Before watching the movie:
It seems like the 80s were fascinated with the idea of genius kids getting mixed up with top-secret government projects, but maybe it was just the inevitable collision between teenaged geniuses and mistrust of the government that both have plenty of independent examples. This time it’s lasers and remote assassination plots.
After watching the movie:
The CIA, developing a laser weapon meant to incinerate a single assassination target from space instantly, recruits Professor Jerry Hathaway to solve their technical problems with the power requirements. Hathaway recruits brilliant students to do the work for him, including 15-year-old Mitch Taylor, granted a scholarship to Pacific Tech so Hathaway can use his ideas. Mitch is assigned to room with Chris Knight, a legendary mind who has in the last year turned into a flippant slacker. As the military bears down on Hathaway for results, Hathaway in turn threatens his team’s academic and career futures, telling Chris he will ensure his expulsion and blackball him in all scientific industries. Chris straightens up and throws himself into the work, but Kent, another student who desperately wants the power and prestige Chris and Mitch have received from their roles in the project, is out to sabotage them both.
As the movie began and Mitch was the clear protagonist with Chris placed as the quippy weirdo Mitch has to room with, I expected that Val Kilmer had top billing because he’s Val Kilmer, but once Hathaway turns up the pressure and Chris tells Mitch why he disconnected from his education, the center of the movie shifts and now Chris is the protagonist and Mitch is his project that he’s teaching how to open up and enjoy life. It’s a strange move that makes me wonder if the script was rewritten at some point to increase the prominence of the big name.
The team membership aside from Mitch, Chris, and Kent is largely unimportant to the plot. They’re present and working, but don’t seem to contribute materially to the science breakthroughs or the story. However, at least one of them is involved in the revenge plot in the end, even though he also doesn’t seem to contribute much there. The former is understandable, but the latter feels very superfluous.
The quips and the audacity of the prank war are the highlights of this movie. It’s not as directly anti-government as many 80s movies are, the sinister agencies are just an accepted backdrop, and nobody is really directly condemning its existence, just cooperation with it. It’s a comedy of charm and eccentricity, and the ethical concerns are just a fact of life in the middle of all the college absurdities. What it is above all is silly and cute.