Project X (1987)


USA. 1987.


Director – Jonathan Kaplan, Screenplay – Stanley Weiser, Story – Stanley Weiser & Lawrence Lasker, Producers – Lawrence Lasker & Walter Parkes, Photography – Dean Cundey, Music – James Horner, Visual Effects Supervisor – Michael Fink, Production Design – Lawrence G. Paull. Production Company – Lasker/Parkes


Matthew Broderick (Jimmy Garrett), Helen Hunt (Teresa McDonald), Bill Sadler (Dr Lynnard Carroll), Johnny Ray McGhee (Isaac Robertson), Jonathan Stark (Sergeant Krieger), Robin Gammell (Colonel Nies), Jean Smart (Watts)


After being found up in a plane with a girl and a bottle of champagne, trainee Air Force pilot Jimmy Garrett is demoted in disgrace. He is assigned to a research program run by the Strategic Weapons Division where he is given the job of training chimpanzees in the use of flight simulators. There he becomes attached to Virgil, one of the chimps, and comes to realize that Virgil can speak sign language. Investigating, he finds that Virgil was raised in a university animal behaviour program before its funding fell through. Jimmy then discovers that the flight simulator training is being conducted in readiness for an experiment where the chimps are going to be subjected to lethal doses of radiation in order to see how long pilots can continue flying after passing through a nuclear blast. And so Jimmy joins with Virgil’s trainer Teresa McDonald to save Virgil from his intended fate.

The writing team of Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes had considerable success with the script for the teen hacker film WarGames (1983). The success of WarGames was sufficient that the two were able to launch their careers as producers. Their next project after WarGames was this feelgood pro-animal rights film. Project X was clearly designed to be another WarGames with the two casting WarGames‘ Matthew Broderick in a similar role as a young teen rebel defying the military establishment. Direction was handed over to Jonathan Kaplan, the director of middle-of-the-road films like Over the Edge (1979), Heart Like a Wheel (1983) and who later went onto The Accused (1988), Unlawful Entry (1992) and Bad Girls (1994). Lasker and Parkes would go on to write-produce several other films together – the legal thriller True Believer (1989) and a very short-lived tv series spin-off Eddie Dodd (1991), the awards-friendly Awakenings (1990) and Phil Alden Robinson’s enjoyable hi-tech hack-in film Sneakers (1992), before parting ways. Parkes now works as a producer for Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks.

Project X clearly comes written with animal rights activism sympathies upon Lasker and Parkes’ part, as well as the same strain of anti-militarist distrust that ran through WarGames. It is something that they write in a preachily message-heavy way. Jonathan Kaplan plays the film blandly middle-of-the-road the entire way, piling on the heartstrings to make us feel for Virgil’s exploitation. Certainly, Willie the chimp who plays Virgil gives an exceptional performance. The early scenes between Willie and Matthew Broderick as Broderick starts to learn about him have a tender sensitivity. Eventually though, the script is a slow slide down into cliché. The scenes breaking out of the lab pursued by the pursuing military is taken straight from the book of post-E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) clichés. The ending is eminently predictable and the happy wrap-up overly feelgood. James Horner delivers a repetitive and overblown woodwind score that works away overtime to hype up emotions. Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt at least prove pleasant company.

This Project X is unrelated to three other films with the same title:- the little seen Project X (1949) about the Communist theft of atomic secrets, William Castle’s reality-bending SF film Project X (1968) and the non-genre teen party film Project X (2012).

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