By:Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
A Chimpanzee is torn from his mother and ends up in a research facility before being taken in and nurtured by humans, raised like a human child, and taught sign language, demonstrating extraordinary intelligence all the while. You can probably guess where this is going next.
James Franco stares longingly while a gorilla headbutts a helicopter to death
The surface similarities of Project Nim to a certain other 2011 ape film are striking, but this film has the added advantage of not only being just a smidge more plausible, but actually being true. Nim Chimpsky, because academics can abuse puns too, was chosen in the 1970s to test the nature vs. nurture hypothesis, particularly in the field of language development, by placing him in a human family to be raised as one of their own. His story becomes a convoluted one from there, as he bounces between trainers and facilities to the point where he reaches the verge of ending up a victim of animal experimentation.
Like all documentaries, this film’s success depends on finding an interesting story to tell, and director James Marsh (Man on Wire) certain accomplishes this, all with his trademark polish and artistic flourishes that go above and beyond the level of craftsmanship you normally see in a documentary.
Nim’s first stop is a proto-yuppie/hippy combo family whose idea of raising a chimp as their child is apparently giving it joints and showing an unhealthy interest in it’s sexuality, which definitely qualifies as… interesting. The film really picks up steam when Nim gets to interact with some real scientists, and observing his learning behavior and watching the debate rage over what it all means (‘Stone. Smoke. Now’ is all the proof I need that apes can form logical sentences) is extremely engaging. His story doesn’t stop there, as his life changes as he grows into a headstrong adolescent chimpanzee, which if you know anything about the sad truth of apes, means he pretty much turns into a velociraptor.
With opposable thumbs, so… worse.
This movie abounds with sticky ethical quandaries, but no more so than when it examines the usage of medical testing on apes. These scenes pack an emotional punch that can be hard to watch, but introduce the audience to a particular question of ethics that affects anyone who’s ever taken any form of medicine.
The one issue I have with this film is one I often have with documentaries that play on the emotions… the director usually has to willfully select and edit scenes to elicit the response he wants. This is to be expected, and once you start seeing things like this in movies, you can’t unsee them, which may be more my fault than the film’s. Still, I was a bit put off by the seemingly conscious guiding of certain people into villain roles, especially as the truth rarely works out so tidily.
Even if you cast J.K. Simmons in the role
If you’re as fascinated by apes as you should be as a living, breathing human being, then you should find plenty interesting about this documentary.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time something is done in raising Nim that you wouldn’t do with a child
Take a Drink: whenever Nim attacks somebody
Drink a Shot: whenever Nim is uprooted