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.