Feb 04th: “Project X” (1987)
Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
This movie was an unplanned discovery that started with a piece of music found on an unmarked cassette tape. The cassette tape was one of my father’s. He would watch a movie, and quite often, would record the closing credit music, most of which were instrumental score that he felt particularly moved by. Naturally, there was no way of knowing, but when I listened to this cassette tape, there was a track that took me by surprise. It had drums, it had voices, and it swept across like an organic piece that left a heavy impression with me. I loved that cassette tape and would listen to it often. When I asked where the music came from, My Dad couldn’t answer. He didn’t remember. Then, it was by luck that when I picked up a batch of video tapes from the local second hand merchant in Boston, Lincolnshire, I chose Project X. Why? Well, I recognised Matthew Broderick from WarGames, and Helen Hunt looked likeable. I had no idea who she was at the time. I watched the movie and realised that after years of searching, I found out what that piece of music was from. It was the closing credits of Project X. The movie fit the music, as if it had always been there. It has been with me ever since.
It wouldn’t have been an easy sell: “a thriller about animal testing and suffering”. The idea of monkeys being used in experiments for the military, being pushed to the limits of tolerance isn’t on a wish list of movie going experiences, but then the same could be said for other difficult subject matter. In fact, the movie even goes as far as to say, in its opening title crawl, that the film was inspired by real life — the truth that there have been chimpanzees tested in an experimental pilot program, overseen by the United State air force.
Truth is however embellished for the sake of telling a good story. This is a film that fantasies with the notion of a conscience, and the actions that can be taken — even under the most unrealistic circumstances. That conscience came in the form of the lead role of Jimmy, played by the dependable, family friendly Matthew Broderick who is a flunky, disobedient pilot in the air force. As punishment for a minor offense, he is given reassignment to the animal testing facility, put in charge of monitoring the monkeys and escorting too and from their cages.
Straight away, it is clear he is not comfortable with the assignment. He eventually meets Virgil, a chimpanzee with a small alligator toy — whom was once under the charge of Teri MacDonald, who had taught Virgil sign language. Naturally Jimmy is fascinated by Virgil and eventually seeks Teri who is mad as hell for learning that Virgil had been shipped to a military facility, and not a zoo which was what she had been told.
Teri is played by Helen Hunt, and eventually learns from Jimmy that the monkeys in that facility were soon to be moving ahead to more drastic testing. The already flight ready chimpanzees would be put into a plane simulator to see how far they would continue once being exposed to fatal doses of radiation. These monkeys were being trained as kamikaze pilots, and it seems everybody in this top-secret air force program is okay about it. Naturally it only takes one to carry enough empathy to not only want to do something about it, but we are led to believe that he alone can break into every aspect of security in place: from cage to freedom.
To quote Barry Norman: “And why not.”
This isn’t supposed to be “The Great Escape” or “The Shawshank Redemption”. It’s not a movie based on reality. It’s a fable and we are free spirited enough to go along with the play. The consequences, and the risks are there, but not treated as though they exist within a realm of reality. The escape is too easy, but does that matter? It’s the principle of the escape that matters here. We go along with it.
No matter how the delivery system works, the film deals with the serious subject of animal testing head-on. The sacrifices are, for the apes, very real. Using primates as kamikaze pilots was something that touched people as much as it did for gorillas being hunted in Gorillas in the Mist. But we have become accustomed to thinking about the military as being not so much an ethical organisation, but one that exploits others in order to gain ground and win wars. It takes two morally strong relatable adults to bring down the system as they constantly have done over and over again. On comparison, Matthew Broderick may have saved the world more times than Bruce Willis, and altogether makes a mockery of an organisation that prides itself on its security, ends up having no idea how to contain an airman and a civilian.
The score is once again a masterful creation by James Horner — filled with new themes as well as the typical recycled cue that you recognise from 2001 A Space Odyssey (not hard to know why that was referenced), dramatic underscore used for Aliens and ofcourse Star Trek 2 the Wrath of Khan.
In fact, the scene where Spock dies in Star Trek 2, is pretty much the same scene that we saw in Project X — Complete with the threat of a radiation meltdown, a goodbye between safety glass, and the ultimate sacrifice that reiterates the notion: The needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few.
That is a term that is contradicted, and can be used to describe both the rescue — and controversially the reason for the experiments to be there in the first place: kills a few apes to save many a man. Their plan was to originally rescue only one chimpanzee. Virgil. But there is a moment in the movie when Teri and Jimmy realise that the will and determination of the other chimpanzees, had come to the conclusion that their lives were also worth saving. They did it on their own.
They represent the many.
The sad reality of this movie is this: the human logic did fail in terms of saving all — which was too big a feat for Teri and Jimmy, who only had it in them to rescue Virgil. Perhaps, that can be the lesson that we can take away from this. It doesn’t take a human brain to realise what can, and cannot be done.
That’s the power of self-preservation.
Written by: Stephen Radford