How entertaining? ★★★☆☆
Thought provoking? ★★☆☆☆
12 August 2011
This a movie review of PROJECT NIM.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that PROJECT NIM and RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES are being released in the same week. I like the sense the humour of the distributors. Both are about the relationships between science and ethics, and humans and simians. As you would expect from the director of MAN ON WIRE and THE KING, this is going to be gripping, and it is. The film is a mixture of interviews, reconstructions, archive footage and voice-overs; combined together into a pacey and focused look at Project Nim: to get chimpanzees to communicate with human beings. It’s a great title, suggesting something sci-fi, grand and clandestine in what we’re about to watch.
What an idea from Professor Herbert Terrace at Columbia University! To teach a chimpanzee sign language so that humans and animals might bridge the interaction chasm. A baby, Nim, was chosen and Terrace gave him to a former student, Stephanie Lafarge, to be raised in her home with her family. Nim is treated like a human. Another element being tested was the age old nature vs. nurture debate. Though, one wonders how scientific it was to allow an animal to be raised in a home without clear guidelines. Is that lazy or laissez-faire? Also, a theme that runs through the film like its spine, what about the morality of such a thing? The scruples of Terrace (and others) are questioned time and again as Nim is moved from place to place. On occasions he paints himself, or is painted by the editing choices, as the classic scientist “baddie”; portraying a lack of conscience, distancing his responsibility, and even sleeping with a student involved in the project. The things Nim goes through in his life are heartbreaking. PROJECT NIM is an emotional indictment on humanity.
Funnily enough, I have given RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and NIM the same rating, but for different reasons. The former lacks ambition and verve, while the latter’s reconstructions and archive footage appear to be woven together so seamlessly and skilfully that it was unclear which is which. Impressive but also annoying. The movie seems to steer you to feel a certain way, and I can’t tell whether I’m being manipulated. A masterclass again from the director in how to make an expeditious documentary.