Friday, April 13, 2012

Project X Movie Review: 25 Years Ago This Month

Where have all the social message movies gone? As I plumb through the films of 25 years ago I continually come up against movies that speak to the socio-historical context of the time. Many of these movies have an agenda. Maybe it’s a lack of hindsight, but I don’t see the same type of issues movies coming from the studios nowadays. More than likely the answer is to be found in the fact that the message movies have always been few and far between, but they are more likely to stand the test of time and be remembered years later.

Jonathan Kaplan’s Project X deals with the issue of animal welfare in the context of the military industrial complex at the tail end of the Cold War. It’s a real do-gooder of a movie that wants to portray the government and especially the military as cold and unsparing as you move further up the chain of command. The top officers and bureaucrats are viewed as calculating and rather inhuman while the enlisted men, serving as surrogates for the average viewer, are compassionate while they follow orders.

Matthew Broderick, in his first attempt at a more serious role, plays Jimmy Garrett, an Air Force airman who gets reassigned to a special research project after an infraction that, it seems to me, would have gotten most anyone discharged from the military in the blink of an eye. That he took a girl up for a flight in an Air Force plane establishes Jimmy as an insubordinate. He’s someone prone to disobeying orders. Jimmy is only a small step away from Broderick’s immortal Ferris Bueller, that high school student who went AWOL and made his school principal look like an ass.

Jimmy is assigned to a pilot training program involving chimpanzees, one of whom has been sent accidentally from a university research facility that lost its funding. That chimp’s name is Virgil and has been trained in sign language by Teri (Helen Hunt) in a prologue that garner’s the audience’s sympathy for the chimp. Jimmy’s initial job is basically cleaning up after the apes and taking them to their flying lessons, but he recognizes that they have individual personalities and gives them all names to match. One thing I noticed is how the chimps’ behavior is so similar to that of a toddler. These apes have the intellectual capacity and cognitive abilities of an 18-month-old. I point this out because it’s a surefire way to make the audience (especially parents) connect with the apes as characters. We watch and wonder how anyone could possibly use chimps for such a callous and inhumane experiment.

The film’s point of view is mostly from Jimmy’s perspective and like him, we don’t know exactly what the chimps are preparing for. When Jimmy receives a promotion and then discovers upon his first trip with a chimp down the long hallway to the flight chamber, he’s as shocked as we are. Perhaps in Cold War 1987, most mature audience members would have guessed well before this scene what the fate of these chimps was. Anyway, it’s a bit unbelievable that Jimmy is sent in to that situation without being briefed ahead of time.

The head of the project is a Dr. Carroll (William Sadler), who comes across first as a typical bureaucrat who is unwilling to listen. He doesn’t care in the least that Jimmy has witnessed Virgil communicating with sign language nor does he think it’s significant. He brushes it off as if the chimp is little more than a circus-trained animal. But Jane Goodall had already done the majority of her research by this time. It was already well established that chimps could learn sign language and that they had feelings similar to humans. Dr. Carroll would most certainly have been aware of that fact, especially considering his involvement in a project that uses the animals.

The screenplay by Stanley Weiser from a story by him and Lawrence Lasker (who wrote the undervalued WarGames) is generally smart and maintains a good flow. It engenders one of my favorite traits of Hollywood films prior to about 1990 – there’s little to no unnecessary fat and filler in the story. It is presents only what is essential to the story and keeps the running time below two hours. The writing doesn’t resort to false sentimentality or cue the audience how to feel. That job is left to James Horner, whose score is at times haunting and at others plaintive and moving. It’s the direct forerunner to his Titanic score, but also incorporates themes used in Aliens.

It’s director Jonathan Kaplan who pushes the ham-handedness, especially in the third act. He sprinkles little stylistic camera devices throughout the film: the occasional tilted angle or chimp point of view shot that don’t really fit with the visual composition of the rest of the film. Then in the end when the chimps manage to escape from their cages and wreak havoc on the lab the move goes a little off the rails. Kaplan’s direction treats it as goofy comedy, a severe departure from the more serious tone that comes before. The film then closes with a sequence so preposterous it threatens to derail the entire story.

Project X could be regarded as a minor success. It hasn’t really lived on as evidenced by the recent release of a film with an identical title but a story that could hardly be more distant. But it sits on the shelf of history as an example of a studio film that didn’t pander to the audience and relied on good acting. Broderick always was a charismatic actor. But even the secondary roles like Hunt and Sadler are believable. There are no cardboard one-dimensional villains like Stephen Lang in Avatar, which I mention only because he has a small role in this film. It’s worth seeking out as a break from the horrors of today’s Hollywood.

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