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The Manhattan Project (1986)

PG-13 | | Sci-Fi, Thriller | 13 June 1986 (USA)
A high school prodigy builds an atomic bomb with stolen plutonium to win the 45th National Science Fair and expose a nuclear weapons lab posing as nuclear medicine in Ithaca NY.


Marshall Brickman

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1 win & 1 nomination. See more awards »


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Cast overview, first billed only:
John Lithgow ... John Mathewson
Richard Council ... Government Aide
Robert Schenkkan ... Government Aide
Paul Austin Paul Austin ... General
Adrian Sparks ... Scientist
Curt Dempster Curt Dempster ... Scientist
Bran Ferren Bran Ferren ... Lab Assistant
Christopher Collet ... Paul Stephens
Jill Eikenberry ... Elizabeth Stephens
Cynthia Nixon ... Jenny Anderman
Gregg Edelman ... Science Teacher
Abraham Unger Abraham Unger ... Roland (as Abe Unger)
Robert Sean Leonard ... Max (as Robert Leonard)
David Quinn David Quinn ... Tennis
Geoffrey Nauffts ... Craig


A high school prodigy builds an atomic bomb with stolen plutonium to win the 45th National Science Fair and expose a nuclear weapons lab posing as nuclear medicine in Ithaca NY.

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


Paul Stevens' high school science project has gotten a little out of hand. He just built an atomic bomb. Now he's got 11 hours to make sure it doesn't work. See more »


Sci-Fi | Thriller


PG-13 | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

View content advisory »






Release Date:

13 June 1986 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Deadly Game See more »


Box Office


$18,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend USA:

$1,503,000, 13 June 1986, Wide Release

Gross USA:

See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Gladden Entertainment See more »
Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


| (video)

Sound Mix:



Color (Technicolor)

Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


Paul's science class nemesis Roland invented the Internet as his science fair project. This movie was made ten years before the Internet reached widespread public notoriety. See more »


Every time Paul opens the glove box in Dr. Matheson's Mercedes he picks the lock with his nail file, but never locks it again. The glove box lock is simply set to lock automatically when closed. See more »


[first lines]
Dr. John Matthewson: Now, the beta synchrotron sends the electrons through this magnet which bends the course of them down to the reaction vessel. Stay away from that elbow joint. All right. Bran, you want to get that? Now, this is a tunable excimer laser. It's tuned to the exact resonance of the plutonium-239 that's in the reaction vessel down at that end. Now, I think we're all set. Hit it.
See more »

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User Reviews

14 March 2002 | by rmax304823See all my reviews

There are some things man was never meant to know. Or at least high school kids. The story is interesting in its concept: smart kid builds nuclear device and is barely saved from blowing everyone to smithereens. (Vide: "War Games".) Its execution however makes one squirm with discomfort rather than suspense. First, the acting isn't bad. John Lithgow is especially effective in his scenes with Jill Eikenberry -- a genuinely nice guy just trying to get along. The rest of the performances are adequate. But the character played by Christopher Collett is truly abrasive.

His scientific intellect is honed to a razor edge, as we find out near the beginning when he arranges a small explosion in the lab drawer of a fellow student who is his rival in science class. Hilarious. His smugness is almost unbearable. And science is about all he's good at. He realizes that Lithgow is "hitting on my mom" (innocently enough) and resents him for it. He doesn't seem to know what an Oedipus complex is. He hasn't heard of Woodward and Bernstein. He asks, "Who's Anne Frank?", and isn't being rhetorical.

Worst of all, he doesn't really care about his non-scientific ignorance. He's only a few steps removed from the maniac in "Pi." The plot is simply unbelievable. He may be extremely clever but unless he has some sort of PSI power as well, he could not disarm the alarm system in two shakes of a lamb's tail -- let alone unfailingly operate the complex robotic systems in the laboratory. And without so much as a previous glance at it, he knows that the inner wall of the lab can be cut with a pen knife, and he knows just where to cut it too. He may be superhuman as well.

Radioactive plutonium is still radioactive, even without having reached critical mass, isn't it? And although rubber gloves may stop larger particles like protons, they don't provide much protection against gamma rays, do they? I may be wrong, but at least I'm willing to admit my ignorance, which is more than this egocentric showoff is able to do.

The first time I saw this movie it was fascinating, especially the first half, not the last part, which deteriorates into a familiar pattern. But I saw it again recently and found it more irritating than anything else, because of Collett's character and because the plot was so full of holes. At least I HOPE it was full of holes. If it were so easy to throw together a nuclear weapon occupying a space the size of a trombone case, and to do so in only a few weeks, I'd hate to think of what might happen if some religious fundamentalist antimodernization Ludditic cryptolunatic saw the movie and it gave him ideas.

The ending is a heart-warming development in which Lithgow, decides the fight the military and declares, "No more secrets", and throw open the gates to the college kids cheering outside. Right.

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