The Manhattan project

STUDIO: Lionsgate
MSRP: $19.98
RUNNING TIME: 118 Minutes
Feature Commentary w/ director
"Making-of" featurettes
80s trivia track


like that ‘Deadly Dust’ episode of the old Spider-Man
TV series with Nicholas Hammond. The one with that dude who drank a
lot of milk."


Lithgow, Cynthia Nixon, Christopher Collet (The Langoliers).


Paul (Collet) and Jenny (Nixon) discover that a government plutonium
refinery has been operating secretly in their sleepy town of Ithaca.
Not content to let the adults of the world run roughshod over the
inheriting generation, they steal a vial of refined plutonium and use
it to construct an atomic bomb. Their intention? To display the bomb
at a national science fair, thus securing first prize. Well, that and
exposing the government for a sack of lying shits, and strike a blow
for peace.


Manhattan Project
is one of those films that gives you a
suckerpunch about midway through. It lulls you into its narrative
with promises of lighthearted adventure with the antics of smart
kids, and then gets you right in the melodrama glands, which are
somewhere near your kidneys. When these sorts of transitions occur in
your entertainment, they either break the movie in half or they draw
you further in. I can see why it might be an appealing technique,
though: it allows for appealing directly to an audience’s escapism,
and then, once the hooks are in place, for telling a story too
heavy-handed to survive on its own.

Also sprach Lithgowthusa…

that The Manhattan Project has to stretch very far for
its more serious components. Weapons-grade plutonium is not a toy,
and the implications of potential nuclear weapon development are such
that they might ruin anyone’s good day. Twenty years ago, Cold
War-era, nuclear technologies were invested with more of a
mythological fear than they are now. These days, it’s chemical or
biological weapons that tend to grab hold of the public’s
imagination. (This obviously doesn’t stop fearmongering on the part
of the government as regards nuclear weapons, but that’s a digression
only tangentially connected to this film’s plot.)

appeal to common fear makes the transition from pure fun to serious
much easier to swallow, but I still can’t help but divide the two
sections. The first half runs kind of like Wargames;
smart kids get themselves involved in things larger than they
understand, but have initially a hell of a lot of fun sticking it to
those bastard adults. It’s entirely unbelievable escapist fiction,
relying on the spirit of rebellion to hold on to the audience’s

Further proof of my harebrained theory that girls are hot when they’re my age.

worked pretty well for me. I’m kind of a sucker for stories about
smart kids. Maybe I just haven’t got enough distance from my own
childhood, yet. Nevertheless, Ender’s Game, The
Three Investigators
stories, Tom Swift . . .
those are the kinds of books I grew up reading, and I’ve always been
fond of movies that flow in the same vein. The protracted Mission:
sequence during which the protagonists of The
Manhattan Project
steal a tube of delicious, oozy plutonium,
is just good fun in this manner. The above-average rapport between
Nixon and Collet provides a good bedrock for the heist; plus it’s
always fun to watch well-laid plans executed.

first half is a child’s game. It’s cocky and rebellious, and doesn’t
prepare the audience at all for the sea change that hits in the
second half. Once the plutonium is in possession, the kids use it to
construct an atomic bomb. Collet wants to force the government’s
hand; Nixon just wants to write a newspaper story about it. The
trouble is that the crime they’re indulging in has expanded
exponentially from theft of government property to threatening the
health and safety of New York state.

around this point that the script drops any pretense of character
development and becomes a full-blown melodrama. Collet and Nixon
still do fine, since they’re given to nothing more than stoic
determination. The real problem comes from relying on John Lithgow to
provide the anchor point for the remainder of the plot. The tension
continues to ratchet up admirably, but asking Lithgow to keep aloft
his own character arc, much less those of his compatriots, is kind of
like asking me to carry a tune; our bodies just weren’t meant for it.

Aw, shucks… I’m no genius. All I can make it do is scream and poop. And roll over.

the structure falters and splits apart like buckshot, the 80s "fuck
the man" theme keeps on straight and true. I’d love to see more
of this type of movie set in the current geopolitical climate. (I
Three Kings,
but it’s just one film.) Though the relevance of
Manhattan Project

has pretty well passed, its more entertaining qualities have

just want to know why the fuck Collet’s character didn’t get
radiation poisoning.


disc features a feature-length commentary with writer/director
Marshall Brickman, who is pretty laid back. Brickman trails off
frequently, and occasionally appeals to an unnamed voice from the
recording booth. It’s not the most engaging commentary track.

also get two featurettes: a making-of called "How To Dismantle
An Atomic Bomb" and a vintage, less-informative, and shorter
making-of called "Homemade Apocalypse."

for fun, the disc also contains a trivia track steeped in 80s
mythology. For those of you, like me, who remember the eighties as
dim visions of being beaten up in grade school, it’s a fun diversion.
I can’t speak for the rest of you old-timers.

6.5 out of 10