Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Project X

One of the few movies currently in the FXM Retro rotation that I haven't blogged about before is Project X. I was able to record it from my shiny new YoutubeTV account, and since it's on again tomorrow (Mar. 29) at 1:10 PM, I decided to watch it now to do a post on.

The movie opens with a brief establishing scene of a bunch of monkeys being captured in Africa, to be sent to the US for various forms of scientific research. One of the monkeys, eventually named Virgil, is sent to the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin, where Teri MacDonald (Helen Hunt) is a graduate student studying the teaching of sign language to chimpanzees, which is why she needs a chimp like Virgil.

Teri is a dedicated researcher, and does a good job in the first year that she has custody of Virgil. However, Virgil isn't hers; he still belongs legally to the National Science Foundation. And they only dole out such research animals on a one year at a time grant. So at the end of one year, they inform Teri that as she's got enough empirical results for her dissertation, the NSF will not be renewing her grant and they will be taking back Virgil. Teri rather naively believes it when she's told by her thesis advisor that Virgil will most likely be going to a zoo.

The next shot is of an air force base in Florida bordering the Everglades, so it's fairly obvious that Virgil was not in fact sent to a zoo. Among the people stationed at the base is Airman Jimmy Garrett (Matthew Broderick). He's the son of a man who was a very good and well-remembered pilot for the USAF, now deceased, which is how Jimmy got pushed into the Air Force. But Jimmy himself isn't well suited to the military. He's already been drummed out of the Air Force Academy, and now he's in trouble for taking his girlfriend up in one of the planes.

Instead of giving Garrett a dishonorable discharge, his superiors order him to a restricted facility on site that's doing research. As you can probably guess, that facility is involving the chimpanzees. Specifically, they're looking to see what sort of extreme situations the chimps are able to endure during flight, situations that human pilots are going to have to face in case there's a nuclear war. (The movie was released in 1987, before the demise of the Soviet Union.) Virgil is one of the chimpanzees in the experiment, and unsurprisingly Jimmy spots Virgil's intelligence and takes to Virgil fairly quickly.

It's not, however, until Jimmy sees a PSA on TV that has a sign-language interpreter on it that he realizes Virgil has to ability to understand some sort of sign language. He gets a copy of The Joy of Signing to figure out what Virgil is trying to tell him. As it turns out, Jimmy doesn't have much time. He learns that one of the experiments is for the brass to figure out how much radiation pilots will be able to take if they have to fly over a nuclear explosion. It would obviously be unethical to subject human pilots to this, and who would want to waste trained pilots on it. Chimpanzees, however? The military has no compunction about that.

By now, Jimmy has learned that Virgil had been taught up at the University of Wisconsin, and has made an anonymous call to Teri, which is a dangerous thing to do since the project he's assigned to is top secret. Teri compounds the problem by flying down to Florida to try to find the man who informed her about Virgil. Needless to say, Teri does find Jimmy, and the two of them have to try to save the chimpanzees.

As I said earlier, Project X was released back in 1987, so well before September 11, 2001, and squarely in the era when it was not uncommon for Hollywood to make conspiracy theory movies in which the government was the bad guy. So there's a lot in Project X that's fairly unsubtle. There's also a lot that's fairly far-fetched. Broderick and Hunt are both appealing, and do the best they can with the material, but in the end the material doesn't give them much help. Project X isn't exactly a bad movie, but it definitely doesn't rise much above mediocre.

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