Manhattan Project: Special Edition (US - DVD R1)
Gabe reviews a movie no major studio would dare make in the post 9/11 era...
Paul (Christopher Collett) is an overly intelligent sixteen-year-old with a mean case of boredom who discovers that his mother's boyfriend, Dr. Mathewson (John Lithgow), is refining super-plutonium (that glows like Herbert West's re-agent) undercover, right in their neighbourhood. Intent on getting as much attention as possible, Paul steals some plutonium with the help of his girlfriend (Cynthia Nixon) and constructs his own atomic bomb. By the time Dr. Mathewson and his colleagues discover the plutonium is missing and inform the government, the device is built. Way to go Paul.
I'm not sure what 1980s social phenomenon led to so very many movies about kids acting all independent and sticking it to grown-ups. Most of these films are dated as Aquanet waves and parachute pants, but a few of them drip through the cracks and can rightfully be called 'modern classics'. The Manhattan Project is no E.T.. It isn't even a War Games, but it is harmlessly entertaining.
Writer/director Marshall Brickman won the Oscar in '77 for co-writing Annie Hall with Woody Allen. Although the film's plot and character motivations are suspect, the dialogue is awesome. The words that come out of these actor's mouths are golden, and quotable. The actors speaking these golden and quotable lines are pretty good to boot. Nothing sinks a comedy-tinged thriller like bad actors. Established thespians like John Lithgow and John Mahoney should be expected to deliver, but the kids, even the non-leads, are charming, witty, and realistic given the circumstance.
The film is never believable, on any level (the Cold War era military is so utterly inept it's mind-blowing), but it's entertaining, at least for its first hour. When Paul and his girlfriend Jenny run away with the bomb in hand the film loses all suspended disbelief credit. Actually arming the damn thing makes him more than worthy of a head shot, but the good performances help maintain a smidgen of sympathy.
And that's the difference between this and so many other films of the 'smart, independent kid' sub-genre—Paul is a dick. He doesn't accidentally make an atom bomb. He isn't trying to make a snow cone machine or a puppy cloner. He isn't forced or tricked into it by a race of evil aliens. Worst of all he doesn't do it in some kind of misguided attempt at good; he does it because it sounds like fun. It sounds like fun to make something that could destroy his entire city and cause thousands of people in surrounding cities to die slowly of radiation poisoning. All of his other character development backs up my evil monster theory.
The Manhattan Project is well made even when it’s not so well or sympathetically written. The suspenseful scenes are expertly crafted and genuinely nerve-wracking. On the commentary track, Brickman talks about the film as an experiment. He talks about the need to challenge himself with the film. Considering these intensions I give the film a little more credit, because I respect experimentation.
The Manhattan Project is 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. The colours on this disc are pretty impressive, and considering it's a reasonably colourful film we could do a lot worse. Contrast is nice and black levels are deep. Details vary throughout, but are reasonable considering the film’s age. I don't image the film looking much better, but there is quite a bit of grain, and I noticed some chunky bits of artefact here and there.
No 5.1 overhaul for this one, but The Manhattan Project isn't a particularly aggressive feature, so a remix is pretty unnecessary (with a few exceptions). Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround will have to keep the fans happy. The surround channels are barren, but I noticed a few stereo effects here and there. Dialogue is pretty crisp, but a little on the quiet side. Music and sound effects are a bit thin, mostly suffering from a lack of LFE enhancement.
This isn't the most special ‘Special Edition’ I've seen in the past year, but it tries. Things get off to a very lacklustre start with an audio commentary featuring the director (not the cast as the box art claims). The DVD producers continuously prod him for information, but the dude's a dead fish. I squelched my critiquing duties and turned the track off. The silent commentary is supported by an equally lacklustre fact track. I adore fact tracks, but this one is so random and thin overall I was disappointed. The best fact I got was the fact that Brickman recorded the original bluegrass song that became 'Duelling Banjos' when it was used in John Boorman's Deliverance.
The disc also sports two featurettes. The first covers the general making of the film. The second is a shorter behind the scenes look at how the prop of the homemade atomic bomb was created. There isn't much here that isn't covered in the bland commentary and fact track, but it's a much quicker way to get the information. Short but entertaining. The disc closes out with a trailer.
Not the best or worst of its kind, The Manhattan Project managed to overcome some plot issues with great acting and dialogue. The characters and suspense work, the thrust of the story does not. I'm sure most '80s fans will have already seen it; those who haven't might want to give it a rent. The disc is pretty good, but not great.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 19th June 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, Fact Track, Featurette, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Marshall Brickman
Cast: Christopher Collet, Paul Austin, John Lithgow, Sully Boyar, Dan Butler, Timothy Carhart
Genre: Comedy and Thriller
Length: 118 minutes
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