Ruminating on Animal Experimentation while Reviewing Project X

In keeping with the current list on the Mike-Kate Video Club, I recently watched Project X with Matthew Broderick (two of the films on the list star Broderick: War Games and Ferris Bueller's Day Off).

The movie surprised me, mostly for how much I got invested in the fate of the chimps.

For those of you who don't remember, the plot of Project X is that chimpanzees are being trained to fly machines, then exposed to lethal amounts of radiation to see how much longer they will keep flying. Pilot Jimmy Garrett decides to save a particular chimp, Virgil.

I should state now, upfront, that I am not opposed to animal experimentation. I think it is kind of pointless with things like cosmetics. I think it is downright meritorious with things like cancer research.

I should also state that I have never been a huge fan of anthropomorphizing animals in fiction or real life. In fiction, I run out of interest. In real life, I think it is unfair and disrespectful to the animal. A cat is a cat, not a human in fur. Chimpanzees, no matter how many genes they hold in common with humans, are chimpanzees.

By the way, the respecting-animals-for-being-animals-not-cute-humans ideology doesn't prevent me from eating steak.

So I basically anticipated that Project X would be a long screed about how bad and immoral and evil animal experimentation is blah, blah, blah. (I saw it when I was younger but had forgotten everything except that monkeys--well, chimps--were involved.)

It isn't a long screed. Yeah sure, that message is in there. But the message relies not on stoic idealists spouting their opinions but on the viewer becoming invested in the chimpanzees' fate.

This actually works. I was stunned. I was sad when Goliath died--I think I actually cried. I was worried about the chimps getting away. I wanted them to be free!

This is all due to how the story is told--from the inside out. The audience learns things as Garrett (Broderick) learns and experiences things. He gets interested in teaching Virgil. He sees the radiation test. He is uncomfortable with it. The entire story unfolds as a slow emotional web that gets you invested without telling you to get invested.

The one off-note is when Broderick tries to stop the second test (on Virgil) by breaking in on the head honchos and arguing against it. In terms of plot, the scene makes sense. Garrett isn't put forward as an orator or a protester. He just doesn't want the animal he trained to die.

And he makes the same argument that, what do ya know, Broderick's character made in War Games: "You can't compare the chimps to humans; the chimps will keep flying, but the humans won't because they will know they are going to die."

The first part of this argument is actually correct: You can't compare the reaction of chimps to humans--and a computer model quite frankly would be more effective here (computer models are used instead of animal testing quite often these days).

The second part of the argument is wrong, and it is the one false note in the movie. Well, okay, the sign language and flying-the-plane stuff is a little out there, but the movie establishes those outcomes as givens, so I accept them.

But otherwise, the chimps in the movie actually act just like chimps (and at one point, trash the lab, which is  fun). They act, in other words, like animals rather than humans.

And animals do not do well with stress. Animals do not do well with illness. Animals will die from straight shock and pain.

Humans, on the other hand, can go amazingly heroic things despite extraordinarily adverse conditions because their brains decide that they should. They keep flying because they believe they are protecting something higher (their country). They live longer because they believe they have a purpose. They fight the effects of illness because they don't want others to pay for their mistakes.

Believing that animals should be treated humanely is a civilized belief. But it immediately loses credence when people try to tell me animals are as good as or better than humans. Animals are animals, and if they were ever actually tried by the moral standards of humans, they would all be labeled psychopaths. When a young lion takes over an older lion's pack, he doesn't send the older lion to a retirement home or give it charity antelopes. He basically forces the older lion to starve itself to death.

Okay, put that in human terms and think about how it makes you feel.

Ewwww is the normal reaction.

But as animals, lions--and chimpanzees--can be utterly adorable, and Project X is a well-told story, using adorable (trained) animals, that never forgets to be a story.

I'm starting to think the 1980's has a lot to say for itself in terms of strong film narratives!

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