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.