The ninth in an ongoing series of film conversations where I track my daughter’s reaction after she’s been introduced to one of my favorite movies.
What’s the movie about?
A hard-working science professor struggling with popcornophobia is tormented by a group of highly intelligent vandals.
Why did I pull this particular movie out of the cabinet?
It’s an 80’s classic, and it’s much smarter than your typical 80’s comedy. Plus, my daughter is only two years away from going to college, and is pursuing something in the STEM arena (Science Technology Engineering Math). The students in this film are her kind of people.
What did I think of the movie upon revisiting it?
If I was going to describe this film in a single word I would either go with SOLID or CLEVER. This is an incredibly well-made film with very few weaknesses. Oh, and young Val Kilmer is a God.
Why do I like it?
This film is smart, and while it’s a comedy it treats the overall subject matter with a lot of respect. The film is set on a college campus (effectively a stand-in for Caltech) and the students are a fun-collection of hyper-intelligent misfits. Throughout the film, the students are working to construct a high powered laser, and they spend a lot of time in the lab and you see the project progress as they go. When Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) finally makes a dramatic breakthrough to boost the power of the laser, he explains it by drawing on a whiteboard and breaking down the process. What he says might be pure gobbltygook, but the moment feels real. Same goes with the studying sequences, they all feel realistic and at times reminded me of being up at 4AM to finish a paper or do some last-minute cramming. The students are smart, dedicated, and fun; they use their intelligence for both the good of humanity, and to screw around and entertain themselves – examples being freezing the floor of their dorm so they can skate on it, and using a laser to direct people to a party. They’re mischievous, but not malicious, and are ultimately extremely likable people.
The cast is great. The character of Chris Knight allows Val Kilmer to achieve what is arguably his peak on-film charisma. Knight’s personality and manner of speech fits Kilmer like a glove, his smart-ass delivery of dialogue and overall flippant nature feel effortless – you get the feeling there’s naturally lot of Knight in Kilmer. Knight’s dialogue is hilarious, and the jokes are delivered rapid-fire, some are clever, some are stupid, yet they all seem to land. When Professor Hathaway tells Knight he was on his way to becoming the next Einstein, then asks “what happened?” Knight responds with, “I got a haircut?”
The supporting cast is filled with equally strong performances. William Atherton plays Knight’s nemesis, Professor Jerry Hathaway with equal parts sliminess and irritability. Atherton cornered the market on weaselly 80’s villains, when grouped with his performance as “dickless” Walter Peck in Ghostbusters, and his role as “eat it Harvey!” Richard Thornberg in Die Hard, that’s an impressive hat-trick of 80’s assholes:
William Atherton is to the 80’s what Ben Mendelsohn is to the 2000’s.
Gabriel Jarret plays Mitch Garrett the newest genius to join the school – Mitch is somebody who’s on the verge of being overwhelmed with his situation – you feel for him and you’re rooting for him to succeed. Michelle Meyrink plays Jordan, another incredibly bright student with manic intensity – she’s weird, but a good kind of weird. Robert Prescott rounds out the cast as Kent, Hathaway’s insecure lackey who feels threatened by Mitch’s intelligence. Kent wants to be the big man on campus, but instead he’s the guy who’s picking up Hathaway’s dry-cleaning.
The film has a very 80’s feel to it, but not in an overly 80’s in your face kind of way – this is not Lost Boys or St. Elmo’s Fire. There are two synthesizer laden montage sequences, you see characters in some typical 80’s fashion, and the brief sequences of computer activity look very dated, but overall the film feels timeless due to the college setting.
Upon rewatch, what didn’t work for me?
Honestly, not much, there just aren’t many faults in the film. The Lazlo storyline strains the limits of credulity, but with all of the other wacky antics taking place, you just kinda’ go with it.
Anything else I’d like to add?
This was one of the earliest, “that was in the trailer, but not in the movie!” films. The trailer famously showed Chris Knight floating on a helium balloon powered lawn chair, but it never made it into the film film:False advertising!
This movie has to be one of the all-time worst examples of updating box art when you release a new version:
Whoever created this thing needs to be stripped of their Photoshop license with extreme prejudice.
Am I still happy I chose this to share with my daughter?
I am – it was important to me that she be able to directly bathe in the glory of peak-Kilmer.
So, what did she think? Check out the podcast to find out!