Project X

March 17, 2011

Project X shapes up as one of springtime’s probable movie hits: it has all the clean efficiency of WarGames or last summer’s unjustly neglected The Manhattan Project.

Project X shares with those films a thriller format in which the plot turns on a super-secret government project (with a whiff of nuclear disaster). Naturally, I can’t reveal much more—why do you think they call it “Project X”?—but I can say that this project involves apes.

Chimpanzees, to be precise. We follow the story of one bright chimp in particular, a simian who goes by the name Virgil. Virgil is trained at a university program by a graduate student (Helen Hunt) and reaches an advanced capability with sign language and conceptual thinking. But eventually that program ends, and Virgil is carted off to a military base in Florida.

Seems he’s been drafted to participate in a government test, along with a few dozen other apes. The test requires chimps to train on flight simulators, so they might, uh, ape the behavior of human pilots under severe conditions.

The exact nature of those severe conditions is not revealed until late in the film. But it’s something that gives pause to Virgil’s trainer and pal (Matthew Broderick), a would-be Air Force pilot who’s been busted down to monkey duty because of some lapses in military etiquette. (He got caught with a girl in a plane during an unauthorized night flight.) The swift-moving second half of the film has Broderick bucking his superiors and getting Virgil out of a very hairy situation.

Stanley Weiser’s script takes some rather long leaps in plausibility, especially during the climax. But director Jonathan Kaplan manages to make the whole film so inventively entertaining, you may well be sold on it by the time the ending rolls around.

Kaplan is one of these filmmakers who has busied himself on the fringes of the mainstream for years now, often doing interesting low-budget work. Finally Heart Like a Wheel gained him cult status (and critical acclaim). This is his first at-bat with big-league material, and it surely won’t be the last.

Kaplan mounts a couple of genuinely exciting suspense sequences (and a very disturbing one when Broderick finally learns the true nature of the “testing”). He’s got a crisp, uncluttered approach, so that you always know what’s going on. And he know to take time out for quieter moments; the wordess prologue shows little Virgil in his African home, before he’s bundled up by hunters. The chimps spots a bird, and expresses a yearning to fly, which will eventually lead to his talent in the training center.

Inevitably, there are a few too many shots of chimps acting cute. This, of course, is the standard drawback with animal movies. But Kaplan has fewer of them than usual, and even Matthew Broderick doesn’t act cute. Those are two solid achievements, and the rest of the film isn’t bad either.

First published in the Herald, April 1987

This is the movie Broderick made after Ferris Bueller and while on top of the bankability world. What a strange choice. Kaplan, who came up through the Roger Corman ranks, always had a good touch; he came to Seattle when Heart Like a Wheel was re-launched and re-discovered in part by future Big Lebowski life model Jeff Dowd—this was at a moment when Seattle was the place where indie movies (before they were called that) could be nurtured and given a fresh start.

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