Out in the African jungle, a baby chimp is minding its own business in the company of its mother when the hunters move in and capture him for sale to American research companies. This is undoubtedly traumatic, but luckily for Virgil, as he is now named, his new guardian is Teri (Helen Hunt), a Wisconsin University student of science who is researching communication, and to that end trains the chimp in sign language to better "talk" to him, and vice versa. They build up a friendly rapport, yet just as she is completing her studies she receives the bad news Virgil will be taken from her and passed on to a zoo...
Ah, but it's not a zoo the ape is going to, it's an Air Force research facility where the little guy will be taught in the ways of piloting an actual aeroplane. Seriously - a title crawl at the beginning informed us this was based on genuine programmes the military were implementing, and we had no cause to doubt them even if it did stretch the boundaries of dramatic credibility, though that was nothing compared to the way the script wrapped this tale up. Although there were comedic elements, Project X wasn't meant to be taken as a joke, but that was largely the way it came across in that we were offered a happy ending that many would find hard to swallow.
Before all that business, there was another issue with the movie which has offered viewers mixed feelings ever since. Although the production was supervised by the American Humane Society, as almost all Hollywood movies featuring animals have been for decades, controversy erupted when gameshow host Bob Barker accused it of mistreating the chimps to get them to perform, with claims they had been beaten to force them to act out in the correct manner for the cameras. The Society were very angry about this besmirching of their good name and sued Barker's animal rights pressure group for defamation, eventually settling out of court, but the whole affair left those who heard about it wondering who was right.
Surely that nice Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt wouldn't lend their name to a movie created with animal cruelty, you might think? And the fact that the A.H.S. seemed to have succeeded in clearing their name should logically make you think that was the case, but sling enough mud and it'll stick, which means no matter how cute the chimps behave here, you do wonder just exactly how the filmmakers managed to coax them into offering their performances. As was pointed out many times, it was ironic that a film banging the drum for anti-vivisection issues would be so accused, but the message that came across if you watched it was somewhat left adrift in cloud cuckoo land thanks to the science fiction aspects.
Funnily enough, Project X looked to be a predecessor to one of the big hits of twenty-five years later when Rise of the Planet of the Apes lifted its basic plotline; Virgil only speaks through his signing, but the communication between the species in a situation exploiting creatures was very important to both. And needless to say, the ludicrous Quantum Leap episode where Scott Bakula "leaps" into the body of a chimpanzee in a laboratory owed plenty to this as well, if for different reasons. As it was, with James Horner's treacly strings welling up on the soundtrack every five minutes, this was more concerned with tugging the heartstrings than it was making you laugh with the funny animal antics as Broderick's Jimmy Garrett, a disgraced trainee pilot, is assigned to the research centre and given the pilot chimps to look after. So far so fun - teach the chimps computer gaming! - but soon a note of doom sounds when he finds out the actual purpose of this, and strikes up a friendship with Virgil to lead a rebellion. This was sincere enough in its message, but silly in execution.