Project X (1987)

In the 1987 movie “Project X,” Helen Hunt stars as Teri, a graduate student at a prestigious university. Her thesis project revolves around teaching sign language to a chimpanzee she affectionately names Virgil. He’s a sweet little chimp with a sense of humor, and she’s very attached to him, but when her project doesn’t merit more funding, she has to give him up. She doesn’t have the money to purchase him or to care for him. It breaks her heart, but she agrees to send him to a zoo.

Meanwhile, Airman Jimmy Garrett (Matthew Broderick) has gotten in trouble with his commanding officers yet again. He stole a plane so he could take a girl on a spectacular date, and because of that, he’s close to being thrown out of the Air Force. He’s given an alternative – he can go work with a pilot training program. It’s that or he’s out. He takes the assignment, not knowing that his job will be to train chimps to fly, not humans.

He dislikes the idea at first, but is soon very attached to all the chimps. He’s intrigued by one chimp in particular, who seems very intelligent. He learns by reading the name on the bottom of one of the chimp’s toys that his name is Virgil, and he discovers that Virgil knows sign language.

Jimmy does so well with the chimps that he’s given a promotion and is asked to take one of the chimps down the hall to the next level of training. What he sees there will change his life forever. The doctor in charge puts the chimp into a simulated plane, and then irradiates the chimp to see how long he can keep “flying” at what dose of radiation. In each situation, the chimp dies. Jimmy had no idea what he was training these chimps for, and he’s sickened. He hunts down Virgil’s previous owner, Teri, and tells her that Virgil isn’t in a zoo – he’s on the Air Force base. What follows is an amazing rescue that is carried out by the chimps themselves.

Children would love this movie up until the point where Jimmy takes the chimp down the hall, but from there on out, it wouldn’t be suitable for them (for animal cruelty). I say, watch the first part of the movie with them and then finish it after they’re tucked in bed.

Two things struck me about this film – first, the chimps were trained so well and seemed to have great relationships with the human actors. Secondly, there’s a note at the beginning of the film that states this type of testing has been going on for years. That really made me think.

This PG-rated movie is definitely going on my list of favorites for this year.

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