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On April 17, 1987, 20th Century Fox unveiled the Matthew Broderick military action film Project X in theaters. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
If you slumbered off early on a Sunday night and woke up to find Project X on the TV screen, you wouldn’t know if you were watching 60 Minutes or “Disney.” A combination of exposé on Air Force experiments with chimpanzees and cuddly pet story, Project X should fly high as family entertainment.
WarGames creators Walter Parkes and Lawrence Lasker have once again tapped Matthew Broderick for the lead role, this time as a young Air Force pilot who’s constantly screwing up. Relegated to an Air Force weapons research center in Florida after his latest infraction, Broderick finds himself teaching chimps to fly simulated aircraft.
It’s all very top secret, and Broderick, with no security clearance, doesn’t have a clue to the actual thrust of training a bunch of chimps to fly. One particular chimp who’s been trained to communicate at the University of Wisconsin’s Primate Research Center makes a quick friend of Broderick. But the upper brass, including the doctor in charge of the project (Bill Sadler), are strangely opposed to utilizing this chimp’s special, human-like skills.
It’s all pretty spooky and suspicious to the inquisitive Broderick, especially cryptic references to the “Bavarian Room” where chimps are led off upon completion of their “training.” All the while, Broderick becomes more attached to Virgil, the sign-language communicating chimp, and even makes a covert call to Wisconsin, ringing up Virgil’s graduate student trainer (Helen Hunt) and alerting her that Virgil may be in big danger with the Air Force.
From here on out in Stanley Weiser’s screenplay, Project X locks into a Save The Chimps mode. While it is an engaging and credible premise, those who expected WarGames-style stakes in this production are likely to be disappointed. The Air Force, for one, will probably be secretly relieved by this less-than-lethal exposé. Nevertheless, Project X‘s story is an involving one, especially because the chimps themselves are so attractive and so vulnerable.
Undeniably, the best thing about X is the chimps. As we’re constantly told in X, these highly intelligent primates are as close to man as you can get, and we come to know and like them. Unlike several other characters in the film, namely the stereotypical Air Force high command, the 11 chimps in X all have particular personalities and skills. They’re funny, smart, cantankerous, sweet and aggressive. When acting coaches are driveling on about ensemble performances, they should screen these chimps for their students. A big medal with ribbon attached goes to director Jonathan Kaplan for making this all happen.
The non-chimp highlight performance is Matthew Broderick’s. As he’s so ably done before, Broderick brings an array of different layers to his character, convincingly and winningly coalescing theme for the necessary climax. Among the supporting players, Stephen Lang as a widely-read but unraveling project leader gets distinguished honors.
Also deserving commendation is the functional and harsh production design of Lawrence G. Paull, instilling an institutional horror to X. — Duane Byrge, originally published on April 10, 1987
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