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‘Project X’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 20, 1987

Walter Parkes and Lawrence Lasker, the producers who brought you "WarGames" to warn of the danger of computerized nuclear holocaust, dip into the same bag of techno-tricks with somewhat less success to protest the evils of monkey experimentation in "Project X."

Once again, a wide-eyed Matthew Broderick must cope with machines, digital counters, searchlights, computer screens and, of course, the men in the control booth orchestrating it all. But there isn't enough magic in the bag this time. Although Parkes and Lasker produce a set of primates guaranteed to charm the upholstery off the theater seats, there is little else.

A tear-jerking, intellect-curdling howl for animal rights, "Project" gives itself such an easy script to success, you might find yourself resenting the predictable argument and outcome. Guess how you should feel about people in military uniform who pump primates full of radon.

The film follows the fail-safe formula of every lovable creature flick from "National Velvet" to "E.T.": Get a human to form a bond with an endearing nonhuman, and then pit them against society. But although the film is jungleful of emotionally stirring scenes, the payoff never quite happens. And the boy-girl relationship that frames the story is little more than a run-of-the mill narrative device to sew things up in the end.

Fuzzy monkeys aside, it is Broderick who provides the movie's emotional center. From "Max Dugan Returns" to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," Broderick has consistently brought a high-grade innocence and sense of comic timing that set him apart from the Brat Pack. This time he's Jimmy Garrett, a would-be fighter pilot who's grounded after a flying spree with girlfriend and champagne. Sent in disgrace to an Air Force flight simulation base to usher monkey pilots to wartime condition chambers, he forms a bond with a young primate named Virgil.

Virgil is a chimp above the rest. He was wrested from his African habitat, lovingly trained by an animal researcher (Helen Hunt) to communicate in sign language and then dispatched to the (fictional) Lockridge Air Force Base when university funds for his upkeep fall through. Both he and Garrett have every reason to get out of there. Garrett wants to fly, Virgil just wants to be free. Maybe you can see where this is going.

There is an intelligent touch to the script in that there are no gleeful villains itching to waste another ape -- just humans who ignore the horrors to make their daily jobs easier. Yet perhaps the movie, which is essentially moral cheerleading anyway, needs an evil focus -- a clear force to contend with. You're never sure whom Garrett should come head-to-head with because the blame is spread around.

Director Jonathan Kaplan has controlled the animal-human interaction admirably. The main problem, it seems, was to get the monkeys (with trainers' help) to do the right thing, sustaining the illusion they are reacting to the action at hand. Kaplan executes this not only by extracting good "performances" from them, but with deft suggestion montages. He cuts from a woman crying to a shot of a monkey's face, and you believe the creature is also saddened. And when Virgil returns from a simulated flight and screams his head off at the other entrapped monkeys, you believe he's warning them.

You'd swear sometimes these hairy guys read the script and maybe even attended a couple of Lee Strasberg's Method classes ("Virgil, I want you to think about those good times in the jungle").

"Project" battles the cloying factor valiantly -- at least by Hollywood standards. Cute close-ups of chimps are kept to at least a Gramm-Rudman level of restraint. Unfortunately, although composer James Horner produces an interesting array of electronically generated sounds, he tends to fill every possible emotional nook and cranny. It gets to be so much musical NutraSweet.

As for the human actors, Broderick is the only one with a role broad enough to strut around in. Hunt (Kathleen Turner's daughter in "Peggy Sue Got Married") nevertheless brings a sweetness to what is essentially a supportive venture. And set designer Lawrence G. Paull brings the same imaginative effervescence he brought to "Blade Runner." His sets -- the monkeys' Vivarium, the Primate Equilibrium Room and the Flight Chamber -- are brilliantly conceived.

"Project X" is rated PG and contains no overt violent or sexual material.

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