Project X is a 1987 American science fiction comedy-drama film produced by Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker, directed by Jonathan Kaplan, and starring Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt. The plot revolves around a USAF Airman (Broderick) and a graduate student (Hunt) who are assigned to care for chimpanzees used in a secret Air Force project.
Graduate student Teri MacDonald has trained a chimpanzee named Virgil to use sign language. When her research grant is not renewed, she is forced to sell Virgil. He is taken to an Air Force base to be used in a top-secret research project involving flight simulation.
Airman Jimmy Garrett is assigned to the same chimp project. Virgil and Jimmy quickly bond, and Jimmy discovers that Virgil has been taught sign language. Unbeknownst to Jimmy, once the chimps reach a certain level in operating the flight simulator, they will be exposed to a lethal pulse of radiation to determine how long a pilot may survive after a nuclear exchange in carrying out a second-strike.
When Jimmy becomes aware of the chimps’ fate, he contacts Teri, who comes to the base. Teri tells Jimmy that she is going to inform the National Science Foundation of the deception. Jimmy tells Teri that she does not have enough time because Virgil is scheduled to die soon.
Jimmy challenges Dr. Carroll and others about the value of the project by pointing out that the hypothetical pilot, knowing of the implications of the second-strike scenario, would know that he is dying, and would, therefore, be affected by that knowledge. However, the chimps would not have the same awareness; thus, the project is flawed. This enrages Dr. Carroll.
Meanwhile, in the vivarium, some of the chimps have unlocked their cages and have stacked crates and boxes in an attempt to escape through a skylight. Jimmy and Teri walk in to see the chimps escaping. Virgil, at the top of the stack, is about to break the skylight with a crowbar when the authorities enter. Goliath the chimp becomes very angry and fights with Dr. Carroll.
The authorities are chased from the room, and Goliath and Virgil end up in the flight simulator room. A jammed fire extinguisher moves the radiation generator into an exposed condition, potentially leading to an uncontrolled radiation blast. Jimmy gets Virgil and some other chimps out, but Goliath continues smashing the simulator and is caught inside. Jimmy and Virgil convince Goliath to yank out the extinguisher, but Goliath dies from radiation.
Jimmy and Teri steal a military plane to help the chimps escape, but they are stopped by military police. While the police are holding them, Virgil pilots the plane, and the chimps fly away. They eventually crash in the nearby Everglades and evade a search. Just as the search is being abandoned, Jimmy and Teri see Virgil hiding in the bush with his chimpanzee girlfriend. Teri signs to Virgil that he and the others are now “free”, and the chimps disappear into the Everglades.
- Matthew Broderick as Jimmy Garrett
- Helen Hunt as Teri MacDonald
- William Sadler as Dr. Carroll (credited as Bill Sadler)
- Johnny Ray McGhee as Robertson
- Jonathan Stark as Sgt. Krieger
The movie received generally positive reviews from critics. As of 17 April 2018, it holds a 79% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 19 reviews with an average rating of 6.1/10.
In his review for The New York Times, Walter Goodman described the film as a “young folks’ story, a sweet-natured boy-and-his-chimp tale (even the bad guys aren’t all that bad – that’s very arguable), with a dose of Animal Liberation to give the impression that something of current significance is going on.”
The film’s producers were accused of animal cruelty by TV personality Bob Barker and the United Activists for Animal Rights. The American Humane Association, which consulted during production, filed a $10 million defamation lawsuit, arguing that the animal cruelty claims were based on hearsay. In 1994, over Barker’s objections, his insurance company settled the lawsuit for $300,000.
Virgil was portrayed by “Willie”, who now resides at Primarily Primates wildlife refuge. Willie was sent there along with Harry, who played his “girlfriend”. They were retired from the entertainment industry and live with other males in a tightly knit group at the refuge in Bexar County, Texas.