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Why ‘Project X’ is One of the Most Junkfood Movies of All Time

No, not that one. The other Project X.
Project X
By  · Published on May 10th, 2017

No, the Project X from 1987.

Over its three-year existence, the Junkfood Cinema podcast has covered a number of films that demonstrate the questionable core values of the show. There have been the cheesy, the shamelessly spectacular, and even the occasional slice of quality too long relegated to obscurity. There are artists and creators to whom we gravitate like we do toward favorite flavors of ice cream and subgenres that we cozy into like the corner booth of a perfect roadside diner.

After three years, it is safe to say that 1987’s Project X is one of the most Junkfood movies of all time.

It is the story of a young air force pilot punitively reassigned to a laboratory on the base; one which houses a usual animal experiment. He is tasked with helping to train a chimpanzee to operate a flight simulator but soon realizes there is a sinister secondary variable to the experiment. The movie then becomes a race against time to free the subjects from their tragic fate.

Project X is Junkfood Cinema 101. One need only watch the opening credits as proof; credits reading like the guest list of the Junkfood Cinema reunion. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan (Truck Turner), an alum of the prestigious School of Corman, shot by Dean Cundey who served as DP on almost all of John Carpenter’s films as well as Back to the Future, and scored by JFC professor emeritus James Horner (Battle Beyond the Stars, Aliens)?! It was also written by Lawrence Lasker who would later give us Sneakers. That would be enough in and of itself if not for the cast.

Let’s frame this list in the context of movies that this podcast has canonized. Project X stars Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Helen Hunt (Twister), William Sadler (Tales from the Crypt Demon Knight), and the great (though under-used in this film) Stephen Lang (Band of the Hand, Tombstone, Don’t Breathe). Oh, and let us not forget, possibly as a function of the Corman University alumni present here, a cameo appearance by JFC patron saint Dick Miller.

The other element of Project X that makes it fit snugly into our wheelhouse is the fact that it is a high-quality movie with an extremely junky premise. It was sold to this writer as “Matthew Broderick and a monkey!” While that sounded silly and fun, it spotlighted a self-reflection that I do not care for movies featuring real apes. Give me Andy Serkis in mo-cap or Roddy McDowall in coconut face or this Dunston checks out. However, Project X is an incredibly moving drama that manages to be among the best animal rights films ever made without being overly preachy. The latter is accomplished by a careful examination of intentions and taking swipes at bureaucracy in general as opposed to taking aim at the military exclusively.

I cried twice. No shame in my game.

Project X takes the form of many other movies as it progresses in a way that, if charted, would resemble the Evolution of Man diagram. Most fascinating in this regard is the movie it becomes right before the climax. In more ways than one, Project X is the Wrath of Khan of chimpanzee films. A James Horner score, a scene involving radioactive sacrifice while characters watch helplessly from the other side of protective glass, and a compelling antagonist whose intentions we understand? Practically the only thing separating the two movies is the presence of mind-controlling earwigs…which the furry protagonists of Project X would likely have plucked from Chekov’s head and promptly eaten.

To hear more of Brian and Cargill going ape over this movie (easy joke, we know), listen to this week’s careful study of Project X; one of the most perfectly suited Junkfood Cinema flicks ever made.

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! During Summer of 87, there will be an entirely separate Summer of 77 miniseries just for Patrons! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.