As Dr. Strangelove was to Fail-Safe in 1964—one a satirical take on "mutually assured destruction," the other a serious one, released by the same studio—Real Genius was to The Manhattan Project in the mid-'80s, each about a younger generation of scientists trying to thwart their elders' destructive creations. In both cases, the funny version scores a clear victory, though it's fascinating to see how the Cold War haunted these movies to a similar degree, even though they were made 20 years apart. Granted, the '80s movies were nowhere near as grave in their implications, but they provide a fascinating look at the national psyche at the time and possess a guarded optimism that smart, ethical kids could pull us back from the brink.
The irony about The Manhattan Project is that the kid in question, a smugly self-satisfied genius played by Christopher Collet, tucks all ethical concerns away until the last possible moment. Partly out of hubris, partly by acting on a weird Oedipal complex, Collet seeks to be the first private citizen to join the exclusive nuclear club. In an attempt to ingratiate himself with Collet's mother (Jill Eikenberry), government scientist John Lithgow offers to give Collet a look at a high-powered laser, but the kid immediately recognizes that Lithgow and his labmates are working with refined plutonium. For the sake of his new girlfriend (Cynthia Nixon), Collet acts like he's alarmed by the presence of a secret nuclear lab in the neighborhood, but he's really more incensed by Lithgow's condescension. So he sets about stealing some plutonium and building a weapon himself.
Though the writing gets unforgivably club-fisted and implausible toward the end, The Manhattan Project shows surprising nuance in dealing with Collet and Lithgow, who are both slow to figure out that there are limits to scientific inquiry. To an unformed conscience like Collet's, winning first prize at the state science fair is worth potentially leveling a New York City borough. Key features: A solid commentary by writer-director Marshall Brickman, an optional text track of '80s trivia, and two superficial making-of documentaries.