a critiQal film review The Manhattan Project (1986)

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Plot: Ingenious adolescent Paul Stephens (Collet) learns about the grim prospects of nuclear aftermath when his mom becomes romantically involved with government scientist John Mathewson (Lithgow), who is currently experimenting with the ingredients for atomic warfare. Shaken by what he sees, Paul decides to nab the destructive materials and make a small-scale display of their horrible powers at the New York Science Fair, but the military isn't pleased with his actions.

883 words (Est. Reading Time 4m 24s)

Perusing NetFlix® once again, I searched for an older film to review for my Retro Saturday Movie. So many choices…but what to choose? As I browsed, I came across a category NetFlix® had conveniently set up: Movies from the 1980’s. Perfect! Soon, I had it narrowed down to two 80’s classics: Project X and The Manhattan Project.

Since I had never actually seen either, it was down to plot. Should I go with Matthew Broderick dealing with apes, or John Lithgow dealing with smarmy kids? Although it was a close call, I decided to go with The Manhattan Project, as it’s premise of kids building a nuclear weapon seemed a bit more exciting. So, I sat back, got ready with some popcorn, and hit play.

While John Lithgow is prominent in the credits and the cover – not to mention being in the first 5 minutes before the credits start – The Manhattan Project actually centers around a younger actor named Christopher Collet. Looking at his IMDb page, he doesn’t really have anything better than this film to his name (it’s mostly just TV show appearances and Sleepaway Camp). It’s not surprising, as his 80’s look hearkens back to Corey Haim, and he doesn’t really bring any excitement to his performance. With Haim, there’s always a bit of a comedic side the viewer can see hiding just under the surface. Collet, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have much of anything hiding under the surface, and is pretty bland as an actor. While his character is supposed to be intelligent and passionate about his cause, Collet plays him more as a smarmy jerk.

A young Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City (2008)) also takes a big role in The Manhattan Project. While it may be hard for some viewers to picture her as younger, she manages to play a pretty good sidekick to Collet, even if she does manage to come off as more interesting than the smarmy kid she’s tagging along with. While it’s easy to see why she went on to more starring roles than her co-star Collet, her character isn’t so much better than his. And their romantic interactions (thankfully only kissing) are easily the most awkward part of the film.

John Lithgow does a decent job with what he has to work with in The Manhattan Project. He easily outshines both Nixon and Collet, even though he has a lot of work on his hands trying to play his smart character while the script fights to dumb him down. His conflicting emotions are easy to see, and viewers will find themselves drawn more to him than to his younger co-stars. Sure, the script makes him come off as a bit cheesy, but he tries his best to make his character a nice guy anyway.

The biggest downfall of The Manhattan Project, however, lies in it’s poorly-conceived plot. Collet’s character steals plutonium from Lithgow’s lab in order to create a nuclear weapon. Not for terrorist uses, just to highlight that there’s a nuclear lab hiding in suburban Ithaca, New York. But, then he goes to a science fair to unveil the weapon, and…gain notoriety for himself? He seems to be more in it for his own glorification than for any righteous cause, despite his platitudes. If he’s just in it for exposing the lab, wouldn’t the girl writing the story (after he built the weapon) be enough? Why unveil it a science fair? Just to win first prize (which he mentions several times)? That seems to be self-glorification, not for any other cause. When that plan backfires, his only choice is to keep trying to expose the lab…but he makes sure television reporters are on hand for the climactic finale.

While his reasons are unclear, the ease in which he manages to snag a whole lot of plutonium is a bit nerve-wracking. Could it really have been this easy to get such a highly-prized radioactive substance back in the 80’s? No wonder everyone is worried these days about terrorists with nuclear weapons. If a kid can take this stuff without breaking a sweat, how difficult would it have been for a man with evil purposes? Of course, since The Manhattan Project is a cheesy 80’s flick, chances are a lot of the machinations of actually building a nuclear weapon have been simplified, and it probably wasn’t that easy to steal what was needed, thankfully. At least, we can hope so, can’t we?

With the main character’s true intentions unclear, thanks in part to the bland performance by Collet, and the film seemingly intent on degrading the performances of Lithgow and Nixon by trying to dumb them down and sideline them, respectively, The Manhattan Project has a lot to drag it down. Add in an ending sequence that, while exciting, kind of breaks character with the scene right before it, and a tacked-on happy ending that is so thin it’s see-through, and the film just comes off worse. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to this film, and, while it may have been fun back in the 80’s, The Manhattan Project comes across as nothing more than a bit of a pathetic cheesefest these days. It’s like watching Chain Reaction (1996) with worse acting from the main character – and less excitement.

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