The Manhattan Project (1986)

28 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Manhattan Project” is probably mentioned, if at all, in the same league as “WarGames” and “Real Genius”—you know, the kind of comedy/thriller in which intelligent teenagers are able to make the kind of scientific advances that intelligent adults would be envious of. In my opinion, however, “The Manhattan Project” is probably the best in this category. Some people have called this one the most preposterous (and boring) of the lot. I never saw that. I believed what was happening in the story, and was entertained by the events that occurred once the “science experiment” element was underway. I wasn’t bored; I was invested.

One major advantage that “The Manhattan Project” has for itself is its young hero. He’s very smart, like the other kids in the movies I mentioned. But he’s still a kid—he can get envious, he can be zealous, and he doesn’t always make the wisest choices. Whatever bad choice he makes isn’t because he’s smart, but because when all is said and done, he’s still a kid.

By the way, I like that he’s not labeled as a “geek” or a “nerd” because of his brain—though, that’s because he mostly uses his intelligence for mischief. In an opening scene, he pulls a prank on the jerkiest nerd in his high school, using what random (or are they random?) substances in chemical lab.

The kid is Paul Stevens (Christopher Collet), a 16-year-old boy-genius. He’s self-aware in the way of making sure he isn’t known for being as much a nerd as the very one he pranked (if he was, the other kids in the class wouldn’t have cheered him on like they did). And he observes and listens closely to everything he finds interesting. In the case of the movie’s plot, it’s the “medical company” in his hometown of Ithaca, New York, that interests him. Paul’s mother (Jill Eikenberry) is dating one of the workers of this new development—Dr. John Mathewson (John Lithgow)—and Paul decides to check it out for himself. Dr. Mathewson gives him a tour, showing him “one of the sexiest lasers in the entire free world” (I’m serious—that’s what he calls it, trying to relate to the kid), but what Paul quietly realizes is that the place is actually a laboratory for testing plutonium.

Feeling like he’s been duped, Paul decides to expose the lab. His aspiring-journalist girlfriend Jenny (Cynthia Nixon) suggests writing an exposé on the matter, but Paul has something more extreme in mind. His plan is to sneak in, grab some plutonium from the lab, and use it to create his own atomic bomb, which he will enter in the upcoming science fair!

If that doesn’t make front-page news, I don’t know what will!

And surely enough, Paul does build a nuclear bomb and plans to unveil at the science fair. But the government agents bent on keeping their secret find out about it, and so Paul and Jenny are on the run, viewed as young terrorists. Now it’s up to Paul’s smarts to get them out of trouble.

One of the best things about “The Manhattan Project” is that it shows the action in such a way that it makes it all seem plausible. Take the heist sequence in which Paul sneaks into the lab to steal a bottle of plutonium—this sequence lasts almost a half-hour, showing every little detail that made it work credibly. Then there’s a montage showing Paul put together for his bomb (mostly with household appliances). The whole midsection of “The Manhattan Project” is all about showing the process…and I am aware that this is probably why people found this movie “boring.” Funny, I would’ve thought they wanted more explaining. (Though, if that happened, I worry kids would have tried making their bomb from household objects.)

The only thing that didn’t seem plausible to me was that Paul and Jenny planned their heist so quickly that it all goes well without a hitch.

The writing is very smart. It treats its characters cleverly with enough ingenuity. I actually barely began to talk about probably the most complex character in the film. Not Paul, but Mathewson. While this is in many ways Paul’s story, it’s Mathewson that has the strongest emotional arc in “The Manhattan Project.” As the movie opens, he’s showing off his new creation and is very proud of his work. But as the movie progresses, he sees more clearly that he is no better than the Army and government who try to silence Paul to protect this secret—if not by reason, then by force. He knows there must be a way to protect Paul and also a chance for self-redemption. It also leaves for some tense sequences in which you figure out along with the characters how they’re going to get themselves out of each situation that comes.

The screenplay is also smart in the way it develops this relationship between Paul and Mathewson, especially since Mathewson may having an affair with Paul’s mother, and how they deal with that as well. And also, it pauses every now and then for moments such as when Paul has to help Mathewson with a specific mathematic formula. Moments like that are pleasurable in such a way that they give the characters more dimensions than you’d expect just from hearing the film’s premise.

The ending is probably when the movie is at its most predictable, in which the bomb is finally armed, after a series of complicated events. However, it is pretty inventive in the way it has smart people helping other smart people, not with force, but with reason just like Mathewson would like to do.

With strong acting by the principal actors (Collet, Lithgow, Nixon, Eikenberry, and also John Mahoney as one of the government types), smart writing, and intriguing moments that combine everyday conflicts with a “what-if” science-experiment element, “The Manhattan Project” is a tense, fun, well-crafted (not to mention, underrated) thriller.

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