Growing up in Brazil in the 1980s, I got acquainted with cinema mostly in the form of Hollywood movies, which would pop up dubbed and often chopped-up on TV. Though notions of film as an art form wouldn’t occur to me for another decade or so, I became familiar with thematic motifs quite early in the game: Masked bogeymen, muscle-bound warriors, wisecracking action heroes and virginity-ditching youngsters were familiar screen images during these formative years, all of them running together in a fractured, Lewis Carrollesque sneak peek into the American culture I would years later visit and embrace. Of these recurring figures, two in particular fascinated me: Whiz-kid fables (which made me aware of the need to venture beyond the suburban neighborhood and into the outside world) and paranoid doomsday scenarios (which reminded me of how easily that same world could evaporate in a mushroom cloud). By braiding these two subgenres, The Manhattan Project gave me an early taste of film as a medium of contrasts. Never mind that WarGames and Real Genius (to say nothing of Dr. Strangelove) had gotten there first and done it better—the movie’s frequently odd mix of mischief and danger seemed to these unseasoned eyes downright radical.
And “radical” is just how Paul (Christopher Collet), The Manhattan Project’s teenaged protagonist, is eventually described as he’s marked as a budding homegrown terrorist and hunted down by hordes of G-men toting shades, sniper rifles and shoe-sized cellphones. Pretty heady stuff to load onto a character who looks like your average Matthew Broderick stand-in (with a dash of Corey Haim thrown in for good measure), but then again this is a movie that in its opening scene introduces “the purest plutonium in the universe” in a beaker as if it were a gob of absentminded-professor slime, and then has somebody chirpily add, “Pretty, isn’t it?” Things start out claustrophobically in the bowels of a secret laboratory in the outskirts of Ithaca, NY, where the aforementioned flubber is revealed as the latest development in a hush-hush weapons project headed by Dr. Mathewson (John Lithgow). From there, we naturally segue into the film’s parallel experimental workshop, Paul’s gadget-strewn bedroom. Though as much of an egghead as Mathewson, Paul is from the outset portrayed as the impulsive yin to the scientist’s cautious yang: The first thing we see him using his scientific knowledge for is a smart-ass prank on a fellow student during chemistry class.
Their paths cross when Mathewson starts dating Paul’s divorced mom Elizabeth (Jill Eikenberry in what is technically known as the Dee Wallace Role) and the younger man’s adolescent distrust (and unacknowledged Freudian knots, of course) lead him to investigate that peculiar lab on the edge of the woods. These scenes make up the movie’s most appealing session, thanks to 19-year-old Cynthia Nixon’s poise as Paul’s sharp girlfriend Jenny, and also to the proto-Aaron Sorkin snap of the interaction between the two snooping kids, who rush through their sentences as if buoyed by sheer callow impatience and eagerness. It’s also here that director Marshall Brickman comes into his own. A longtime co-writer for Woody Allen, Brickman—whose 1980 directorial debut Simon, about a university professor brainwashed in a government experiment, suggests some missing auteurist link between this movie and Allen’s Sleeper—shows a flair for fleet volleys of dialogue and, more surprisingly, for silence: The break into the laboratory, complete with a security guard distracted by Jenny’s bogus damsel-in-distress act and cameras disoriented by Frisbee discs, plays like a junior version of the heist sequence from Rififi.
No 1980s flick is really complete without a music montage, and The Manhattan Project boasts one of the most bizarre of them all. In possession of Mathewson’s radioactive green goo, Paul sets out to use it as the nucleus of a private atomic device, and these deadly experiments are filmed with rapt attention and scored to some of the most disconcertingly cheery bass lines and electric keyboarding this side of an Alf marathon. It gets weirder. With homemade nuke in tow, Paul heads over to a science fair, gets nabbed by feds, is injected with truth serum, and rescued by a gaggle of resourceful techies straight out of The Goonies. (For a movie so determined to value the intellect of the young, this sequence showcases an unfortunate lapse into facile nerd-clichés, though it is nearly redeemed by the ludicrous gallantry with which one of the Poindexters addresses Jenny mid-chase: “Life, my dear, is more than just freezing toads.”) It’s about this time that the creeping suspicion that our nominal hero is also something of an egotistical prick crystallizes, and sympathies become necessarily divided between the wayward kid who wears a “Being and Nothingness” T-shirt and the befuddled grown-ups trying to prevent him from accidentally vaporizing half the East Coast.
A truly anarchic artist like Joe Dante might have kept escalating the story’s tension for delirious absurdism; by comparison, Brickman abandons any darkly comic potential in favor of straightforward thriller tropes as the narrative enters its rather conventionally nail-biting third act. Still, as Mathewson takes over as the main character, a streak of nuttiness survives in Lithgow’s performance. An actor who can go anywhere from ruthlessly sinister (who can forget the way he coolly lets himself go blank before the restroom strangulation in Blow Out?) to extravagantly giddy (vide his Mussolini impression in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension), Lithgow grounds the film while goosing his earnest role with eccentric line readings. The Manhattan Project is a tale about burgeoning awareness, and what is at times overlooked is that the estranged conscience at its center isn’t Paul’s but Mathewson’s, a man whose dedication to his work is matched by the dawning understanding of his participation in a system that’s more than ready to sacrifice its own to keep its sins safely buried. It’s no accident that he follows his climactic moral decision with the line “We blew it,” said not with the dread of somebody facing a time-bomb but with the defiant relief of stifling secrets being exposed and doors and windows being flung open. The film’s science may be faulty, but its view of children and guardians simultaneously courting and battling the abyss of Mutually Assured Destruction resonates.
Fernando F. Croce is the creator of the website Cinepassion.