Planet of the apes as seen in the 70s
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jul 22, 2011
Early in "Project Nim," the film's title character - a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky - is brutally taken from its mother's arms, spirited from a primate compound in Oklahoma to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he will be raised like a human baby.
What a sad story, you might say. You have no idea.
"Project Nim," an absorbing, agonizing documentary about ambition, lust and anthropomorphism at their most heedless, records suffering and manipulation so extreme that description can barely do them justice. Not just a treatise on animal rights, James Marsh's film becomes a fascinating (and dispiriting) essay on the 1970s, when idealism curdled into maddening self-absorption, as well as the portrait of at least one genuine hero (two, if you count Nim himself). As he did with his superb film "Man on Wire," Marsh stints on nothing to play up the episode's inherent drama; if he occasionally overreaches with too many reenactments and a gratuitously manipulative musical score, Marsh still masterfully spins a harrowing tale of human arrogance that eventually gives way to cruelty bordering on the pathological.
Nim's primary antagonist turns out to be Herbert Terrace, the Columbia University psychology professor who, in 1973, arranged to have the chimp sent to New York to be raised by a human family. Terrace's hope was that Nim would learn sign language, proving that chimps are capable of language. What ensued was a series of disquieting boundary violations that only become more severe as Nim grows up. At first a cuddly little simian brother to his human family, Nim soon outgrows the Manhattan apartment and moves to a Columbia-owned estate in nearby Riverdale, where he's cared for by a series of Terrace's assistants - all young, female and pretty. As Nim learns to sign, play and brush his teeth, he also becomes embroiled in the dysfunctional emotional and sexual dynamics of Terrace's little empire. As that atmosphere becomes increasingly abusive, Nim himself begins to lash out, inflicting life-threatening injuries on the well-meaning girls who nurture him.
It gets worse. Then it gets better. Then it gets much, much worse. But lest viewers think "Project Nim" is all bad news, there's a healthy degree of gonzo humor in Nim's story, especially when an Oklahoma psychology student and Grateful Dead fan named Bob Ingersoll shows up - and he and Nim develop what looks like an authentic friendship, complete with sharing the odd illicit joint. Thanks to Ingersoll, "Project Nim" isn't the unalloyed tragedy it might have been, although it's difficult to take in Nim's story without succumbing to a wrenching sense of injustice and rage. Part period piece, part bizarro zoo story, "Project Nim" is finally the ultimate cautionary tale of how Man's Inhumanity to Chimp slips so seamlessly into Man's Inhumanity to Man.
Contains some strong profanity, drug content, thematic elements and disturbing images.