The Manhattan Project (1986)

For a significant chunk of my (so far) 38 years on this fine little planet of ours, I’ve been a collector of some specific things, going back to my youth. Along with movies…I’ve been hoarding books from about as long as I can remember. Way back in The Day (the 80’s and early 90’s), access to movies wasn’t quite as convenient as it is now. It also didn’t help that my folks (smart people that they are) recognized the evils of using the television as a babysitter and therefore, my sister and I were both denied hours upon hours of wasted time spent in front of The Boob Tube. As a result, to get my fix of movie-related entertainment, I would search out novelizations or ‘tie-ins’ of films at whatever used bookstore happened to serve the ‘hood we lived in, because reading was highly respected and encouraged under our roof. My parents didn’t so much care about WHAT I was reading…just so long as it came in book form. So, using that to my advantage, I would find these novelizations of movies that I wasn’t yet able to see and *yoink!*…home they came with me. In among the surprising number of these books I amassed was this title…’The Manhattan Project’. I’d read the book at least twice as a kid, but for some reason…I don’t recall actually parking my ass to watch the whole flick that gave birth to that book that I recall so vividly. So today, on a lazy-ass Sunday afternoon, after all my domestic nonsense was dealt with, I found that I FINALLY had the chance to take in this 30 year old thriller whose plot now holds a somewhat frightening relevance in today’s hostile world ‘climate’.
‘The Manhattan Project’ opens in a top secret government laboratory, where a scientist named ‘John Matheson’ (John Lithgow) and his team have made a scientific breakthrough involving the use of lasers to refine weapons-grade plutonium to the purest, and most powerful, form ever created. Encouraged by this sinister achievement and prompted by the Cold War fears of the Reagan-era mid 1980’s, the government sets ‘Matheson’ and his crew up in a discrete lab in a secure facility in Ithaca, NY. While getting set up in the town, he meets local real estate agent ‘Elizabeth Stevens’ (Jill Eikenberry) and her near-genius 16 year old son ‘Paul’ (Christopher Collet)…and she instantly strikes his fancy. Trying to impress the single mom, ‘Matheson’ sees an ‘in’ when ‘Paul’ reveals an aptitude for science, in particular, lasers. After a tour is arranged, ‘Paul’, being a little smarter than anyone anticipates, begins noticing some things in the lab that seem somewhat out of place. Like the high level of security. Or the autonomous robot guarding the bottles of suspicious green ooze. Or the odds-defying number of mutated clovers in the yard of the facility. For some reason, this prompts ‘Paul’ and his new girlfriend ‘Jenny’ (Cynthia Nixon) to break into the lab during a thunderstorm in order to make off with radioactive material, in order to construct a homemade nuke to present at an upcoming science fair in New York City, while ‘Jenny’ plans to write an expose’ on the lab and what they’ve discovered to further increase her chances of a career as a journalist. As the two set to work, the theft is discovered and ‘Matheson’ races against time to stop either ‘Paul’ from being killed by the government agents in pursuit, or the chance of the bomb being assembled, armed and detonated.
Back in 1986, the same year as pro-USA action movies like ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Iron Eagle’, this one is something of a subversive anomaly, in comparison. But that does NOT mean it’s a perfect movie. Far from it. Perfect…No. Interesting and timely…Yes.
I fully recognize that my impression of this movie has been tainted by what I know about the fear-tinged, hate-fueled and nihilistic world we seem to live in today (at least, that’s what Corporate Media wants us to believe), with conflicts seemingly springing up everywhere (as they’ve ALWAYS done, if you care to check out a little History), and the threat of international terrorism looming in the peripherals (there MAY actually be ‘something’ to THIS one), regardless of how much we try to bury our heads in the sand about it. Along with CBC and the BBC, I always check out the headlines over on, over my coffee in the mornings, and I’m just waiting for the day when I pop open that homepage and am greeted by footage of a mushroom cloud rising over some city somewhere. I pray that it never happens…it just wouldn’t surprise me if / when it does (thanks a lot, 9/11!). That’s how desensitized and cynical it’s easy to be in this day and age. Having said all that, it’s interesting to sit back and watch a flick that treats the idea of home-grown domestic nuclear terrorism with such a whimsical and ‘light’ touch. Many people out there are aware of the rumor that the former Soviet Union lost track of 100 or so suitcase-sized nuclear weapons about 20 years ago and IF that scary concept is real, that’s a terrifying prospect! One of those puppies, it’s said, has the ‘oomph!’ to make the downtown core of the major city closest to me; Vancouver, British Columbia, vanish in a tall cloud of angry flames and radioactive smoke and ash. Watching ‘The Manhattan Project’ reminded me of THAT rumor, and lent an odd, slightly unsettling edge to seeing this movie for the first time. And that also makes some of the dumber elements of this movie a LITTLE hard to swallow.
First off, The Good. One of the things that I appreciated about this one was the treatment of intelligence. In the 80’s smart people, especially high school / college type characters always seemed to get lumped into the ‘nerd’ / ‘dork’ category. You know the kind…the awkward, bespectacled virgin with no fashion sense and a nasally voice who always SOMEHOW ends up with the prom queen or some such bullshit. But here, ‘Paul’ was a pretty ‘even keel’ kind of guy. He wasn’t ugly, he had ‘game’, he was athletic, with lots of friends, and enjoyed pulling the odd prank on his classmates…even if the particular prank we see would probably land someone in prison today (booby trapping and blowing up a rivals drawer in class). On a similar note, it was also refreshing to see the female love interest be the aggressor when it came to sex. More than once, ‘Jenny’ puts the moves on ‘Paul’, which again seems to go against ‘type’ for the time period. She also didn’t come off like a bimbo or an idiot, and didn’t go into ‘damsel in distress’ mode when the chips where down. Refreshing characters aside, I also liked many of the details we’re shown regarding the technology being used in this kind of top-shelf, abstract and, to me, frightening research. Which brings me to another element that stood out. I mentioned earlier that this movie had something ‘subversive’ about it and I think that it’s in the core message at the heart of the story. It’s like what Goldblum says in ‘Jurassic Park’: “They were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to ask if they should.” That VERY much applies to this scenario and we see that internal argument arrive in John Lithgow’s character as the tensions rise. It’s a little too ‘on the nose’ in how it’s depicted, but at least it’s there.
Which brings me to the Not So Good. Certain things happen in the course of this narrative that were completely hilarious in how unrealistic they were. Let me just say that after ALL the treasonous, terrorist-like behaviour from ‘Paul’ (at least in the eyes of the law), the flick ends in a typically 80’s fashion where everyone involved in the drama shares a light-hearted moment together in the physical aftermath, as the camera gently pulls up and away, leaving them to what can only be a rosy future of sunshine and lollipops. Bullshit! After everything that ‘Paul’ did, he would DEFINITELY be arrested and fired off to some Black Ops government detention facility, and then either ‘suicided’ or simply vanished ( forced into some nefarious nuclear research program under threat of death etc). He wouldn’t be alone either, as Lithgow has a weird, outta-the-blue change of heart, and joins ‘Paul’ in the tense stand-off that develops. Fuck that…he’d be getting water-boarded right next to the sociopathic little bastard, not just cheerfully seeing the error of his ways and finally getting into ‘Paul’s moms panties! Same would go for the actual nerd / dork stereotypes that turn up to rescue ‘Paul’ and ‘Jenny’ from the Feds when they’re…*SPOILER*…apprehended at the science fair. ‘Assault on a Federal Agent’, ‘Aiding and Abetting Known Fugitives’, ‘Illegal Discharge of a Fire Extinguisher in Public’ etc. Yea…they’re headed to the pokie too. So that shit was funny and definitely unrealistic. Another thing that I found off-putting was the whimsical tone of the music score during the scenes where ‘Paul’ is planning and constructing the device. It was all light and cheery, much like John William’s questionable (but still excellent) music in ‘Jaws’ where ‘Brodie’, ‘Quint’ and ‘Hooper’ are taking the Orca out to sea to hunt down a fucking monstrous man-eating great white shark!! It’s all happy and cartoon-like, set over top of a scary-ass scenario. Same with this one. Sure, artistically I can appreciate the juxtaposition, but what I was watching was a pampered, over-intelligent and definitely sociopathic white teenager construct a working weapon of mass destruction, just to make a point to the world. Ladies and Gentlemen…that is terrorism. Straight up lunatic terrorism. So it was unnerving to be put in the position where I’m supposed to be rooting for this creepy little shit as he enables himself to vaporize a sizable geographic area, should the need arise, just to make a damn point…all set to uplifting music that I suppose was supposed to put us in awe of the plucky display of ‘smarts’ and resourcefulness, regardless of how scary the root scenario is.
All in all, I’m glad I FINALLY got around to seeing ‘The Manhattan Project’…even if it is 30 years after the fact. It’s certainly an interesting product of it’s time, that has an eerie kind of resonance when seen in today’s global social climate. Much of the acting is decent (I actually liked Cynthia Nixon here…even after I realized that she was one of the bimbos from ‘Sex and the City’), and the attention to technical detail is commendable. It just has some undeniable confusion in tone, and some COMPLETELY unrealistic turns of events, given how ‘heavy’ the core of the story is. An interesting movie from an interesting time and one that I’d be curious to see remade, though I’m not sure how well it would go over. It would be almost like watching a movie about that sick asshole Timothy McVeigh and being asked to root for him on his wondrous journey to building the VBIED he used to blow up that Federal building in Oklahoma…just cuz he had the brains and the resources…and wanted to make a point to the world cuz a scientist was dicking his mom. Yea, not a popular point of view, I’d imagine, and would probably be seen as more tasteless than entertaining. THIS is fiction…but its scenario is scarily plausible. If thrillers from the 80’s work for you, then this may be worth your time to seek out. Alternatively, if you just happen to stumble upon it one day and have nothing else to vegetate on, you could do worse also.


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