Can anyone stop this Armageddon? A high school science whiz kid builds an atomic bomb as a prank... only to trigger a horrifying race against time - The Manhattan Project is an intelligent, gripping and entertaining thriller with a satisfyingly suspenseful finale. Teenage genius Paul (Christopher Collet, Firstborn) realizes the lab of Dr. Mathewson (John Lithgow, Raising Cain, Blow Out) his mother's (Jill Eikenberry, Hide in Plain Sight) new boyfriend, isn't really developing lasers... it's building nuclear bombs. To expose the lab's secret mission, Paul and his girlfriend Jenny (Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City) steal some plutonium, build a bomb and enter it in a science fair. But the military learns of Paul's plans and pursues him with lethal intent. Now, as time is running out, only Dr. Mathewson can save Paul... and stop the unthinkable from occurring! Co-written and directed by Marshall Brickman, the co-writer of Woody Allen s all-time classics Sleeper, Manhattan, and Annie Hall.
Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. The seemingly perfect memories of old may be far from being factually correct. Moments and things that trigger fond responses may be completely inaccurate. Your memories can play tricks on you. Things that you once loved may not be worth loving at all. One of those things, as I recently learned, is 'The Manhattan Project.'
As I kid, I recall watching 'The Manhattan Project' with my brothers with frequency. We loved it. Being a kid, how could you not love a story about a kid who takes his life by the horns, mouthing off and sticking it to the rules and adults along the way? With government officials after him, it's basically an 'E.T.' story with a nuke instead of an extra terrestrial – only it lacks everything that made 'E.T.' worth watching. Unfortunately, 'The Manhattan Project' doesn't hold up. It's an artifact from the past that, as it turns out, should remain in the past.
The movie kicks off with a scene that would lead you to believe that John Lithgow is the leading man – but he's not. We see his scientist character, John Mathewson, demonstrate a new method for creating 99.997% pure plutonium. With lasers, tubes and all sorts of sciency equipment, his product is something that Walter White would be proud of. The government folks are so impressed that he and his team are immediately signed to a secret contract that will never go public. Although he trusts them, we, the audience, see the shifty eyes they give one another and immediately know that they're not trustworthy.
Cut to the next sequence. We meet Paul Stephens (Christopher Collet), a 17-year-old that's the high school equivalent of MacGyver. The mischevious kid is constantly up to no good. He's similar to Ferris Bueller, only without any of Matthew Broderick's charm or charisma. He's actually pretty unlikeable. For example, he bullies another scientific kid by tricking him into setting off a miniature explosion in class, something that would get any kid permanently kicked out of school these days. The personal rebellion that I once loved in Paul is now a pestering nuissance that's present for the entire movie.
Dr. Mathewson and young Paul meet when the doctor moves to town. The work of creating batch after batch of the near-perfect radioactive material moves forward just outside of town in a facility that's hidden beneath the facade of a locked down medical research company. While looking for an apartment, the doctor meets Paul's mom (Cynthia Nixon), a property manager who rents him a place to live. The two flirt and eventually start dating. Suspecting that the medical company is toying with radioactive materials, Paul breaks into the doctor's car, steals his ID badge for the compound, and elaborately heists the joint for a jug of green gel that holds shavings of metallic plutonium.
Rewatching the heist scene, I have to admit, was fun. It's ridiculous and even absurd, but the fun is still there. It's unfortunate that everything that happens before and after the sequence carries a drastically different tone. This heist is like something out of 'The Goonies,' but everything else is dead-pan and 'Red Dawn'-ish – and not the fun stuff in 'Red Dawn.' I'm talking about the political, all-too-serious stuff in 'Red Dawn' that's not really entertaining. One other escape sequence briefly captures the magic, but not enough to carry it along. The story of a kid who makes a homemade nuclear bomb just so he can prove to the public that the government is using a fake medical research plant for nuclear testing isn't as entertaining as I once believed.
The pacing of 'The Manhattan Project' is another big issue. Early on, Paul explains his plan to make the nuke in order to win the national science fair; however, once we get to the science fair, we feel like we're watching the climax, yet we've barely made it into the second half of the movie. After that, it glugs along at a snails pace. The nonchalant demeanor of Paul creates a worriless sense of security despite potentially heavy consequences looming around the corner. Although there's conflict, it carries no weight. Not only is this present in tone, but in story. After all that the characters go through, there's ultimately no consequence whatsoever to any of their actions. By the time everything is resolved, things simply go back to the way they were.
If you're clinging to any amount of nostalgia with 'The Manhattan Project,' leave it there. Don't revisit it. Ignorance is bliss.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Manhattan Project' has been brought to Blu-ray via a plain and stripped down Region A BD-25 disc that's housed in a standard blue Elite keepcase. Nothing but a forced Kino Lorber reel places before the static music-set main menu.
To my surprise, 'The Manhattan Project' has received a pretty decent upgrade with its 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. It's not flawless, but it's worlds better than I expected.
Not including the highly flawed Gladden Entertainment Corporation reel that kicks off the movie, the first shot immediately shows the clarity, crisp sharpness and common high definition of the cleaned-up video. The tight close-up on a keylock reveals fine lines, tiny key scratches that would appear on the metal surrounding the unit caused by fumbled keys. Unless shots feature soft focus, details and textures remain intact throughout. For example, Lithgow's hideous sweaters show more texture than they should and Collet's facial pores and imperfections are clearly visible.
A light amount of grain is visible and remains present for the majority of the movie. On a handful of occasions, there's some side-to-side shakiness. Although no scratches, specks or debris appear during the opening lock shot, they occassionly show up throughout and will last for an entire scene or so. Fotunately, they're never dense or wildly distracting. Bands and artifacts never show up, but I noticed one instance of aliasing (within the Medatomics company logo) and there are several occasions in which mild noise appears. Aside from that, it carries a pretty good overall quality.
'The Manhattan Project' carries a two-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track that's void of any aging flaws - cracks, hiss, warbling, syncing - but is too congested for its own good. The dialog, effects and music are cluttered together in such a way that scenes with three-way traffic are a bit overwhelming. Having said that, being a transfer of the original audio, it's safe to assume that the track was always mixed this way and that it's no fault of the remastered audio.
Scenes with plain conversational dialog that don't have underlying score or effects tend to have a quiet feel to them. This made me turn the volume up, which in turn resulted in scenes with other sound dynamics being a little louder than I like. Aside from that, the dialog sounds great. It's crisp, clear and natural.
The movie's score is a little unfitting for the movie itself, but it's got some great arraingements. On many occasions it reminded me of the '60 and '70s score that Disney composed for their nature films. It's quite pleasant. Aside from some effects with horrible sounds - like a dirtbike passing on-screen that sounds nothing like an actual dirtbike - the effects are also smooth and enjoyable.
My only real gripe with the audio itself is the fact that there are never any left-and-right effects that add to the dynamics of the mix. Nothing catches you attention and makes you think, 'That sounded great.' In that regard, it might as well be a mono track.
Some things from the past are better left in the past. 'The Manhattan Project' is one of those things. There's great potential to the story of a kid heisting a shady government organization, but the story written comes nowhere near meeting that potential. Instead, it's a disjointed and tonal mess. Fortunately, the audio and video qualities are solid - but there's not a single true special feature to be found. If you, like me, had a childhood affection for it, then don't revisit 'The Manhattan Project.' You're only setting yourself up for disappointment.