Project X (1987 film)

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Project X
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Jonathan Kaplan
Produced by Walter F. Parkes
Lawrence Lasker
Written by Lawrence Lasker
Stanley Weiser
Music by James Horner
Cinematography Dean Cundey
Edited by O. Nicholas Brown
Brent A. Schoenfeld
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
  • April 17, 1987 (1987-04-17)
Running time
108 minutes
Country United States
Language English
American Sign Language
Budget $18 million
Box office $21,589,395

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 young USAF officer (Broderick) and a graduate student (Hunt) who are assigned to take care of chimpanzees used for a secret army project.


The film begins with graduate student Teri MacDonald (Helen Hunt) and her work training a chimpanzee named Virgil to use American Sign Language. When her research grant is not renewed, she is forced to sell Virgil. Despite being assured Virgil will be sent to an animal sanctuary, instead he is taken to an Air Force base to be used in a top-secret research project involving platforms designed to simulate the operation of aircraft.

Airman Jimmy Garrett (Matthew Broderick), as punishment for "misconduct" involving a romantic interlude in an aircraft cockpit, is assigned to the same chimp project to which Virgil was sent. Jimmy begins to bond with Virgil and they become attached to one another. Jimmy discovers that Virgil has been taught sign language. Jimmy informs his superior, Dr. Carroll (William Sadler), but Dr. Carroll is not interested.

Unbeknownst to Jimmy, the chimps trained on the flight simulators will be killed by radiation poisoning. Once they reach a certain level in operating the flight simulator, the chimps will be exposed to a lethal pulse of radiation in the simulator chamber to determine how long a pilot may survive after a nuclear exchange known as the second-strike scenario.

When a dead chimp is removed from the simulator room, Virgil breaks away from Jimmy and escapes to the room adjacent to the vivarium. Virgil sees the dead body, returns to the vivarium, and screeches to the other caged chimps. Jimmy does not know that Virgil is communicating to the others of their impending peril.

Jimmy later becomes aware of the chimps fate. He searches Virgil's file and phones Teri, who joins Jimmy at the base. Concerned about his military career, Jimmy initially tells Teri that she should not have come and refuses to tell her anymore about Virgil's fate. Later, Jimmy goes to Teri's hotel and finds her just as she is leaving. Teri tells Jimmy she is going to go to Washington to inform the National Science Foundation of the deception. Jimmy tells Teri she does not have enough time because Virgil is scheduled to die soon.

Teri and Jimmy return to the base just as Virgil is set to be placed within the flight simulator chamber and die by radiation poisoning. Jimmy challenges Dr. Carroll, the assembled military guests, and assorted politicians about the value of the project. Jimmy points out that the hypothetical pilot, knowing of the implications of the second-strike scenario, would know 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, who promises Jimmy that his military career is finished.

Meanwhile, in the vivarium, some of the chimps have used a mop to get the keys to open 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, who has obtained a cattle prod and is attempting to use it to foil the chimps escape. The authorities are chased from the room. Goliath and Virgil end up in the flight simulator room, and a fire extinguisher is jammed, forcing the radiation generator in an exposed condition, potentially leading to an uncontrolled radiation blast. Jimmy gets Virgil out and a few of the other chimps 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 because the chamber cannot be opened until the radiation falls below lethal levels.

Jimmy and Teri steal a military plane to help the chimps escape, but they are stopped by military police. While the police are holding Jimmy and Teri at gunpoint, Virgil pilots the plane, and the chimps fly away. They eventually crash land 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". The chimps disappear into the Everglades.



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.[1] In 1994, over Barker's objections, his insurance company settled the lawsuit for $300,000.[2]

Where Virgil lives now[edit]

Willie, the young chimpanzee who portrayed Virgil, the signing and flying chimp, 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 now live with other males in a tightly knit group at the refuge which is located in Bexar County, Texas.[3]


The movie received generally positive reviews from critics. As of January 2013, it holds a 78% score amongst critics on Rotten Tomatoes.[4]

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 signficance is going on."[5]


  1. ^ Smith, Lucinda; Leah Feldon; Eleanor Hoover (September 18, 1989). "Speaking Up for 'Abused' Animals, Bob Barker Is Hit with a Lawsuit". People. New York: Time, Inc. Retrieved 11 December 2012. 
  2. ^ Vince Gonzales (February 11, 2009). "Animals Harmed in Movies?". CBS Evening News (Viacom Internet Services Inc.). Retrieved 2012-12-11. 
  3. ^ Spotlight on Willie and Friend By Stephen Rene Tell. Primarily Primates Newsletter Winter 2010-11 accessed via the Web Archive November 24, 2015.
  4. ^ "Project X (1987)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster, Inc. Retrieved 2013-01-25. 
  5. ^ Goodman, Walter (April 17, 1987). "Movie Review: Project X (1987)". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-12-11. 

External links[edit]