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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Manhattan Project: SE
The Manhattan Project: SE
Lionsgate Home Entertainment // PG-13 // June 19, 2007
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by David Cornelius | posted July 11, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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The 1986 thriller "The Manhattan Project" arrived on the tail end of two fading genres: the Reagan-era nuclear paranoia picture and the teen genius flick. It's a marvelous example of both, delicately balancing anti-nuke moralizing with an admirable portrait of smarts as a definite plus.

Consider how the film deals its central character, high schooler Paul Stevens (played by Christopher Collet). Like the David Lightman character in "WarGames," Paul uses his intelligence for mischief, perhaps worried that if he's more serious about his schoolwork, he'll turn into the very sort of geek he hopes he's not. David uses his computer know-how to impress a girl; Paul uses his chemistry know-how to prank the school's jerkiest nerd.

But the film never chastises Paul for his intelligence. In fact, it celebrates it. Here is a bright young man who does the wrong things not because he is smart, but because he is young. In the rather risky move of making the hero potentially unlikable, the screenplay makes Paul brash, slightly selfish and self-assured in that way teens can be when they're so certain they know so much - and adults know so little - about the world. It's his youth that gets him in trouble, but it's his smarts that get him out of it.

The movie also makes Paul's girlfriend Jenny (a young Cynthia Nixon) smarter than the average teen. An aspiring journalist, Jenny has a gift for words and argument (I bet she's on the debate team) which makes her wise beyond her years. Indeed, although Paul's actions are the result of teenage over-confidence, the script is never admonishes teens for their behavior or actions. Their worldview may be simplistic at times, but, the film suggests, couldn't that be better than the grey areas in which adults reside? Just look at Dr. John Mathewson (John Lithgow), a scientist who begins to date Paul's mother (Jill Eikenberry); as a contributor to the creation of nuclear weapons, has he not sold his soul to the government? Is that the sort of grey area in which Paul should want to live?

While Paul is the center of the film, Dr. Mathewson's emotional arc is its strongest. Here is a man who begins the story as someone proud in his work; only through Paul's interference does he come to discover that he's really no better than the Army goons he encounters on a regular basis - he's just another "son of a bitch" like the rest of 'em. He can then hope to redeem himself, although by the point of his self-revelation, maybe he already has: several times throughout the film's tense third act, he tries his best to solve problems not through force, but by reason.

And the problem on hand is a doozy: After taking a tour of Dr. Mathewson's lab, Paul, a bright kid who knows when someone's lying to him, realizes that the lab is handling weapons-grade plutonium - which means they're lying to the public, telling residents the area is safe. Jenny figures an exposé on the matter would be enough, but Paul figures nobody would care much about some teenage reporter's article. A news story about a kid who steals plutonium and builds his own bomb, on the other hand? Now that would grab the nation's attention.

The movie then switches gears (the first of several times it does so) to become a heist flick, as the teens plot (surprisingly - and perhaps unbelievably - quickly) to break into the lab. This sequence is slightly out of tune with the rest of the movie, as it's the one time when the script pushes the boundaries of reality just a little further than usual. While the second half treats the story as an improbable-but-possible event, this caper scene revels in its own movie-ness, allowing disbelief to be suspended longer than it probably should.

The third act has the government finding out about the bomb, which sends Paul and Jenny on the run, viewed as "teenage terrorists." Despite its use of familiar cat-and-mouse plot devices, the film provides some top notch thrills, especially as we approach a showdown between Paul and the government types (among them John Mahoney) convinced the kid is a radical.

Again, we return to a celebration of smarts. The script pauses for a wonderful moment in which Dr. Mathewson admires Paul's ingenuity (much of the bomb is made with household objects, and the scientist smiles at the idea of a second use for salad bowls). Another throwaway moment has Paul helping Dr. Mathewson with specific mathematic formulas ("I was never good at math," the scientist explains), and the ending becomes a matter of brains helping brains. The script throws around numerous scientific and mathematical terms, yet never pauses to explain them, assuming the audience is able enough to follow. (How rare: a Hollywood production that respects its viewers' intelligence.)

The film, directed and co-written by frequent Woody Allen collaborator and one-time folk musician Marshall Brickman (he only helmed four movies in his career, and this was the sole thriller), offers some too-noticeable glitches along the way (especially the final scene, which seems to erase the weight of the issue by erasing any feel for the consequences of Paul's actions; it's ultimately left to the audience to dissect Paul's ethical fudging), but we never really mind the flaws. As a movie, "The Manhattan Project" is great entertainment all the way, combining angry political themes with the snappy, crisp verve of an airtight thriller.

The DVD

Previously available on DVD in a bare-bones edition from MGM, "The Manhattan Project" now enjoys the treatment it deserves in a new special edition from Lionsgate.

Video & Audio

Not having seen the earlier disc, I cannot say if the anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is new or not, but it is pretty darn stunning. There's a bit of that ol' 80s softness to the picture, but that's more an issue with the original cinematography itself. Free of grain or any noticeable digital interference, the whole thing looks fantastic.

The soundtrack is a simple yet solid Dolby stereo affair, with optional English and Spanish subtitles provided.

Extras

Brickman (with nudging from an unidentified moderator) delivers a delightful commentary track, which combines memories of the film's creation with thoughts on nuclear politics then and now. (Note: The DVD cover mislabels the commentary as "with director and cast.")

"How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb: The Making of The Manhattan Project" (18:27) and "Homemade Apocalypse" (4:16) use footage culled from the same sources, namely interviews with Brickman and effects/design supervisor Bran Ferren. The former is typical making-of memories; the latter focuses on the task of creating a believable prop nuke. Both pieces excessively pad out their running times with clips from the movie. Presented in anamorphic widescreen, with Brickman's interview footage pillarboxed at 1.33:1.

An "80s Trivia Track" is a subtitle option that intermittently displays notes on news and events of 1986. It's fairly pointless fluff, mostly pop culture tidbits that pop up with ever-increasing gaps in between - until late in the film, when the track suddenly moves to a fascinating listing of nuclear weapons trivia. This portion is both relevant to the film and a sobering reminder that the nuclear age is not yet behind us.

Finally, the film's original trailer is included. (And in anamorphic widescreen, too!)

Final Thoughts

"The Manhattan Project" remains a clever time capsule of 80s nuclear commentary and a timeless, endlessly watchable thriller, and this new edition finally adds the bonus material the movie deserves. Highly Recommended.
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