What happens when a teen-age science project is an A-bomb

``The Manhattan Project'' has little to do with Manhattan or with its namesake, the 1940s project that produced the first atomic bomb. Yet it's not a bad title for the best science-fiction movie so far this summer, which deals with a different kind of ``first'' in the A-bomb field: the building of a homemade nuclear device by a high-school kid with time on his hands. One of his motives is to protest a secret nuclear-research facility that's operating in his neighborhood. Another is to take first prize in a big New York science fair and show the teachers back home who the smart one is.

It may fairly be asked why we need another teen-age science-fiction movie in the wake of last summer's barrage, which glutted the market with titles like ``Weird Science'' and ``My Science Project,'' among countless others.

We don't, of course. But unlike most of its cousins, ``The Manhattan Project'' plugs into a couple of real and timely issues -- including the question of if, when, and where somebody will latch onto some plutonium and put together a bomb for reasons less benign than our Hollywood hero's.

His name is Paul, and building a bomb is the farthest thing from his mind. But his mother strikes up a friendship with a new neighbor named John, who supposedly does research in the medical field. Eager to score points with Paul's mother -- and to show off his lasers to anyone who'll look -- John offers a guided tour of his lab, which is really a front for a military-backed nuclear experiment.

It turns out that Paul knows a bin of plutonium when he sees it and resents not being in on the secret. Prodded by his politically minded girlfriend, he decides to spill the beans on the operation in the most dramatic way he can think of. Next thing you know, the United States, the Soviet Union, and other members of the ``nuclear club'' have a new peer. And he's only 17 years old.

What makes ``The Manhattan Project'' stand out visually is the care that Marshall Brickman, the writer and director, has lavished on its most important details. Every location looks just right, be it a lab or a living room, and the plot moves through its twists and turns at a pace that never lags or hurries.

Another big plus is the high level of just about every performance, including the major ones of Christopher Collet as Paul the high-schooler, John Lithgow as John the sneaky savant, Jill Eikenberry as Paul's mother, and Cynthia Nixon as his accomplice in the plutonium heist and its aftermath.

This said, it's also true that ``The Manhattan Project'' falls into traps that might have been avoided if Brickman had stressed the essentials of the story more and not dragged in extra angles to please every possible audience.

The romantic subplots, for example, are halfheartedly written and just barely thumbtacked onto the rest of the movie. Paul's plutonium robbery is colorful but makes no sense on a realistic level -- it's like watching ``Lord of the Rings'' magic as he manipulates a buildingful of super-tech gadgetry into serving his wishes. Although the climax is suspenseful part of the way, it bogs down in an indecisive standoff between nuclear-armed Paul and a military mob that wants to rub him out.

The screenplay is full of gender stereotypes, moreover, with the men getting to be scientists and soldiers while the women dabble in everyday jobs like real estate and reporting. And the picture takes too long before buckling down to its most interesting theme: the conflict between ``pure'' scientific curiosity and its practical consequences in a world dominated by us-against-them attitudes.

Brickman and his colleagues deserve credit, on the other hand, for bringing in such a theme at all, especially in a general-interest movie aimed at the summertime blockbuster market. ``The Manhattan Project'' raises valid warnings about military secrecy and nuclear proliferation, among other matters, and even shows an acute sense of psychology when it recognizes that young Paul is motivated as much by high spirits as by a rebellious (much less, subversive) nature.

This isn't the movie of the year, or even of the month, perhaps. But it's the closest Hollywood has come since ``WarGames'' to charging a big-budget fantasy with useful and provocative ideas.

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