“So I’m the new ‘Lord of the Apes’?”: ‘Project X’ Review
During the opening sequence of Project X, the film assures us that what we are about to experience is based on actual experiments that the Air Force conducted and that’s part of what makes Jonathan Kaplan’s 1987 sci-fi drama such a fascinating entry into the genre.
Divided into two sections, Kaplan’s film starts out with graduate student Teri MacDonald (Helen Hunt) training a chimpanzee named Virgil how to use sign language. After she’s told that she has to get rid of the chimpanzee, USAF airman Jimmy Garrett (Matthew Broderick) is assigned to a project that might be a lot more complicated than top secret.
What is fascinating about Project X is how it uses its science fiction to discuss ideas about authority, animal abuse and of course, experimentation. Science and animal experimentation have always crossed in the science fiction genre but Project X feels like a precursor to the rebooted Planet of the Apes series, in more ways than one. While the original Planet series dealt with social topics of the time, Project X and Rise of the Planet of the Apes instead take on the nature of the medical and scientific treatment of animals.
While Broderick and Hunt deliver utterly solid performances and each of them does a great job of making the bond between their characters with Virgil believable, the real breakout star of the film is Virgil, himself. Brought to life in an amazing performance by Willie the chimpanzee, Virgil is a wonderfully sympathetic and complex character that goes from a chimp learning sign language to using that tool to his advantage to become somewhat of a leader during his time at the research facility. Without a doubt, the biggest character comparison to Virgil is Caesar in the rebooted Apes series, to the point that both films actually use sign language as the major form of communication for the apes.
One of the most interesting aspects about Project X is how much talent there is behind and in front of the scenes. Not only is Dean Cundey (legendary cinematographer known for his work with John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg) the DP of the film but acclaimed composer James Horner the man behind the wonderfully adventurous score (funny enough, at times the score has shades of his scores for Aliens, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Cocoon); which definitely manages to feel both mysterious and awe-inspiring.
Without spoiling its surprising third act, Project X manages to throw a few curve balls at the audiences and in the process deliver a great character arc for its lead protagonist (I won’t say whether that’s human or animal). With an incredible supporting cast that also includes William Sadler, Jean Smart, and Stephen Lang, Project X is a charming and smart science fiction film that uses its science to address concerns about the way that we treat animals.
It might not be as groundbreaking as other films in the genre or a certain franchise that deals with intelligent apes but Project X is entertaining, fun and has one of the animal performances put on film.