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Back in the 80s, kids were getting into all kinds of trouble, taking days off, hiding aliens … starting global thermonuclear war. They were a right out of hand bunch but they were making box office gold. Like 1950s monster movies, they were terrorizing the landscape and Hollywood was making sure to cash in. While most of these movies were hokey fun for youngsters aimed at painting adults as dolts and the teens as heroes, the really good ones (like the aforementioned) took to a more realistic approach, or at least as best they could.
The Manhattan Project was one such movie, and riding on the back of WarGames had the same theme of nuclear-powered doomsday, and further involved a particularly precocious and highly-intelligent teen who stumbles across some mischief while trying to – much like many movies of the times – impress a girl. The difference here (and similar to WarGames) is that most adults are equally smart and the tone not comedy but drama and the kid isn’t so much a wiseass as a genius who needs some mentoring.
Directed by Marshall Brickman (who also co-wrote), The Manhattan Project might not be entirely believable but sure tries hard to be, putting science first in a story that follows a high school student named Paul (Christopher Collet), a whiz-kid type unchallenged by his school teachers who settles on pranks and such to tickle his intellect. Exploding cabinet doors counted for tickling back then. Probably be a visit from Homeland Security today.
Paul’s father is absent, having moved to Saudi Arabia, and so he lives with his lonely but caring mother Elizabeth (the always excellent Jill Eikenberry) who works as a realtor. She meets Dr. John Mathewson (John Lithgow) one day as he looks for a place to live. He’s a personable, good-looking man who offers dinner for the both and then a tour of the lab where he works for Paul, enticing him with a look at a “sexy laser.” Sexy being a relative term.
When Paul does join him at the Medatonics Laboratory, he is indeed impressed by the gadgets but is more taken by bottles of green radioactive goo that are being stored in the facility. Piecing together what he’s told, he figures out that it must be weapon’s grade plutonium and that Mathewson is a mad scientist because duh, what else could he be? Plus he’s hitting on his mother. Naturally, he decides to break into the the lab and find out on his own.
But … he’s not gonna do it alone. He coaxes the lovely Jenny Anderman (Cynthia Nixon), an aspiring journalist and gal pal to help and from there, steals a sample and goes ahead and makes his own nuclear bomb. When this is discovered however, it causes a panic at the plant and brings in angry government types that aren’t convinced Paul isn’t a terrorist ready to start an international crisis. It makes for a tense and often very engrossing little thriller that may be a product of its time but is nonetheless a captivating and enjoyable bit of fun. And like every movie, it has one great moment. But before we do that, take a look at a bit of history:
If there is anything most important in this small genre of films, it is the clear establishment that our hero is indeed an actual smartie. With classics like WarGames, we get glimpses of cunning and cleverness though expositional action, and so is the case here, where we see Paul fidget with glove-boxes and frozen orange juice as tricks to convince the audience of his brainy wherewithal. The kid’s basically an egghead MacGyver.
However, the film does makes a grand leap in having us believe he can make a working fission bomb and to do so spends a full ten minutes of screen time in a montage of sorts as he, looking rather logically, investigates and assembles a very real nuclear explosive device in the span of four weeks. I mean, why not? We believed Christmas Jones was a nuclear physicist, right? Oh wait. We didn’t. Either way, the more interesting sequence occurs just prior when Paul hatches a plan to break into Medatronic and get himself a bit of that sweet green plutonium, at this stage, just to be sure it is what it is. To paraphrase its predecessor, shall we play a game?
Filling Jenny in with the details, he uses her as a distraction during an electrical storm, driving up to the gate with a flat tire and him in the trunk. Appealing to the security guard’s sense of mercy, she convinces him to let her in to get a hold of an auto club. A pretty smile open a lot of doors. And security gates.
Paul leaps out of the back and sneaks his way in using a key card he stole from Mathewson. While the guard takes to assisting Jenny, Paul disables the the security system and works his way to the main lab where the plutonium is stored, but simply snatching a batch and running off isn’t so easy, and he must use the advanced equipment, including a giant robotic arm, to retrieve one canister filled with goo and replace it with his homemade version, one consisting of green shampoo mixed with glitter. Alberto V05!
He then uses the massive laser Mathewson demonstrated earlier (nice going, Mathewson) to carve a small hole in the wall to carry the bottle out in the back of a remote control car.
Now, admittedly, that all sounds simple (and wicked badass), but in practice, it’s a tense and fast-paced sequence that is surprisingly effective in convincing us it would work, beginning with a security guard who isn’t your typical movie guard dummy asleep at the console but a seasoned patrolman who is confronted with a number of plausible events, such as the possibility an electrical storm causes his monitors to glitch and a motorist to have a vehicle problem.
The film wisely lets him (played by veteran character actor Sully Boyar) be a man with intelligence who just happens to get outsmarted. Either way, the interplay between the action inside the lab as Paul scurries about setting up reflective panels and triggering the laser while operating the robotic arm while Jenny keeps the guard and his replacement busy works well, maintaining urgency while keeping us well informed. Sure, a plutonium laboratory in the real world would probably have more guards on duty than a local 7-11, but this is the movies, people. One is all was get. At least he’s awake the whole time.
Paul manages to dive right into complex machinery and computer programs that would otherwise baffle a veteran mechanical engineer, but because the film has done so well in establishing his character, we not only accept his remarkable abilities but marvel at it as well. If you’re a teenager, this is very cool stuff to believe can happen and Collet is wonderfully charming and natural throughout, easily sweeping us under his wings as he flits about the large room.
Brickman does one better, pacing it and directing it with great care and respect for the audience, never playing it dumbed down but keeping it easy to follow enough so that it feels entirely authentic while just a bit fantastical. This is crucial because it is at this point that we need to invest in Paul and if we don’t side with him here, we ain’t gonna any time after. Fortunately, this moment does just that and while we know what he is doing is very, very, galactically bad, we choose to stick with him and see where he takes it. That’s just good writing.
The Manhattan Project is a smart thriller with some terrific performances all around, with Lithgow especially strong, and look fast for a brief appearance from a very young Robert Sean Leonard as a fellow classmate of Paul’s. The movie is a bit sharper than many of the times with the teen leads speaking like weathered adults, but that only adds to the charms of it all. It’s a great flick and well worth seeing, now available on Netflix, and a scene in a lab where the green goo gets grabbed is a great cinematic moment.