By Christopher Campbell | Spout July 7, 2011 at 10:33AM
James Marsh's new documentary, "Project Nim," is based on a true story. So is the 1987 feature "Project X." But in spite of their similarity in plot -- a chimpanzee is taught American sign language as part of a university study and then later winds up in a horrible government testing facility -- their origins are not common. I'll get to their respective source materials in a moment, but first I'll admit to being reminded of the 24-year-old Matthew Broderick vehicle while watching "Nim." It had been a long time since I'd seen "X," though, so I revisited the movie this week on the eve of the doc's release. The differences came through far more remarkably than its parallels. And those differences are interesting enough to think about from the perspective of someone who loved the feature as a kid and now loves the doc, because it's actually quite difficult to be a fan of both.
Or, maybe you can be a fan of both movies but you can't be a fan of what each says about chimps and the treatment of them. Surely anyone interested in merely seeing "monkeys" in clothes or flying airplanes or smoking pot is going to enjoy base aspects of either, and those same people and others will be saddened by things that happen to both the fictional and the real chimps. But that's the only equal ground the films have. In "X," Helen Hunt doesn't let Virgil "explore" her body the way Stephanie LaFarge confesses to with Nim (at least not on screen), but in a number of ways it's as bad for animal rights as the fact-based Air Force experiments being conducted on them in the film.
I can't find any evidence that "Project X" producers Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes (who came up with the film's basic story) or hired screenwriter Stanley Weiser were at all inspired by the famous story of Nim Chimpsky. The true events their film is loosely based on involve the U.S. Air Force's employment of rhesus monkeys from India for tests of radiation effects on pilots. Understandably for Hollywood entertainment purposes, the monkeys were rewritten as chimps, because the latter are more human-like (and of course look cuter in jumpsuits). Also, I figure, because while rhesus monkeys and chimps have both piloted air and space craft, only chimps are known for their ASL educations. If any monkeys have learned sign language at all, I'm unaware of them.
As for "Nim," it's a documentary, based on the true story it shows us, of course. But although it's unscripted and the narrative plays out through the filmed testimonials of its subjects, the doc is credited as being adapted from the book "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human," written by journalist Elizabeth Hess. Marsh has mentioned in interviews that he was drawn to the material, just as he was to "Man on Wire," because it was a story you wouldn't believe were it fiction. Perhaps, but I accepted the plausibility of "Project X" as a kid, at least more than the Spielberg stuff it now seems in line with. Virgil is like an Earth-born "E.T." and late in the movie, when all the chimps get loose and mess up the science labs and the rest of the facilities, it's VERY reminiscent of "Gremlins."
The problem with "Project X" is that it keeps trying to satisfy that audience that has come for playful and anthropomorphic elements over any real message. At least Spielberg tended to work with non-animal aliens and monsters so it's never really been an issue. "Project X," directed by Jonathan Kaplan, even features an excruciatingly sappy sequence where we follow Virgil's POV through the complex as he discovers a fallen friend in the morgue (why a lethally radiated chimp is out in the open, is one of the film's logistic holes, I think). Unfortunately, this scene goes against Broderick's speech later on about how these experiments are useless since chimps don't comprehend what's happening to them. So then why are we being made to experience things as Virgil does and therefore project our own brains onto what he's seeing?
Where the point of "X" is that chimps are like humans (again, never mind Broderick's speech at the end, which apparently was applied in reality with the rhesus monkeys) and so shouldn't be treated like animals, the point of "Nim" is that chimps aren't enough like humans for them to be made to do human things and left to such projections of humanity. In the drama, Broderick argues that Virgil really is communicating and not simply conditioned to mimic certain trained actions that get him what he wants, while in the doc, Nim is ultimately understood to be doing the opposite, not able to use language creatively, only customarily.
One enormous yet notable difference between "X" and "Nim" regards the making of these films. According to the book "Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees," by Dale Peterson and Jane Goodall, the chimps employed in the drama were all real animals and were trained to act their parts. For this, trainers were allegedly quite brutal to the apes, beating them with clubs and blackjacks, hitting them and kicking them. This was all publicized initially by animal rights activist Bob Barker (of "The Price is Right"), though he later reported different findings (note: the "X" chimps were later retired to a sanctuary in Texas).
Even without the violence, however, the mere act of employing real animals for a film that kind of wants to be against exploiting animals is hypocritical. It also reminded me of an issue I meant to ask Marsh about when interviewing him about "Nim." I had been curious about the reenactment scenes in the documentary, which features dramatized flashbacks of Nim being taken from his mother. That similarly would appear to be antithetical to what the doc is arguing, that chimps shouldn't even be removed from the wild in the first place as performers. So how did Marsh get away with this? I may have found my answer in the film's press kit: the animals in the reenactment scenes aren't real. They're animatronic puppets choreographed by none other than Peter Elliott, who has famously done similar work with puppets and costumed actors (including himself) for "Gorillas in the Mist," "Congo," "Buddy" and even "The Mighty Boosh." Update: there's actually a behind-the-scenes video showing Elliott in the animatronic ape suit used for "Nim":
I will question what the credit "Animals Supplied by William Berloni Theatrical Animals, Inc." refers to, then, in case Marsh or anyone else involved in the production can answer to that potentially problematic use of actor chimps at some point (update: answer quickly provided in the comments below). But Marsh hasn't exactly made a work of animal rights activism, and so I don't think he's necessarily bound by any contract with the audience not to use "theatrical animals." Still, if the filmmaker means to raise questions about what it means to control animals, I wonder if any animals were indeed controlled for the purpose of this film.
Purely by coincidence I caught part of the original "Planet of the Apes" on TV last night after revisiting "Project X," and of course that earlier movie is basically an inverse of what's going on in both "X" and "Nim." And that's obviously the point. So it was a perfect film to watch after posting the Marsh interview and watching the other film. I've joked numerous times about how it's appropriate some audiences get to see "Nim" a few weeks prior to the release of the new franchise reboot "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which the trailer makes seem a fantastical sequel for both "X" and "Nim" for the same reason.
Now, I wonder if I should try revisiting "Congo," which I recall as being a total mockery of the whole ASL-speaking apes concept (god forbid they just subtitle the signs), and downright terrible overall. But after "Nim" it's hard to think of any good non documentary movies about apes and monkeys, and I can't imagine enjoying many even if I'd liked them years ago. I don't want to say "Nim" ruined me for those movies so much as opened my eyes a bit wider to them.