The Manhattan Project Reviews
The downside is that it's highly improbable, and your feelings about the film's star is constantly shifting. Christopher Collet is an appealing young actor, and in this film he instantly brings to mind a young Matthew Broderick in the similarly themed "War Games", and you immediately like him. But, as his character becomes more and more irresponsible towards the end, it's hard to maintain that enjoyably mischievous quality that draws you to him in the beginning. When he seriously puts millions of lives in jeopardy near the end with a pretty vague explanation of why he's doing it, he becomes less of a hero.
But Brickman is a skilled director as well as a screenwriter, and the finale is delightfully tense despite your growing misgivings over Collet's character. The scene in which he steals the plutonium is clever and artfully filmed, but it cannot escape from under a cloud of questionable realism. Neither does the ending, in which the teen is simply let go without even a slap on the wrist.
And yet it's quite a testament to how well made "The Manhattan Project" is because I enjoyed it so much. It's entertaining, but rest assured that no one at home will attempt this.
2008 Movies: 43
There are more than a few physicist jokes in this movie. Everyone in the lab has a Phillips screwdriver just on their person. At one point, there is a reference to what Kenneth Bainbridge said to J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Trinity test--and when a certain timer stops, it says "7:16:45," a reference to July 16, 1945. I leave it to your imagination to figure out what happened then. There's even an acknowledgement that some of the screwiest practical jokes are physicist/engineer/what-have-you practical jokes. And if you doubt that, look up some of the jokes Cal Tech has played, and that Cal Tech and MIT play on each other. These are not normal people. But that's actually kind of a problem, because it makes it obvious that they could have gotten a lot of things right but didn't. In fact, my biggest problem is never even mentioned, and it's a pretty serious problem that we'll be discussing in a bit.
Paul Stephens (Christopher Collet) is your average '80s movie Popular High School Science Geek. His mother, Elizabeth (Jill Eikenberry), finds a house for a genial nuclear physicist named John Mathewson (John Lithgow), and he asks her out. She says no, so he goes for tactic two--ingratiating himself to the kid. He offers to take Paul to his lab to show him a "sexy" laser--lasers were a lot more rare, and therefore interesting, in 1986--and Paul works out that the lab is doing some sort of complicated nuclear work. Because he knows what plutonium looks like, you see. Anyway, with the help of his new girlfriend, Jenny Anderman (Cynthia Nixon), he steals the plutonium solution from the lab, replacing it with some of Jenny's VO5 so no one will notice. And then, as the ultimate attention-getter, he builds a nuclear bomb out of it and enters it in a science fair in Manhattan. All the while, Mathewson is wooing Paul's mother, not noticing the whole bomb-building.
Or, you know, that Paul is suffering from radiation poisoning. Because he ought to be and isn't. I mean, his whole argument is that they shouldn't be building nuclear devices in a population center, and I really can't argue that point. Which is why you shouldn't bring a nuclear device to a science fair which I happen to know for a fact is across the street from Madison Square Garden. (I stayed at that self-same hotel in 1991, but the worst any of my group did was throw things out a seventh-floor window.) Eventually, we discover some of the dangers of the particle radiation his plutonium is emitting, but no one seems concerned that all of this has been happening in one of the biggest population centers in the world. He may not be an intentional terrorist, but I have no doubt that there will be a whole string of deaths in his wake, and it won't be "a few extra cases of cancer." I saw how John Cusack died in [i]Fat Man and Little Boy[/i], thank you very much.
I also have to tell you that I don't think Paul's problems are over just because the situation has been, shall we say, defused. What he did was illegal, and there's a good reason for that. Even leaving aside the [i]plutonium theft[/i], you don't want just any old kid building a nuclear bomb in his garage. And this kid comes across as whiny and petulant enough so that I was rooting for him to get busted all the way along. At the very least, I wanted Jenny to come to her senses and dump him. I also admit that the kid didn't come across to me as bright enough to do the necessary work. Yes, the hard stuff has been developed long ago, but still. It takes a bit more than just having that stuff around the house, and indeed, Mathewson is eventually shown as being kind of impressed at the work Paul did. However, based on how he acted in the movie, it would take something a lot less impressive to get me to be surprised that he could pull it off on his own. Somewhere along the lines of the science project he claimed he was doing, which was also dumb.
As always, this is a sign that the movie as a whole was boring to me. There's this incredibly lengthy sequence showing Paul's breaking into the lab to steal the plutonium gel, and the whole thing basically relied on having a single dumb security guard who was bad at his job. I mean, he let the girl in because it was raining and she had a flat tire and was this crying blonde teenager, and that's an easy way to get fired. Call a tow truck or something, sure, but let her in and leave your post? No. No, that's an excellent way to get fired. It also felt as though half the stuff Paul was doing was in and of itself an excellent way to get caught if he had assumed, as he ought, that a major installation would have more than some retirement-aged guy behind a desk looking at monitors. Yes, the system was electronic, but still. So I spent the whole movie grousing about things like that instead of thinking about the implications of the story as I was expected to. I hate when that happens.
Aided by Jenny (a teenaged Cynthia Nixon of "Sex and the City" fame), Paul builds from scratch his own private nuclear bomb, perhaps for the political activism aspect, but most likely for the challenge.
He's the unassuming punk of the science fair, a sarcastic, easygoing prankster surrounded by quirky science nerds who won't get laid until they're 37. This isn't his scene, and he's not here to compete with these kids. His aspirations are grander. At which point, Mathewson makes the connection his plutonium is missing. That's when this innocent scholarly pursuit goes horribly, horribly wrong.
Let's just say Paul's brand of political activism is performance art. And the name of his piece is "mutually assured destruction."
The Manhattan Project has more soul than most '80s "science whiz" movies in its class. A lively, charming bomb construction montage, and the product placement of Duracell on the bomb itself, have "classic" written all over them. Snappy, wisecracking dialogue decorates the script: "Jenny...I never thought I'd say this to anybody, but...I gotta go get the atomic bomb out of the car."
Most of the time, it's a lighthearted, idealistic retelling of the Radioactive Boy Scout - less a cautionary tale and more of a "kids versus the adults" caper. Scenes of Paul implementing devious chemistry, pranking the class know-it-all with home-brewed explosives, and outwitting security guards, government personnel, and the military puts this movie in the same league as Wargames.
Half the fun is watching how easily Paul manipulates his environment: He fires up computer consoles in a government lab like he's going for the high score at Pac-Man, makes operating a robotic arm look as easy as riding a bike, and maneuvers an RC car with the deftness of Jason Statham in Transporter 3. I laughed particularly at the simplicity with which he acquired C-4 and the nonchalance with which he handled weapons-grade plutonium. Unbelievable? Of course. But it's a hella good time.
What makes it work is the character of Mathewson: he's far from the preachy buffoon of an authority figure typically relegated to this kind of role. We don't even have any conflict arising from him stepping into the shoes of Paul's absent father. Instead of piling on reasons for him and Paul to be at odds with each other, the writers have crafted a more interesting, respectful relationship. You're endeared to both of them simultaneously, and only want for them to form their inevitable alliance, which is continuously prevented by circumstance.
There's no pointed commentary here. It's antinuclear proliferation to be sure, but that's about where the political sophistication ends. There is no villain in a black hat...that is, until we reach the end of the second act, where The Manhattan Project suddenly turns into my second-favorite scientists-vs.-military movie behind The Abyss.
Mathewson is a competent, morally sound realist surrounded by halfcocked gorillas. It's his character whose dramatic arc we're witnessing. He admires Paul for his resourcefulness but doesn't understand his motivations. By the end of the film, he's squaring off with the military himself.
At one point near the film's frantic climax, he turns aside, hundred-yard-stare, a sheen of sweat on his brow, and you feel his guilt about the power his lab-coated ilk have willfully turned over to the men with big guns and little brains - an exchange that has been going on, in this field of science, since the titular event of 1942.
Oddly enough, the last ten minutes pack the most comedic punch. Or maybe that's just my devious sense of humor.
Overall, The Manhattan Project is great fun. An unpretentious script, memorable scenes, and one of Lithgow's best roles (if I may be so bold) make this an undeniable cult classic. If you haven't seen it yet, it's the perfect fix to your '80s nostalgia habit.