Project Nim is the critically lauded story of a misguided scientific experiment that took a young chimp – the eponymous Nim – and tried to facilitate near-human levels of communication and interaction through prolonged exposure to the world’s most perfect example of a seventies liberal hippy family, and how this experiment came to affect the lives of the people who took part in it.
Directed by James Marsh, who also directed the fantastic Man on Wire, the film is incredibly well-made and as affecting as it could be, considering the cast of naive morons involved. The film obviously benefits from the wealth of photographic material taken at the time which gives it the privileged position of being able to provide primary source material for much of what is being talked about throughout the film.
Taking a wild animal and placing it into close, often intimate, proximity with human beings may not seem like the best idea but to most of the intellectuals in this film – professors, teachers, instructors – this seemed like a great idea, even if most of their stories are about either being attacked or bitten by Nim.
The beginning of the film shows the bad experience with the human family that Nim was placed with, whose idea of teaching language to the chimp was letting him drink beer and smoke joints. This section is a pretty strange one because the family talk of losing Nim like the loss of an actual human child, and the matriarch of the family comes across almost as a Lady Macbeth figure – driven half mad with insane love of the chimp, but not willing to actually look after it or help out with its welfare in any way.
After that, the poor animal was taken to an estate on which he could live more freely, surrounded by three university professors on whom Nim relied for education and sustenance. This leads to more growth, more bites, more attacks, and an admission that there was no real information gained from the experiment other than ‘maybe wild animals are different to humans’. Just because chimps share 98% of our genetic material doesn’t mean they have any capacity for meaningful language, and no amount of pseudo-scientific ego-trip experiments will change that. From then, the film shows his fall from being the subject of language experiments to being the subject of animal testing, to being rescued (in a fashion) – tossed from human to human like a giant hairy doll, ruined by successive human owners.
This film is the story of how a group of over-privileged, idiotic professors essentially raised a chimpanzee to be completely useless in its natural environment, but too wild and dangerous to live in human society, thus depriving it of any sort of life at all. It’s not a story of science, it’s a story of a group of scientists who doomed an innocent chimp to a life of pain, through their own selfish and ego-maniacal actions. It’s apposite that this film’s UK cinematic release occurred around about the same time as Rise of the Planet of the Apes.