Oscar-winning British director James Marsh ("Man on Wire") helmed this deeply disturbing documentary about a misguided 1970s academic experiment to determine the learning abilities of a chimpanzee and its horrible impact on its simian subject.
Columbia University Professor Herbert Terrace orchestrated an effort to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee. The chimp in question, dubbed "Nim Chimpsky" (a pun on Noam Chomsky) was acquired from a hideous primate breeding facility in Oklahoma and deposited with Terrace’s nutty students. No one in Terrace’s research circle had any clue about dealing with a chimpanzee and, as a result, treated him as a human - even to the point of sharing marijuana with Nim. Of course, chimpanzees are very different from humans and Nim’s often violent reactions to his surroundings resulted in significant injuries to Terrace’s students.
The experiment was ultimately declared a failure - although Nim grasped the meaning of approximately 125 signed words, Terrace concluded that chimpanzees could not approximate human speech. Nim was abruptly deposited with a medical lab, where he was slated to be the subject of vaccine testing experiments. While several sympathetic people made efforts to save him from being medically tortured, Nim’s life became a skein of unpleasant situations before his premature death from a heart attack.
"Project Nim" plays like a tragic chronicle of animal abuse, with Terrace and a gaggle of his former students offering a shockingly crass and clueless recollection of their mistreatment of Nim. If anything, the film provides a clear message that any academic endeavor involving wild animals be forbidden unless the humans behind the project can provide unimpeachable evidence that they possess working brains.