Monday, September 1, 2008

The All American Teen Genius

One of the great sub genres of 80's teen flicks was the teen genius movie.


In a multitude of films released during the decade we were introduced to a series of kids who could outwit any parent, teacher, and government agency with their smarts, last minute ideas, and clever (if perhaps doubtful) use of technology. Many of these films such as "Real Genius" and "Weird Science" used the concept for laughs, but few of them managed to use the dynamics of this genre for compelling story telling.

Two of the smartest and most successful examples of this genre are the lesser known "The Manhattan Project" and the classic "WarGames".

"WarGames" benefits immensely from the great dynamic and charm between its two teen heroes: David, played by Matthew Broderick, and Jennifer, played by Ally Sheedy.
Roger Ebert even hailed the film as one of the best movies of the year during its original theatrical release in 1983. The impressive supporting cast includes Dabney Coleman, John Wood, and Barry Corbin. In the film Broderick's character of David is a high school hacker who is trying to download the latest video games before their release to the public. Unbeknownst to him he ends up hacking into a military supercomputer which could trigger nuclear war.


The film boasts a great orchestral/electro pop infused score by one of the most promising film composers of the 80's Arthur B. Rubinstein (Blue Thunder, Stakeout, Amazing Stories).
Arthur B. and director John Badham collaborated on a great deal of memorable projects during the decade.

Last month to celebrate the release of the "WarGames" 25th Anniversary DVD and its direct to video re-imagining ("WarGames: The Dead Code") fanthom events organized a one night only theatrical presentation of the original classic in multiple screens across the country.

It's amazing to see how well the film holds up regardless of what sometimes feels like ancient technology. The 80's are not that far behind, but we have come quite far in terms of technological advancement over the last 25 years. What makes the film work brilliantly is that it never truly focuses on just its technology, the heart of the picture lies in its two main characters and what they both believe in.

The film manages to be both quirky and thrilling.
One of the best scenes in the film features both David and Jennifer contemplating what might very well be the end of their lives in a poignant exchange where David states to Jennifer how he has just realized there may not be a tomorrow through the simple and effective use of the line "I never learned to swim". This scene was actually written by Tom Mankewicz (1978's "Superman", "Ladyhawke", and various Bond films ) who was asked by Badham to help out the night before the scene was set to shoot.

The connection that develops in the third act between the two young heroes who have so much to live for and the old reclusive Dr. Faulken (John Wood), creator of the WarGames program who has lost his son, and alone without a family can easily accept the end of all life is still very powerful stuff for an 80's teen movie.


The new anniversary edition DVD has some great special features including a retrospective documentary where Broderick, Sheedy, and director John Badham retell the story of how the film was taken away from it's original director Martin Brest two weeks into principal photography and how Badham -- who was offered the director's chair halted production so he could concentrate on restructuring some of the elements that bothered him and the producers.
Martin Brest went on to direct "Beverly Hills Cop" immediately after being fired from "WarGames" and that film's success turned him into one of the most sought after young filmmakers of the decade.

"WarGames" is still a crowd pleaser and the benchmark for all teen adventure flicks.
If you haven't seen it in a while pick up the 25th Anniversary Edition DVD. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

In 1986, just a few years after "WarGames", came a surprise turn from writer director Marshall Brickman with the release of "The Manhattan Project".


Brickman was well known as the writer of many hit comedies from Woody Allen. He won the Academy Award in 1978 for "Annie Hall". Having someone of his pedigree take a crack at this genre produced some refreshing results.

The Manhattan Project tells the tale of Paul -- a high schooler played by Christopher Collet, who discovers a nuclear weapons facility in his home town, operating under the guise of a pharmaceuticals company.


The film works perfectly as a thriller, featuring a great cat and mouse game as the bright teen steals some plutonium from the top secret facility just to prove he can build a nuclear bomb as his science project. The film features Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon in an early role as the object of his teen affection and Frasier's John Mahoney as one of the military officers who's after Paul.


As the plot thickens our young heroes realize they must do whatever it takes to stop the construction of any more nuclear devices by using their homemade bomb to get the attention of the authorities.

One of the high points in the film also comes from the relationship that develops between the teen leads and the adult figure, in this case John Lithgow's Dr. Matthewson, who in the film's third act joins the young heroes on their mission to expose the secrets of the nuclear weapons facility.
The film is skilfully directed and also features a stirring score from french composer Phillipe Sarde.


Released on June 13, 1986 in 827 screens "The Manhattan Project" went on to gross a measly 3 million dollars and is sadly not as remembered today.

The new DVD edition released by Lions Gate includes two featurettes where director Marshall Brickman sheds some light on his thoughts about the story and what drove him to write something so different from his previous works.

If you have never seen it before this special edition DVD presentation is your best bet at discovering this rare 80's gem.

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