Wednesday, December 28, 2022

#2,886. Project X (1987) - Jonathan Kaplan Triple Feature


In a 1987 interview, Helen Hunt was asked what it was like working a “natural scene stealer” like Willie, a 3-year-old chimpanzee and her primary co-star in Jonathan Kaplan’s Project X. After saying she doesn’t really think about it, and just does the best work she possibly can, Hunt conceded “To a certain extent, that’s going to happen because we’ve all seen more blondes than we have chimps on the screen”.

She’s absolutely right, because as good as Hunt, Matthew Broderick, William Sadler and the remainder of the cast is in Project X, it’s the chimps who steal the show.

Hunt plays Teri MacDonald, a University of Wisconsin grad student who, for her thesis, is attempting to prove that chimpanzees can communicate with sign language. After only a few months working with her test subject, Virgil (played by Willie), she has a breakthrough, and the two are communicating freely. That is, until Teri’s funding is cut off, at which point the University informs her Virgil is om his way to a children’s zoo in Houston.

But that’s not the case. Instead, the clever chimp is shipped off to an Air Force base in Florida, where, teamed with troublemaking Airman Jimmy Garrett (Broderick), Virgil becomes one of many test subjects. The program, headed up by Dr. Carroll (William Sadler), uses flight simulators to determine if chimps can be trained to fly, and, if so, how they perform under certain conditions.

It isn’t long before Jimmy realizes there is something special about Virgil, and that an Air Force research facility is no place for such a gifted chimp, especially once he learns what happens when a so-called gifted chimp “graduates” to the next level.

Project X is, in many ways, a standard ‘80s comedy / drama, touching all the bases story-wise that you would expect. Yet it has a few things going for it, which lift the movie a level or two above the rest. First is the fine work of its cast, both human and primate. Released in 1987, Project X caught Matthew Broderick in his cinematic prime, having already won the hearts of audiences with WarGames and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He is every bit as likable in this movie, as is Helen Hunt as the dedicated scientist who comes to love her test subject. On the other side of the coin is William Sadler as the cold, calculating military scientist whose experiments have one natural conclusion.

Then there are the chimps, led by Willie, whose Virgil is, without question, the film’s most endearing character. We follow Virgil on his entire journey, from being captured in the wild to his time with Teri, straight through to Jimmy and the Air Force. As such, we already know how gifted Virgil is, and part of the fun is watching Jimmy figure it out as well. There are other chimps in the film, each with their own distinct personality, and we find ourselves rooting for them as much as we do Teri and Jimmy.

All leading up to the film’s final act. Based on the general tone throughout, you can pretty much guess what kind of ending Project X is going to have, yet the journey there is chock full of surprises, moments I would never have predicted, including an ending so outlandish that you could only find it in a Hollywood movie.

But then Project X is a Hollywood movie, and because we like the characters, it wins us over, no matter how over-the-top or unlikely it’s grand finale might be. I knew it was ludicrous, but I was smiling anyway.
Rating: 8 out of 10

1 comment:

Joel G, Robertson said...

I haven't seen this in years (make that decades!), but I absolutely loved it when I was younger. Great review, as always, Doc! :)