Project X (1987) ***
Directed by Jonathan Kaplan. Written by Stanley Weiser. Story by Weiser. Photography, Dan Cundey. Editing, O. Nicholas Brown. Music, James Horner. Cast: Matthew Broderick (Jimmy Garrett), Helen Hunt (Teri), Bill Sadler (Dr. Carroll), Johnny Ray McGhee (Robertson) Jonathan Stark (Sergeant Krieger), Robin Gammell (Colonel Niles), Stephen Lang (Watts), Jean Smart (Dr. Criswell), et al, Producers, Walter F. Parkes, Lawrence Lasker. A 20th Century Fox film, 108 minutes, PG
This X is a PG that could entertain the entire alphabet of audiences.
It seems to be telling us that, statistically, films about apes are doing better than films about humans. In previous and recent years, there was Greystoke; The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes (1984), Link (1986) And Now Project X. Greystoke is, in my opinion, an underrated, humanistic film, hurt in part by its shortening before release. Link is a clever, witty but un-smug movie with splendid simian effects and astute cross references to other films. Because of vagaries of misdistribution it went practically unseen, but was later re-released in New York where the reviews were very good.
Project X has much appeal. So, apes now stand at a perfect score of 3 on 3 that no other movie subject can approach. Perhaps this is owed to the fact that the serious ape-movie makers are smarter, more intelligent and caring than their colleagues. In the movie, Teri, (Helen Hunt), a University of Wisconsin graduate student, has been training for three years the Africa-born chimpanzee Virgil, teaching him sign language. It's nicely done, without cuteness or gratuitous picturesqueness or laughs. Teri looks like a real student. Virgil is smart (it seems that chimps have the intelligence of a 5-year old. ) Less convincing is the fact that Teri's grant is not renewed--most universities know a good project when they see it. This arbitrariness is, of course, introduced for dramatic reasons, as Virgil is sent to a secret Air Force laboratory in Florida.
Jimmy (Matthew Broderick), a young flier with a record of messing up, is let out of military jail, assigned as a last chance to that lab, and given charge of, natch, Virgil--who, with nice parallelism is in a cage.
Inevitably it is love at third sight between the two. Broderick, at that time, came from that vast reservoir of anonymous-faced young actors. Both young and older, generic non-stars are one of the banes of world (not just American) cinema today, unlike the days when a Clark Gable could never have been taken for a Spencer Tracy or a Robert Taylor, not a Charles Boyer for a Jean Gabin.
Yet here, having Broderick play an ordinary, un-quirky fellow--and play him naturally and well--you get the paradox that his Jimmy rapidly gets personalized. The lab's hush-hush project is to teach apes to fly simulators in lieu of human pilots. Jimmy senses there's more to it than this, but, fascinated by the chimps, busies himself with Virgil, even discovers (in a clever sequence) that monkey speaks sign language.
The moment comes, though, when the X in Project X takes on its real and sinister significance. . . one that I will not reveal and spoil surprise and suspense. It is at this point that the film leaves the ground of scientific and humanistic realism and plausibility, and soars into the fantasies of Movie Space. Teri reappears, high drama, pathos, action and the simian version of Spartacus follow one another with a speed that just might, temporarily, camouflage the silliness, especially since it is entertaining silliness. The ending is happy. . . and outlandish.
The introduction of monkeyshines and shenanigans comes late enough for the movie to have already conditioned you through its leisurely, low-key, credible developments . The film-makers--the two producers were the co-writers of War Games) exercised restraint, even made a modest, valid point about Jimmy's growth and new sense of values. Both in the early and later parts, the acting by the monkeys, Jimmy and his co-workers (in that order) is very good, while the military higher-ups and scientists are ho-hum.
But the film sets a solid sense of poignancy that builds up and could carry you through the frenetic wind-up. The chimps are irresistibly interesting and entertaining. Credit the unseen studio trainers who are the real stars of the movie. Mind you, not everything is in the training. Many shots that look entirely spontaneous involve a very large amount of editing and trickery. Apes play multiple roles, reaction shots are painstakingly chosen among thousands to match whatever the apes are reacting to, and so on.
The movie does raise serious issues about the treatment of animals as guinea chimps, as well as more general questions on man-and-beast relationships. More important yet is the unstated fact of the obscenity of war, the war that underlies military research and expenditures. There's finally the equally unspoken but inescapable question of why we can teach apes but not human children?
Project X certainly will not go down in history as a great movie, but it is one of those films (much fewer than one thinks), of which one can say that they give you your money's worth in charm, fun, and sentiment while you're watching. I took quite enthusiastic notes when I saw this film again. As the days went by, I modified my notes downward, because, in retrospect, less and less of the movie stayed with me . And thinking about it, its out-and-out Hollywoodisms tended to crowd out some of its better aspects. Even so, I'm keeping it on the recommended list of above-average flicks.
Jonathan Kaplan was a low-budget film-maker until he directed the 1983 sleeper Heart Like a Wheel. He has excellent control over Project X, shows sensitivity and (too much) imagination.
Matthew Broderick, then fresh from his title role in the delightful Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), was and still is one of our most likable young (and later, youthful) actors. In particular he was a joy in Biloxi Blues (1988), impressive in Glory (1989, a howl in the relatively underrated The Freshman (1990), and a key presence in the very underrated Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) .
Constantly employed for close to thirty years, in TV (mostly) and movies, Helen Hunt is here in one of her earliest "legit" features and shows clear promise. She had to wait until As Good as it Gets (1997) for her Oscar and her Golden Globe. Production values are very good, from the difficult photography and special effects to the appropriately cold look of aseptic sets that contrast with the warmth of the chimps and their trainers. Only the music is annoyingly intrusive as it goes from strong beats of break dancing and disco to a relentless, deja heard assemblage of audience-conditioning devices. The apes' noises are much nicer.