Project Nim (12A)
Release date: Friday 12 August
Cast: Nim Chimpsky, Professor Herbert Terrace, Stephanie Lafarge, Jenny Lee.
Director: James Marsh (Man on Wire, Wisconsin Death Trip).
Running Time: 99 Minutes
As far as bum raps go, cinema has doled out more to our primate relatives than they have to any other species. While Jaws, the daddy of the ‘animal as monster’ pics, can’t be contested in terms of successfully turning humans against Mr. Great White, in terms of sheer quantity, Monkeys Rule.
For starters the Planet of the Apes series alone has spanked the monkey on no less than seven occasions (the latest of which hits cinemas tomorrow). Then there’s King Kong, The Wizard of Oz, Outbreak, Instinct, 28 Days Later, Dunston Checks In…
Project Nim, the true tale of a scientific experiment that saw a monkey raised as a human, is not concerned with portraying it’s protagonist as a villainous entity, but nor is it happy to sit back and revel in the cuter than cute ‘monkey antics’. Instead Nim, as presented here, is a magnifying glass to the human personalities of the people that surround him. And what personalities.
The collection of Upper West side “rich hippies” Nim is thrust into range from the mildly delusional and naïve to the frankly terrifying. That his first human mother, Stephanie, can confess to breastfeeding the animal without as much as batting an eyelid lets us know exactly how disparate these people are. Yet their ‘quirky’ ways soon become dangerous as they grow to believe that the chimpanzee is nothing more than a child, and above all, their human child.
As Nim grows, so too does the possibility of him causing actual bodily harm, or perhaps even taking a life. Talking heads of his family members presenting Jaws-like war wounds will provoke a titter at first, but when we learn that the animal will soon be five times stronger than any grown man the laughs are quickly replaced by horrific fear. It’s at this section that the film becomes Nim’s tale again as he becomes the lead in the chimpanzee equivalent of a prison movie followed by a courtroom drama.
The film is stronger when dissecting the people that have chosen to be in Nim’s life especially the easy villain in the piece; the project’s originator, Professor Herbert Terrace. The camera makes the most of every time he speaks to show him up as a expert manipulator. He rarely says anything that isn’t to excuse his actions or to justify what he did. The mistakes inherent in the project, however, lay everywhere.
At every turn characters misunderstand the true nature of Nim. When psychology graduate Bob, Nim’s friend and saviour during his darker days, makes the frank and obvious statement “Chimps aren’t humans” you feel that someone finally understands. But it takes less than a minute before Bob is shown sharing a joint with the chimp, letting the world know, “Chimps are like us, they like to do hedonistic things.” Every character represents anyone of us that has ever cooed at a zoo.
A riveting documentary that begins as a project about nature versus nurture but quickly becomes an exposé on our obsession with anthropomorphic tendencies. You may feel very touched by Nim’s story but you sure won’t want to take him home with you.