Silicon Valley Owes A Debt Of Gratitude To The Movie Real Genius. We All Do.

by Brian S Hall   |   February 17th, 2014

I owe much to the movie Real Genius. I think Silicon Valley also owes this great film its gratitude. Indeed, if you love Silicon Valley, its culture, its vision, its bold, disruptive ethos and hacker creed, its belief in the expansive power of technology, then you likewise should be appreciative of this funny, heart-filled film.

Real Genius premiered in 1985. Yes, ten years before Windows 95. Ten years before Amazon.com. The President was Ronald Reagan. Everyone’s music came on cassette tapes. The Mac was a year old, not 30. CompuServe was bleeding edge. Yet, to this day, Real Genius remains a damn good movie, still able to inspire the next generation of geeks.

Talent, vision, skill, brainpower — and not looks, politics or favoritism — rule in Real Genius. To tackle the big problems, to demand success at a heretofore unimagined scale, those non-meritocratic skills are not only useless, the film teaches us, but actual barriers to success. Silicon Valley has taken these lessons to heart. I honestly do believe that Silicon Valley would be a lesser place, less fun, less daring, less successful, less eager to embrace actual unique personal genius, if not for the movie Real Genius.

realgeniusReal Genius assures us that we can remain fully ourself, with all our quirks, all our awkwardness, and still be welcome into its egalitarian world. The movie likewise reveals that to love what you do, love what you are good at, love working with others who feel just the same, then it’s not really work at all, its’ more a calling.

The glory, the money, those will come, and when they do, they will remain secondary. This is the creed of today’s tech entrepreneur.

What’s Real Genius about?

Well, this mean teacher recruits all the top physics and engineering students to his school then blackmails them to work on a top secret project to create a “five megawatt laser” that can vaporize a person from the sky, while he secretly uses those earmarked CIA funds to build himself an amazing new house. The smart kids succeed, naturally, only to soon discover what their work is intended for — drone-like assassinations. Now, they must destroy the device, their greatest creation, and make the bad guys pay. Since they’re all living on campus, far from home, there’s also plenty of good-natured hijinks.

But, none of that’s terribly important. What’s important about Real Genius is its message: Give us your very smart, your young, your daring, quirky, your most technically inclined, and we can achieve the impossible. This same message permeates Silicon Valley. Come one, come all — provided you are smart — and we will find a place for you here.

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Real Genius taught me, taught us, that it was ok to be smart, even super-smart. It taught us that being a geek, a nerd, a egghead, we could still be cool, we could still do good, we could change the world for the better — provided we thought through the consequences of our clever-brainy actions.

For me, Real Genius is that rarest of movies, like Spaceballs, that I absolutely have to watch whenever I stumble upon it.

Real Genius taught me that if I was super smart — and didn’t try to hide it — companies would come to me.  It taught me that that cute, super smart girl was the one I really should spend my time with, give my heart to, and not the girls more commonly displayed across film and television. 

Real Genius is like if the kids in The Outsiders all had off-the-charts IQs, reasonably concerned parents, and then went on to create new companies, new technologies, new business models that upend everything, all while making them each fantastically and legally wealthy beyond their dreams.

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I imagine Steve Jobs is Chris Knight, expertly played by Val Kilmer. Smart, fearless, too reckless for anyone’s good, a corporate slacker that has no time and less patience for the business world. Bill Gates is the slight, scared and scary-smart Mitch Taylor, played by Gabe Jarrett. You just know both will change the world profoundly — maybe even similarly — despite their differences. They are linked solely by their brains and the rising belief in their unique abilities, and that’s exactly enough.

The young Jordan, who can’t slow down for even a second, is obviously Marissa Mayer.

Lazlo? Probably Tim Berners-Lee.

The geek-and-proud, smart-and-disruptive, ready to take on the world ethos in Real Genius has long since been embraced by Silicon Valley, its hackers, programmers, builders, dreamers.  

Heed and herald the Real Genius values:

  • Being smart makes you a badass
  • Change the world and have fun doing it
  • You can beat the system, you can invert the system, and create a world more to your liking

Admittedly, the movie also suggests that the super-smart should congregate mostly amongst themselves, in schools, in bars, away from the other. That is the only real downside to the film’s core message, the consequences of which now reverberate throughout the region.

Perhaps the profound disconnectedness of the world back then heightens my endearment to this small movie, which spoke to me in every scene and through every character. Real Genius taught me, in a way that home, high school and my neighborhood did not, not quite, that it was okay to be brainy, there are more like you out there, and soon you will connect, friend one another, and change the world.

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Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about technology and change. His work has appeared in Techpinions, ReadWrite, Macworld, the Wall Street Journal, LinkedIn, and others. He operates the site 140TE.CH.
  • newtonrj

    If Real Genius is the clarion call of our generation, what pop culture resonates to our kid’s generation?

    Mark Zuckerburg?, Harry Potter/Hermonie Granger?, Tony Stark/Pepper Potts? Katniss Everdeen?

    Me, my favorite is the recent movie, 21

    -RJ

    • http://www.brianshall.com/ Brian S Hall

      That’s another fine film that I think can inspire a new generation of smart kids who believe they can change the world.

  • Space Gorilla

    Great movie, I’ve seen it many times. Same goes for Spaceballs. Smoke if you got ‘em.

  • Sue

    Love this post and Real Genius. Jordan always trying to disrupt something. I see her as Mary Meeker instead. You didn’t mention Hathaway.

    • http://www.brianshall.com/ Brian S Hall

      Jordan does sort of look like Mary Meeker!
      I didn’t mention Hathaway as I decided (this time) not to link any of the bad characters with their Silicon Valley counterparts.

      • Sue

        and both are great with disrupting things, which is so cool. Hathaway could be Jef Raskin, Gil Amelio, maybe even Sculley?

  • jfutral

    “Admittedly, the movie also suggests that the super-smart should congregate mostly amongst themselves, in schools, in bars, away from the other.”

    Ah, Emmanuel Levinas. Good one and good point.

    Joe

  • Matt Baen

    “its culture, its vision, its bold, disruptive ethos and hacker creed”

    You mean its ethos of eroding creative property rights for everyone else – writers, artists, musicians – while zealously guarding their own proprietary technologies?

    The creed of the end of privacy through increasingly intrusive – and unavoidable through employers – social media and data sharing with security agencies?

    The vision of turning onetime owners of media, who can lend their property or resell it, into renters from the Cloud with narrow access?

    A culture of partnering with Wall Street investors with bottomless pockets to destroy local retailers?