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The movie starts out about Mitch, a 15 year old boy who designs a cutting edge laser for his high school science fair. This gains him the attention of Jerry Hathaway, who offers to enter the wunderkind at Pacific Tech as an accelerated student. There, Mitch takes classes taught by tape recorder, and he meets the irreverent Chris Knight, who teaches him that he can't take everything so seriously, particularly when the younger kid ends up as the butt of this school's Jerk Jock -- though as this is an all science and engineering school the Jerk Jock types are all other geniuses themselves.
Chris and Kent (the Jerk Jock in question) are competing for the same post-graduate position under their professor, Jerry Hathaway -- who is in fact a vain man who hosts an educational TV show (think Cosmos with Carl Sagan). Chris' lighthearted attitude rankles Hathaway and the professor threatens Chris. Chris doesn't let it get to him. Kent, on the other hand, toadies to Hathaway. Kent sabotages Chris' and Mitch's project, but they eventally triumph anyway.
And then Chris and Mitch discover Hathaway has taken their research for military applications. Chris doesn't approve, so he gets the good genius kids of the university to help him take revenge on the greedy professor, and Kent too.
- Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: Mitch's.
- After speaking with them at the science fair, Dr. Hathaway asks them if, by any chance, Mitch is adopted.
- Mitch has to assure Jordan that the reason he won't take her to meet them is because he's ashamed of them, not of her.
- Applied Phlebotinum: The laser technology in general is real, but Chris' breakthrough on the five megawatt laser is pure Techno Babble. Some of the college pranks, like Ick's "ice", toe the line because nobody bothers to explain exactly what it is.
- Awesome but Impractical: Chris uses liquid nitrogen to freeze ice which he then cuts coin slugs from with a filament knife just to avoid paying for vending machines. Even putting aside the fact that he doesn't have to pay for the gas itself if he uses university resources, he still has to freeze it into a shape that fits into the coin slot and registers as a coin.
- Balloonacy: Some trailers and promotional material depict Chris floating in a deck chair held aloft by balloons. This didn't make the final cut of the film, however.
- Big Blackout: Chris Knight causes one when he turns on his laser beam pathway for the "Tanning Invitational" It's not known how far spread the blackout is; the audience only sees the Pacific Tech campus.
Chris Knight: "Relax. That's just the fuses at the substation, they'll have it back on in a minute. Maybe I shouldn't have shorted across the building transformer. But more important: did we get a charge?"
- Billing Displacement: Val Kilmer had top billing, though Gabriel Jarret played the main character and had more screen time.
- Blond Guys Are Evil: Especially Kent
- Breakout Character: It's hard to remember that Chris Knight wasn't the main character. Even the DVD box cover gives Kilmer the only billing, and uses only his photo.
- Buffy-Speak: "Put simply - in deference to Kent - it's like lasing a stick of dynamite."
- Call Back:
- "It's a moral imperative," used first by Chris to inspire Mitch; later Mitch returns the favor.
- Mitch, having fallen asleep while studying, has a nightmare. "No, not the mailbox again!"
- Chekhov's Gun: Popcorn.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Lazlo, who lives in underground steam tunnels accessed via Chris and Mitch's closet.
- Closet Sublet: Lazlo, as described above, appears at first to live in the closet.
- Coming of Age Story: A major theme of the film -- Mitch is the primary example, but Chris, Jordan, and even Lazlo get to do some growing up by the end.
- Deadpan Snarker: Chris
- Does Not Like Spam: Hathaway hates popcorn, and dogs. No points for guessing what his Humiliation Conga involves.
- Fictional Counterpart: Pacific Tech for Caltech. What's really cool about it is that at first, Caltech was eager to help make the movie... at least until they learned it was critical of the Strategic Defense Initiative in general and Edward Teller in particular; as Caltech operates and manages NASA's neighboring Jet Propulsion Laboratory, they couldn't afford to critique the man, let alone be involved in a movie which cast William Atherton as his counterpart. But it all turned out perfectly anyway, as a Caltech alumni came out of the woodwork to provide assistance - and load the film with Easter Eggs.
- Foreshadowing: At the beginning of the movie, Kent tells Mitch that orders go "...from God, to Jerry, to me." Later on, "Jesus" talks directly to Kent, changing the middleman as it were.
- Frickin' Laser Beams: The plot centers around building a big one, for use in a Kill Sat. It behaves like a real laser, though.
- Genki Girl: Jordan.
- Giant Food: Mitch is offered a cherry the size of a baseball by another student. "I grow them myself."
- God Guise: Chris implants a radio transceiver in Kent's braces, whereupon Mitch pretends to be Jesus to learn what Hathaway plans to do with the laser.
Mitch: "And from now on, stop playing with yourself."
- Hard Work Montage: Several, including Mitch settling in at the college and Mitch and Chris working on the laser.
- Highly Visible Password: Lazlo's attempts to hack into the military computer are masked while typing, but then subsequently displayed anyways. PASSWORD: ###### (trying "AAAAAD"). This would likely be normal behavior for a brute-force script, as it would produce such comments as local notifications. However, it was shown that Lazlo was typing the entries by hand.
- High School Hustler: Chris Knight, although this is in a university.
- Hollywood Nerd: Chris, Mitch, Jordan, Ick... practically the entire student cast.
- Humiliation Conga: At the end, for Hathaway. His project is ruined and likely going to be audited, which will uncover his skimming off the top to pay for renovations on his home. Said house has been destroyed... by popcorn, which he hates. And finally the dog that he can't stand shows up to commiserate.
- I Drank What: The Trope Namer, though the actual example isn't related; Chris talks Mitch into tasting something, and when Mitch asks what it is, Chris says, "I don't know, I found it in one of the labs," then, after a lot of spitting, lets on he was joking; it's just yogurt. The actual Trope Namer comes from something Chris says later in the movie "I was thinking of the immortal last words of Socrates who said, 'I drank what?'"
- The Insomniac: Jordan
Jordan: I never sleep, I don't know why. I had a roommate and I drove her nuts, I mean really nuts, they had to take her away in an ambulance and everything. But she's okay now, but she had to transfer to an easier school, but I don't know if that had anything to do with being my fault. But listen, if you ever need to talk or you need help studying just let me know, 'cause I'm just a couple doors down from you guys and I never sleep, okay?
- Intelligence Equals Isolation: See You Remind Me of X.
- Jail Bait Wait: Sherry Nugil attempts to seduce Mitch upon his sixteenth birthday. Her advances repulse him, however, because he's much more interested in Jordan.
- Jerkass: Kent, Dr. Hathaway, Chris (though the latter restricts these tendencies to the uncool characters).
- Jerk Jock: Kent is the closest you'll find at a school full of nerds.
- Kick the Dog: Kent records Mitch's teary phone conversation with his parents and later plays it over the cafeteria loudspeakers to humiliate Mitch.
- Kids Are Cruel: "They stuffed me into a mailbox -- did I ever tell you that?"
- Kill Sat: The film opens with a CIA mockup presentation of a laser beam used to conduct precise orbital assassinations. Hathaway has the contract to build the genuine article.
- Licked by the Dog: Hathaway, literally. Naturally, he can't stand dogs.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Jordan, who literally bursts in on Mitch while he's in the bathroom and all but glomps him -- entirely innocently; she wants to give him a sweater she knitted for him overnight. Part of her Character Development occurs when Mitch starts paying serious attention to her; she calms down and develops a personality other than "hyperactive girl".
- A Man Is Not a Virgin: Subverted by Mitch when he resists Sherry Nugil's advances, but promptly Double Subverted when he then proceeds to make out with Jordan, with the implication that they had sex or are at least now dating.
- Men Can't Keep House: Chris Knight's half of the dorm is an unabashed disaster area, even in comparison to the rest of the dorm.
- Motor Mouth: Jordan -- see The Insomniac.
- Nerds Are Sexy: Sherry Nugil seems to think so, as she sets out to seduce the ten smartest men in the world, and despite Mitch turning her down, eventually ends up with Lazlo.
- Noodle Incident: We never do find out much about Lazlo's big project in The Seventies, aside from Chris mentioning that it hurt people and drove Lazlo into a Heroic BSOD.
- Out with a Bang: Poor Professor Hostetler...
- Positive Discrimination: The only member of the shadowy government agency that objects to the assassination laser plan is also the sole black guy. And then they "Liberate" him. Or is that "Liquidate"?
- Running Gag: Mitch's classmates for one lecture keep disappearing, leaving recording devices in the room so they can skip class. Eventually Mitch is the only one remaining, as even the instructor has ditched class and left a tape playing in his stead.
- Science Marches On:
- The plot would be rather different if the attempt to hack the laser's targeting computer didn't require Chris and Mitch to actually go to the site and switch out its (very large) chips. Also, Lazlo's elaborate setup so he can fill out contest entry cards looks a bit silly now that you can go down and buy a fast, cheap printer at almost any store.
- The Frito-Lay plan was Truth in Television - it was based on an actual pra...er, exploit by playful Caltech students. It was done in 1975, when printers (and the hardware/software to make them print 1.2 million entries) were much less common; the prank also led directly to the reworking of the legal boilerplate on future contests to prevent it from happening again.
- The "printer" Lazlo was using was actually mechanically writing the entries in large quantities, making them physically the same as any normal, hand-written entry (possibly to show it as a loophole evading method of the same tactic explained above.)
- Shallow Love Interest: Sherry Nugil.
- Shout-Out: "Drain Experts, Inc." and "Darlington Electronic Instruments" are references to... well, let's just say they're references and leave it at that. Enter if you dare.
- Superior Firepower: A B-1B carrying a laser appears.
- Technological Pacifist: Lazlo (and also Chris and Mitch to some extent)
- Tropes Examined by the Mythbusters: You can pop popcorn with a laser. Popped popcorn doesn't exert enough pressure to destroy a house from the inside.
- Underdressed for the Occasion: At a job interview, no less. This is deliberate on Chris' part, however; he is trying his hardest not to be taken seriously, at least until Hathaway threatens to throw him out.
- Unintentional Period Piece: This movie could only have been made in the 80s, when the Strategic Defense Initiative was a pressing concern.
- Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Pacific Tech seems to run on this, but it's most egregious in one scene when a student walks down the hall, right past Chris and co. wearing gas masks while gassing Kent's room, and merely says "hi."
- Vanilla Edition: The sole DVD release doesn't have any deleted scenes, cast/crew commentary, or trailers and/or TV spots for the movie itself. But it does have trailers for Hook and Jumanji! Yay!
- The Voice: Invoked. Jordan, Chris, Ick and Mitch stick a transmitter in Kent's braces to make him think God is talking to him.
- You Remind Me of X: Chris sees himself in young Mitch.
Chris: You see Mitch, I used to be you. And lately I've been missing me so I asked Dr. Hathaway if I could room with me again and he said sure.
Chris: When I was three years old, I balanced my father's checkbook. They sent me to school and fired their accountant. My father was so intimidated, he stopped speaking to me. My teachers disliked me because I was smarter than they were. My classmates hated me because I broke the bell curve. Sound familiar? My mother dressed me in white shirts, hush puppies and a briefcase, guaranteeing that no girl would ever talk to me.
- Your Princess Is in Another Castle: The second to last laser prototype that was successful until Kent sabotaged it.
This movie AVERTS:
- Dawson Casting: Gabe Jarret was indeed 15 years old at the time of the movie's release.
- Friendly Address Privileges: Averted for Kent.
Kent: Hello, Jerry!
- No OSHA Compliance: In the laser lab at least, the students wear safety gear.
- Whether or not some of Chris' makeshift gear (like oven mitts and a welder's mask) would actually work in that situation is another question entirely, though.
- If Mitch's laser at the science fair isn't a mockup (the movie's unclear on this), he would've given a lot of people some severe burns.
- Despite being unprepared for the sheer power of the finished five-megawatt laser, they are awfully lucky that nobody outside the lab was in the path of the beam.
- TV Genius: Most of the kids, minus some hyperactivity disorders, speak rather like normal humans.
- As a funny aside, this started the urban legend about students showing up to class taught by recorder, dropping off tape recorders, and then leaving again