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ICYMI: The Manhattan Project (1986)


Some movies just can’t be re-made. Whether it’s 1982’s The Entity, which features Barbara Hershey being repeatedly raped by a spirit, 1980’s Cruising (which I wrote about earlier) for being so incredibly politically incorrect and insensitive to the gay community or 1980’s Xanadu because, well, they got it right the first time and it’s just awesome 😊, some films cannot be re-made. And I understand there are filmmakers who want to re-make whatever they want because A) the film spoke to them as a young viewer, B) they believe the film has something to say in modern times, or C) they want to be subversive and play with role reversal and gender identity. But there are just some films that cannot be re-made, and this not an open challenge ala Barry Stinson.

One of my all-time favorite films is 1986’s The Manhattan Project, which tells the thrilling and sometimes comical story of a high school genius who decides to build an atomic bomb. Maybe it’s just me, but I cannot think of too many, if any, filmmakers who want to re-tell the story of a “terrorist” who decides to build a bomb to A) protest the US Government placing a weapons factory in his quaint home town, and B) to win a National Science Fair. The film on its surface is not meant to be anarchistic or inspire others to do the same but in today’s age of unending political strife, nuclear threats, and social media weaponization, I’m guessing a remake of The Manhattan Project would be less welcome than a comedy tour starring Bill Cosby, Aziz Ansari, and Louis C.K.

As the for the 1986 film in question, The Manhattan Project is a masterpiece in my opinion. From writer-director Marshall Brickman, best known for his screenwriting collaborations with Woody Allen which include Annie Hall, Sleeper, and (fittingly) Manhattan, comes this ingenious thriller with surprising moments of humor. The film stars Christopher Collet (who looks like a young Jonny Lee Miller) as Paul Stephens, a typical 80’s genius/slacker in the mold of David Lightman from WarGames or Chris Knight from Real Genius. We watch him play an “explosive” prank on a jerk of a fellow classmate and it’s kinda hard to not like him from the get-go. Into his life enters Dr. John Mathewson (John Lithgow), who is heading up operations at the recently installed Medatomics. From the outside, it’s a benign scientific research facility but from the film’s opening we know that Dr. Mathewson has a new process for developing weapons-grade plutonium. Paul meets Dr. Mathewson when the good-natured scientist has eyes for Paul’s single mother (Jill Eikenberry).

Dr. Mathewson tries to gain favor with Paul by taking him on a tour of his facility – big mistake. Paul can play dumb with the best of them and quickly surmises a possible threat to his town as Dr. Mathewson takes him behind the curtain and even tries to play off the containers of green goop as a new lubricating oil. Paul takes copious mental notes and then hatches a plan to steal a canister of plutonium with his budding girlfriend (a pre-Sex in the City Cynthia Nixon). This is a virtuoso sequence and the film’s highlight, as Paul makes use of a nicely timed lightning storm, frisbees, and a remote-control truck to switch out some plutonium for some convincingly similar-looking shampoo. After the theft, Paul wants to make a statement more than just contacting the press. He concocts a plan to build his own nuclear device A) as a protest of what is happening to his town and B) to see if he can do it and win a science fair.

Writer-Director Brickman keeps everything moving at a brisk pace and the entire cast is game and appealing. I was always surprised that Christopher Collet didn’t have more of an impactful career based off his entertaining performance here, although he has had plenty of recent work as a voice actor in the world of Pokemon. But the film is also a showcase for John Lithgow. Dr. John Mathewson on paper could have been anything from a mad scientist to a horndog lusting after Paul’s mother, but Lithgow finds so many notes to make him sincere and genuine, even if he is designing weapons for the government. The developing relationship between Collet and Lithgow is also paramount to the film’s success. There’s a playful and subtle gamesmanship between the two, like when Lithgow presents Collet with a brain teaser and just as Lithgow is describing it, Collet has already figured it out.

Everything builds up to a truly breathless climax ala WarGames when Paul’s “harmless” device starts ticking and we watch Dr. Mathewson and his colleagues, along with Paul, try to keep calm and think fast. The fact that there are a few funny one-liners thrown in here threw some film critics for a loop. As for me, I would probably be trying to keep things light and funny in the same dire circumstances.

So, while we may never get another film like The Manhattan Project, I can sleep at night. Of course, considering the amount of truly dangerous material that is currently circulating the Dark Web, maybe I shouldn’t be so naïve.

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