Project X

Project X. Parkes-Lasker Productions 1987.
Project X. Parkes-Lasker Productions 1987.

Before watching the movie:

I’m trying not to think of this movie as The Barefoot Executive meets Short Circuit with a bit of War Games. Although a military experiment is trying to escape from the military, not every story about chimps with uncanny abilities and a young friend is going to be the farce “Executive” was. This is listed as a drama. So I think I know much more about this movie than I really do.

I wish I’d found this one before the more recent Project X of no relation came out. I similarly know everything and nothing about that one too, but I’m pretty sure they intended it that way.

After watching the movie:

Virgil is a young chimp taken from the wild to be trained to use sign language by grad student Teri MacDonald. After a year of training, Teri’s federal grant is not renewed, and Virgil is taken away from her. Jimmy Garrett is an Air Force pilot grounded for being found taking a date on a joyride in an Air Force plane and assigned to a secret experimental facility training chimps to operate flight simulators. His assigned “test candidate” has a toy alligator with “VIRGIL” written on it, and makes a lot of peculiar hand motions, which Jimmy soon figures out is communication. He quickly bonds with Virgil and becomes an expert at handling pretty much all of the chimps, earning himself a promotion, which gives him access to what they do to the chimps that have “graduated” from the training: experiments in how long a pilot can fly after being exposed to lethal atom bomb radiation. Unsure of what to do to save his friend, he looks in the files and calls another friend of Virgil’s.

The first thing that comes to my mind about this movie is the pacing. Helen Hunt gets billed as a lead, but she’s in the story for only about the first ten minutes and the last 15. Those first ten minutes I spent wondering where Matthew Broderick was. I wonder how well it would have worked to show most of Virgil’s training in flashbacks seeded throughout the first two acts. On the other hand, I do know that I’m probably overinclined to re-seed characters that are coming back but not necessary yet.

I only tag human actors because tags are for searching and animals don’t get distinctive names, but the end titles credit the chimp performers above the humans, with good reason. The entire movie rests on the chimpanzees’ performances as coached by their trainers, performed by the apes, and interpreted through the editing and Matthew Broderick’s lines. In full combination, the end result is some impressive emoting and tricky behaviors done by the chimps.

I liked the flight simulators they had. The training ones were basically just a seat, some controls, and a tube television mounted on a gimbal, but they were still better than what most people can put together at home. The experiment simulator was much nicer though, with a full mini plane fuselage and giant forward projector. I wouldn’t mind having one of those. Except, you know, without the irradiator attachment.


Watch this movie: and see cute chimps, cool tech, and evil science.

Don’t watch this movie: for an award-winning performance from Helen Hunt, or because you’ve mistaken it for the one with producers in common with The Hangover.

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