Monday, February 25, 2013

Day Fifty-six - Project X, or "No, I mean the ape movie, not the kids-ACTING-like-apes movie."

Alright, just so I don't flood the blog with two straight weeks of High School of the Dead, and possibly because it's being dropped from streaming on the first of March, I decided to revisit an old 80's PETA flick about animal testing on chimpanzees that starred Matthew Broderick, Helen Hunt, and Bill Sadler.

To be honest, I felt a bit jaded from the get go.

I am completely open to discussing the ethics of animal testing, but the movie slants the whole thing firmly in the negative first by depicting the killing of main ape star Virgil's mother so he could be sold to an animal exporter, then moving straight to the rather mercenary scene of Virgil and other apes being resold to various research institutions while a government contractor whines about cost and the like.

Look, when you weight your prologue chapters this way, it's no surprise where you're leading your audience. This effort is, of course, redoubled when, after a brief respite in the loving arms of Helen Hunt, who teaches Virgil to communicate via sign-language through empathy and positive reinforcement, that Virgil is again ripped from a mother surrogate and sent to an Air Force research facility.

That's where Matthew Broderick comes in.

Having just gone for an erotic joyride in an Air Force plane, Broderick's character Jimmy Garrett is in the stockade and in fear that he's about to be drummed out of the military. Luckily, thanks to the fact that his father is top brass, his commanding officer bows to the pressures of nepotism and reassigns him to a crap detail, cleaning the ape cages in the aforementioned research facility.

It all seems rather harmless, at first, though not really. Even through the cute innocence of Garrett learning his way around the apes and forming a bond with Virgil, as he trains the ape to operate an arcade version of Windows Flight Simulator (probably stolen from the WOPR mainframe in WarGames), there's a seedy sort of menace in the background... particularly when it comes to the weighted silences of Bill Sadler and the other lab personnel.

The curtain is pulled back when Garrett's good job performance yields him an office promotion (but not a rank up... bummer), to the "Graduate Program" where his first duty is to lead a harmless fuzzball named Bluebeard to his doom. Seems Bill Sadler and his cronies are testing the effects of radiation on pilots and, to not kill actual humans, they're using apes.

Garrett, of course, has ethical issues with this seeing as how he's bonded with the animals, but the Doctor's arguments are all weak versions of what they should be, showing him to be more of a douchebag than a scientist. This leads Garrett to break several national security laws in contacting Helen Hunt, who subsequently tracks him down and facilitates an ape escape by providing an unintentional distraction while the apes, themselves, hatch a plot of their own.

When I watched this, as a kid, I wasn't aware of the manipulative film techniques that went into humanizing the apes and amping the drama of the two death scenes for Bluebeard and Goliath. Not knowing any better, I actually assumed that you really did just go into a slow-motion haze of a death spiral when exposed to lethal radiation.

Now, to be fair, it's hard to convey the moment of destruction depicted when your actors can only understand simple trained commands, so the director and cinematographer took a few liberties in order to show what would actually happen as, yes, you would become confused and lose cognition at such a high and fatal dose.

Still, the over-dramatization is a bit heavy-handed now that I'm not seven and not so much worried about the cute apes as I am the humans relying on CLEAR GLASS to shield them from radiation.

Twenty five years later, though, I'm mostly disappointed at the lack of any meaningful dialogue and character chemistry between any of the human characters. The apes weren't that much better, but they have an excuse. They're only as good as the "awww" moments the trainers can squeeze out of them in front of the camera. The human actors have no such excuse (I would hope).

I mean, c'mon. This is Ferris-freaking-Bueller we're talking here. Where's the charisma? I certainly didn't see it. And Helen? She's a great actress if we were allowed to see her, but her bar scene with Broderick was stilted and pretty much the rest of the movie she just stands around and watches while OTHER people (and apes) do things.


Until tomorrow, Potatoes~

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