Judge Eric Profancik didn't know there were any Projects in Manhattan.
The Science Experiment Has Gone Too Far…
Harmless fun, that's all I thought it was about. The Manhattan Project is one of those '80s films that I remember watching way too many times on cable back in the day. It was a lot of fun. Some way-too-smart kid gets a good one-up on the big bad government, and they live happily ever after.
Flash forward twenty years and it's not quite so harmless. Suitcase nukes, terrorism, 9/11, and all that evildoer stuff infiltrates all corners of our society. Is The Manhattan Project really just a simple film from yesteryear or is there more going on? After all, the real message that eluded me all these years is "Setec Astronomy."
Facts of the Case
Precocious teenager Paul Stephens (Christopher Collet, The Langoliers) is incredibly smart. He's great in the sciences but a bit fuzzy in some other areas. His mom (Jill Eickenberry, L.A. Law) is a real estate agent; one day, Dr. John Matthewson (John Lithgow, Shrek) comes to her and buys a condo. While there, John puts the moves on Elizabeth, much to the annoyance of Paul. But John, recently transferred to the area for his job at Medatomics, sees that Paul is a science geek and tries to make friendly by inviting him to his workplace to see its big laser. Paul agrees and visits Medatomics. He is too smart and realizes that the laser isn't the most interesting thing there: it's the bottles of green goo in a sealed off area. That green goo is a special batch of exceptionally pure plutonium that John has developed.
While hanging out with his new "girlfriend," Jenny (Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City), Paul decides to use the cover of the massive thunderstorm to steal a bottle of plutonium from Medatomics. With Jenny's help, his plan succeeds and he then proceeds to make a nuclear device. Soon Medatomics realizes they are missing some plutonium, and John quickly figures out Paul took it. A cat and mouse game ensues of trying to expose Medatomics for what it is and trying not to get killed by the zealous government agents sent to retrieve the toxic material.
It's harmless fun. That's clearly how I remember The Manhattan Project, a movie named for the project that developed America's first nuclear weapons. Paul is a smart kid who wanted to see if he could steal the plutonium from Medatomics, and then he wanted to see if he could build a nuclear bomb. Watching it now, this movie isn't harmless and my recollection of Paul's motivation was way off base.
Paul is insane.
He really is. This teenager is throwing all caution and intellect to the wind just to prove a point. He's absolutely reckless, careless, and insane. While he's incredibly smart—in the sciences—all common sense must have leaked out his ears. He knows it's plutonium, he knows what it can do, yet he just wants his bomb to win a science fair…and perhaps help his girlfriend blow the cover off the company. My original thinking that he didn't know what it was and he was just "playing" was absolutely wrong. He knew, and he didn't care.
Making it all the worse is the purported strength of the plutonium he stole, which would cause a bigger bang than he realized.
Though startled by Paul's monumental arrogance and stupidity, I still like this movie. It's still a lot of fun, with the two hours zipping past, and giving the viewer some nice twists and turns and something to think about. The Manhattan Project was a decade ahead of its time, but the message of "nuclear danger" does take a backseat to Paul's brilliance and canny ability to steal the material and build a bomb.
It seems gloomy to enjoy a movie with such a dark undercurrent, yet it's also gloomy to feel guilty about enjoying such a movie these days. We're all to fear the evildoers, but it's okay to enjoy a silly fluke of a movie from twenty years back. We can enjoy how smart Paul is, how quickly he calculates his infiltration scheme, and how eerie and scary it is to see him make his bomb.
The Manhattan Project works because the focus is on the people and not so much the message. Though he's utterly insane, you like Paul for being a sarcastic science virtuoso. You like his girlfriend Jenny because she's never been cuter than in this movie. (She was my least favorite on Sex but twenty years ago…my my my.) Mom is cool because she's a laid back, easy-going person who adores her son but also has her own life. Top-billed John Lithgow as John isn't necessarily the star of the movie, but you like him for the complexity of his character: brilliant scientist, horny dude, and everyday good guy. Then toss in John Mahoney (Frasier) as the gung ho military man, and you have a great face on the government.
Mix that in with a tight story, solid direction, good cinematography, and The Manhattan Project is a cut above the typical '80s fare.
This Special Edition marks the second release of this movie to DVD. I wasn't able to find any reviews of the previous version, and it appears it was a bare bones release. Whether we have the same transfers is also unknown. The video transfer is 1.85:1 anamorphic, and looks solid for its age. While not top-of-line realistic with breathtaking depth, the colors are warm and accurate, blacks are crisp and distinct, and detail is pretty good. I saw no significant errors on the video. For the audio transfer, only the original Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is available. It's an acceptable track with clear dialogue and no hiss or crackle.
This time around there are just a few bonus items, but they are not all that good. First is a commentary track by director Marshall Brickman (Simon), and it's a colossal stinker. He must have said, in some iteration, at least twenty times "I don't know what to say." Finally somebody else—a recording technician?—starts asking him questions about the scenes, trying to prompt him, but it doesn't work. It's a positively awful commentary. The packaging states it's a commentary "with filmmaker and cast," so if the cast showed up later, I missed it. I was more looking forward to the "'80s Trivia Track," since that's my decade. While I caught a few interesting tidbits, there's too much dead air and too much talk about the movie instead of the decade. That wouldn't be so bad, but it's boring stuff about the movie. Next is the making-of featurette "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb." It's a below average piece with minimal interesting info. Outside of the trailer, the last thing is a quick featurette, "Homemade Apocalypse" that takes about bombs and nuclear goodies. Overall, the new bonus items aren't adding much to make it a "Special Edition."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As with most movies of this time, The Manhattan Project is replete with logic and plot holes. Topmost, if Paul is mucking about with super plutonium for weeks, why isn't he showing the first sign of radiation poisoning? You could easily nitpick this one apart, but just let it go and go with the flow.
"Setec Astronomy," what's that? Surely you've seen Sneakers and know all about "too many secrets." That's the real message in The Manhattan Project: too many secrets. Dr. John crafted his mega plutonium, put the lab in a sleepy New York town, and readied America to nuke its enemies. But that's not really the point of this film. It's a little gem from that decade with a smart kid outwitting the "smart" guys. Good performances and good story come together to make The Manhattan Project a solid, guilty pleasure from the big hair decade. While the bonus materials are awful, the transfers are good so feel free to pick this one up.
The Manhattan Project: Special Edition is found guilty of making special plutonium but not a special edition.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Marshall Brickman
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