The 1987 film Project X (not to be confused with this year’s raunchy, over-the-top party comedy of the same name) is a strange but charming little oddity of a movie. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, who is known for socially conscious films such as The Accused and Brokedown Palace, as well as more conventional genre fare such as Unlawful Entry and Bad Girls, Project X is a blend of these two types of filmmaking. It is a comedic science fiction movie that ultimately becomes a sort of political thriller, taking a stance against cruelty to animals in the name of science. It is also a movie for the Homer Simpson in all of us, because who doesn’t enjoy watching chimpanzees behave like human beings?
Jimmy Garrett (Matthew Broderick) is an Air Force pilot assigned to an experimental project as punishment for illegally bringing a date into the cockpit of a government plane. It turns out that the project involves using chimpanzees in simulated flight scenarios, and that one of the chimps, Virgil (Willie), knows sign language, which he was taught by his beloved trainer, Teri (Helen Hunt). Jimmy is impressed by Virgil’s abilities, but his hard-ass superior, Dr. Carroll (Bill Sadler) doesn’t seem to care. As Jimmy eventually finds out to his horror, this is because the chimps in the experiment are being killed y radiation poisoning, in an effort to determine how long a pilot could survive a nuclear exchange known as the “second-strike scenario.” Jimmy manages to contact Teri, and they team up to try and save Virgil and the other chimps who haven’t been killed yet.
The coolest thing about Project X is how much the chimps themselves become the true stars of the movie. In fact, they are listed first on the film’s IMDb page, with Broderick in a distant 11th place. They each have distinct personalities, too, like a sort of simian wild bunch, with Virgil as the leader and hero, Goofy (Okko) as the comic relief, and Goliath (Karanja) as the grizzled old bad-ass, the type of role Mickey Rourke might play in a movie entirely cast with human actors. This successfully makes the audience root for Jimmy, Teri and their primate friends over the mean old military scientist baddies, and the film’s climax is a triumphant, feel-good adventure sequence made all the more joyful by the aforementioned Homer Simpson factor.
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