in 1985! #WomenMakeSF
— Women Make SF (@WomenMakeSF) June 19, 2020
In my reviews so far I haven’t really discussed the way a woman director represents or under-represents women characters. The lead characters are women in both Tank Girl and Welcome II the Terrordome – Tank Girl and Angela – and they are not the only women named, speaking, and featured as active parts of the narrative. After watching only women-directed and -written science fiction (film and TV) recently, I think my expectations for women characters in SF has shifted somewhat.
Real Genius has a women problem. There is only really one fully fleshed out woman character – 19 year old Jordan (Michelle Meyrink) – and the other two named women are presented as blonde stereotypes: a seductress (Shelly – Patti D’Arbanville) and the half-dressed proof of a man’s (Susan – Deborah Foreman) ethical failures. The women don’t talk to each other and most of Jordan’s storyline is about her (awkwardly, of course) seducing a 15 year old boy.
For much of the live-tweet Lyle and I talked about Jordan’s (note: gender neutral name) characterisation as a “manic pixie dream genius woman” (Skains, 2020) and whether she would be seen doing science in the lab with the men. Alas, by the halfway point the lack of women and the limited range of people of colour (all men, so women of colour get lost in the intersection, again) was really frustrating. We couldn’t even apply the Bechdel Test because there weren’t any scenes with multiple talking women (other women are used as sexy window dressing in party scenes).
I was excited that there was going to be a woman engineer (#WomenInTech) in this week’s film – and that she is presented initially as equal to the men. But sadly Jordan is pretty much on her own. One of my issues with the way women in STEM are often presented in popular culture is that they are so often on their own as anomalies rather than part of a community of smart agentic women. Annihilation is one of the few films that actually manages to have women scientists working together within a wider world populated with women across the hierarchy.
Real Genius was a clear reference point for The Big Bang Theory (Kent’s dickie is a delight, just as Wolowitz’s is). But it transposed the representational issues with women appearing as blonde eye-candy (poor Penny remained without a surname until she married Leonard) or as women scientists characters who are included as a quirky afterthought and a nod to diversity. In both Big Bang Theory and Real Genius the physics/engineering labs with their lasers and dangerous ‘toys’ are almost exclusively male spaces – women interfere and occasionally assist. In The Big Bang Theory the physical sciences were left almost entirely up to the men in the show and when women scientist characters were added as regulars, they were both so-called ‘soft’ bioscientists.
Amy and Bernadette (serious manic pixie genius woman vibes) were added into the cast a few seasons into the show, and the only woman physicist, the glorious Leslie Winkle, never made it as a regular. The Big Bang Theory was unusual in its incorporation of women scientists, but these women were undermined by the goals of the comedy format to entertain while reinforcing the status quo. Real Genius did the same thing. The comedy is fairly conservative in its balance with the science commentary about nefarious military funding and ‘evil’ uses of the students’ creative science genius. It maintains a status quo where women are anomalous in the hard sciences and that they must be oddballs even if they conform to expected beauty standards.
Real Genius is ahead of its time with: its woman director especially in the 1980s male-dominated genres of science fiction and comedy, and its approaches to science communication and scientific believability, but it remains part of the pack with its token woman in STEM. Quirky, smart, Jordan is ultimately alone.*
*especially once she remembers Mitch is ONLY 15 – ew
What to watch next from Martha Coolidge:
Valley Girls (1983)
Joy of Sex (1984) – woman co-writer: Kathleen Rowell
Rambling Rose (1991)
Back to the 80s: Interview with director mMartha CoolidgeL Kickin’ it Old School. Reposted from oldschool.tblog [obselete]. Martha Coolidge [official website]. URL: http://officialmarthacoolidge.com/2014/08/04/back-to-the-80s-interview-with-director-martha-coolidge-kickin-it-old-school/
Emmet Asher-Perrin (2015). 30 Years Later, Real Genius is Still the Geek Solidarity Film That Nerd Culture Deserves. Tor.com. URL: https://www.tor.com/2015/05/21/30-years-later-real-genius-is-still-the-geek-solidarity-film-that-nerd-culture-deserves/
Sheila O’Malley (2020). Present Tense: Martha Coolidge. Film Comment. March 4. URL: https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/present-tense-martha-coolidge/