Review: Project Nim

After the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes a couple of weeks ago, talking monkey antics continue with this documentary about a chimp raised in human families in Manhattan and taught sign language that at times plays like a real life version of the simian sci-fi blockbuster.

In 1973 Herb Terrace, a psychology professor at Columbia University came up with the plan to find out if a chimpanzee, named Nim Chimpsky, could learn human communication skills.

James Marsh directed one of the Red Riding Trilogy on Channel Four but on the big screen he is best known for the wonderful documentary Man on Wire.

He seems to specialise in making films about strange events from the 1970s that take place in New York. Man on Wire documented a tight rope walk between the just-built but unopened Twin Towers, stories you can't believe weren't better known. Part of me still believes that Man on Wire might one day be revealed to be an elaborate hoax, but this is on the level even though there is suspiciously large amount of footage is recreated.

The documentary starts off amusing but in its second half becomes rather poignant and angry as Nim is let down rather badly by humanity and ends up in an animal research lab.

One of the film's great achievements is getting all of the human participants to be interviewed. This is quite something given that most of them end up looking quite bad, or at least wildly misguided.

Even the man from the animal research lab, the man who organised the experiments on chimps, turns up looking exactly as sinister and shifty as he would if he were that character in a feature film.

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The film explores the bonds between humanity and animals, but comes to no firm conclusions about how close they are.

If the film has an angle, it may be a condemnation of 1970s progressive liberal values.

Every one of the researchers looks like a model for an illustration in The Joy of Sex book and the film shows the damage experimentation without consideration for the consequences can do.


Director: James Marsh

Length: 99 mins