The film is set on the campus of Pacific Tech, a science and engineering university similar to Caltech. Chris Knight (Kilmer) is a genius in his senior year working on a chemical laser. Mitch Taylor (Jarret) is a new student on campus who is paired up with Knight to work on the laser.
The film received positive reviews from critics. It grossed $12,952,019 at the United States and Canadian box office.
A group of CIA officers watch a video presentation of a top-secret project called "Crossbow": a space shuttle mounted with a computer-guided laser weapon capable of incinerating a man on the ground with pinpoint accuracy. Researchers on the project have yet to devise a system to generate enough power to operate it. When it becomes clear that this weapon has no wartime applications and is intended solely for illegal assassinations, one agent decries the project as immoral and refuses to take part. The remaining agents discuss eliminating the dissenting agent before going to lunch.
Professor Jerry Hathaway meets with high school student Mitch Taylor at the school's science fair. He informs Mitch that he has been admitted to Pacific Technical University, where he will room with physics "legend" Chris Knight. Hathaway is secretly developing the laser for the CIA, but instead of doing the work himself, he has his unpaid students do it, while misappropriating the project funding to remodel his house. Arriving on campus, Mitch meets Chris and is disappointed to learn that he is an irreverent slacker who spends his time pulling elaborate high tech pranks. Mitch also meets Jordan, a hyperkinetic female student, "Ick" Ikagami, a brilliant and affable foil to Chris's antics, and the mysterious Lazlo Hollyfeld, a middle-aged man who seems to be living in Mitch's closet. Hathaway's sycophantic graduate assistant Kent becomes hostile when Hathaway puts Mitch in charge of the laser project.
Under pressure to get results, Hathaway gives Chris an unrealistic timetable, which Chris dismisses. When Mitch is caught attending Chris' pool party instead of working in the lab, Hathaway berates him. The next day Mitch is mortified when a recording of his tearful phone call to his parents is played over a loudspeaker system during lunch, a prank conceived by Kent and his cronies. Humiliated, Mitch is ready to quit school. Chris convinces him to stay by explaining to him that Lazlo was the top genius at Pacific Tech in the 1970s, but suffered a breakdown when he learned that his theories were being used to build weapons. Chris tells Mitch that if he does not want to "crack" like Hollyfeld, he must learn to have fun, and the first order of business is to get even with Kent, calling it a "moral imperative" to do so. They accomplish this by disassembling Kent's car and rebuilding it inside his dorm room. Kent vows revenge.
Under increasing pressure from the CIA, Hathaway berates Chris for failing to solve the laser power problem and promises to fail him and prevent him from graduating. After a pep-talk from Mitch, Chris devotes himself to solving the power problem and achieving a perfect score on Hathaway's final exam. Mitch is accosted by Sherry Nugel, a beautiful older woman who seeks amorous encounters with the top ten geniuses in the country. Mitch turns her down, realizing he's in love with Jordan, and the two become a couple. Though Chris aces Hathway's exam, Chris and Mitch's efforts appear to be ruined when Kent sabotages the laser. In a fit of anger at the laser's destruction, he has an epiphany that solves the power problem. The beam of the redesigned laser has unlimited range and produces an estimated six megawatts of power, exceeding the original requirement.
While the team celebrates its success, Lazlo insists that the high-energy laser can only be used as a weapon, and in fact that it must have been conceived for this purpose. Chris is devastated. Hathaway has removed the laser from the lab. Chris, Mitch, Ick and Jordan trick Kent into revealing the date when the laser is going to be tested by placing a microphone in his braces and convincing him that God is talking to him. The group tails Hathaway to a nearby Air Force base. While Chris and Mitch talk their way onto the base, Lazlo remotely cracks the laser's computer and changes its target coordinates to Hathaway's house, where the team has placed a huge tin of popcorn. Meanwhile, Chris and Mitch remove circuits that prevent the laser from overheating. When the laser beam hits the house, it is diffused by a prism placed by Chris and the popcorn heats and expands; the house bursts at the seams as popcorn pours out onto the lawn. Kent "rides" the flowing popcorn out of the front door unharmed and laughing, thinking the incident was religious in nature. The group, reveling in their success, greet an arriving Lazlo accompanied by Sherry, riding in a motor home pulling a trailer full of prizes he won in a sweepstakes. He and Sherry indicate they intend to run off together as he is the genius she's been looking for all this time. Hathaway arrives home and in disbelief, assesses his ruined home.
To prepare for Real Genius, Martha Coolidge spent months researching laser technology and the policies of the CIA, and interviewed dozens of students at Caltech. The screenplay was extensively rewritten, first by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, later by Coolidge and Peter Torokvei.
Producer Brian Grazer remembers that when Val Kilmer came in to audition for the role of Chris Knight, he brought candy bars and performed tricks. Kilmer remembered it differently. "The character wasn't polite, so when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"
To achieve the house filled with popcorn for the film's climax, the production team popped popcorn continuously for three months. The popcorn was treated with fire retardant so it would not combust and covered so that it would not be eaten by birds and possibly poison them. The popcorn was then shipped to a subdivision under construction in Canyon Country, northwest of Los Angeles, and placed in the house.
To promote the film, the studio held what it billed as "the world's first computer press conference" with Coolidge and Grazer answering journalists' questions via computer terminals and relayed over the CompuServe computer network.
The dorm in the film is based on Dabney House at Caltech, and Caltech students served as consultants and played extras in the film.
- "You Took Advantage of Me" performed by Carmen McRae
- "The Tuff Do What?" performed by Tonio K
- "Summertime Girls" performed by Y&T
- "The Pleasure Seekers" performed by The System
- "The Walls Came Down" performed by The Call
- "I'm Falling" performed by The Comsat Angels
- "One Night Love Affair" performed by Bryan Adams
- "All She Wants to Do Is Dance", performed by Don Henley
- "Number One" performed by Chaz Jankel
- "You're the Only Love" performed by Paul Hyde and the Payolas
- "Standing In the Line" performed by The Textones, written by Carla Olson
- "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" performed by Tears for Fears
Real Genius was released on August 9, 1985 in 990 theaters grossing $2.5 million in its first weekend. It went on to make $12,952,019 in North America.
Real Genius received mixed to positive reviews and has a 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 23 reviews. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "the film is best when it takes [the students] seriously, though it does so only intermittently". David Ansen wrote in his review for Newsweek magazine, "When it's good, the dormitory high jinks feel like the genuine release of teen-age tensions and cruelty. Too bad the story isn't as smart as the kids in it". In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, "Many of the scenes, already badly written, fail to fulfill their screwball potential... But despite its enthusiastic young cast and its many good intentions, it doesn't quite succeed. I guess there's a leak in the think tank". Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert awarded the film three and a half stars out of four, saying that it "contains many pleasures, but one of the best is its conviction that the American campus contains life as we know it". In his review for the Globe and Mail, Salem Alaton wrote, "Producer Brian Grazer craved a feel-good picture, and she [Martha Coolidge] turned in the summer's best, and she didn't cheat to do it. There's heart in the kookiness. Real Genius has real people, real comedy and real fun". Time magazine's Richard Schickel praised the film for being "a smart, no-nonsense movie that may actually teach its prime audience a valuable lesson: the best retort to an intolerable situation is not necessarily a food fight. Better results, and more fun, come from rubbing a few brains briskly together".
In the MythBusters episode, "Car vs. Rain", first broadcast on June 17, 2009, the MythBusters team tried to determine whether the final scene in the film, the destruction of Dr. Hathaway's house with laser-popped popcorn, is actually possible. First they used a ten-watt laser to pop a single kernel wrapped in aluminum foil, showing that popping corn is possible with a laser, then they tested a scaled-down model of a house. The popcorn was popped through induction heating because a sufficiently large laser was not available. The result was that the popcorn was unable to expand sufficiently to break glass, much less break open a door or move the house off its foundation. Instead, it ceased to expand and then simply charred.
It was also specifically stated in the program that a five-megawatt laser still did not exist, even in military applications, and that the largest military laser they knew of was 100 kilowatts.
In January, 2011, it was further demonstrated on video in a home setting that a kernel of corn directly exposed to laser light from accessible consumer level lasers could be popped as reported by TechCrunch.
The solid xenon-halogen laser proposed and built by Chris in the latter half of the film, though in the realm of science fiction, was based on theory of the time. Real Genius, through consultant Martin A. Gundersen (who played the Math Professor), was later given a citation in an academic publication which detailed the scientific basis behind the laser.
Reports surfaced in September 2014 that a potential TV series was in the works, with NBC was set produce the comedy series with Sony TV, Happy Madison and 3 Arts Entertainment, however, as of March 2017 there are no updates on the production.