Times Staff Writer

“Project X” (citywide), a sleek, high-tech, big-deal, mainstream Hollywood entertainment, reunites “WarGames” star Matthew Broderick and its co-writer Lawrence Lasker. The result, while involving and technically impressive, is not as satisfying as the 1983 film. Once again, an impassioned youth takes on the dastardly military, but “Project X” strains credibility. Too often it seems an overreaching variation on “WarGames.”

Broderick may get top billing, but the film’s sure-fire scene-stealer is a bright, adorable young chimp named Virgil taught to sign by a young university researcher (Helen Hunt). When her project is canceled, Virgil winds up, not at a children’s zoo as promised, but as part of a top-secret program at a Florida Air Force base, to which grounded pilot Jimmy Garrett (Broderick) has been assigned. We know right off that whatever the Air Force is up to, it’s not going to be good for the chimps, but Jimmy, who’s sweet and impulsive, is slow to worry.

What the Air Force is doing is so crazy, yet not unbelievable, that it demands to be viewed with the darkly outrageous satirical tone of a “Dr. Strangelove.” “Project X,” however, has a mile-wide streak of shamelessly manipulative sentimentality. It’s enough to make you wish the film makers had been able to come up with a tougher-minded premise involving a secret project that may be horrendous in nature yet of some clear value to both man and beast.

Writer Stanley Weiser, in adapting a story he wrote with Lasker, makes a major miscalculation: He starts out seriously but ends up with a credibility-defying fantasy resolution. How much better it would have been to progress from light to dark. What’s more, a story involving cruelty to animals is inherently more off-putting than suspenseful; it doesn’t lend itself to elaborate make-believe or even parable as neatly as the lethal computer games of “WarGames” did.

Nonetheless, “Project X” doesn’t lack pluses. There’s no question that Jonathan Kaplan, the talented director of “Heart Like a Wheel” and “Over the Edge,” makes the most of the material. “Project X” does command attention and does engage emotions; if the film doesn’t connect with your head, it may just steal your heart while you’re not thinking. Broderick is winningly wide-eyed, Hunt spunky and the production values superb. Designer Lawrence Paull and cinematographer Dean Cundey, last teamed on “Back to the Future,” take us into a vast laboratory world that seems chillingly authentic. James Horner’s score is at once elegant and stirring. “Project X” (rated PG because it’s too intense for small children) reflects quality and care throughout, but its elements don’t quite mesh. ‘PROJECT X’


A 20th Century Fox presentation. Executive producer C. O. Erickson. Producers Walter F. Parkes, Lawrence Lasker. Director Jonathan Kaplan. Screenplay Stenley Weiser; based on a story by Weiser and Lasker. Camera Dean Cundey. Music James Horner. Production designer Lawrence G. Paull. Visual effects supervisor Michael Fink. Costumes Mary Vogt. Animal coordinator Hubert Wells. Technical adviser Richard J. Kendall. Stunt coordinator Victor Paul. Aircraft coordinator Chuck Hood. Film editor O. Nicholas Brown. With Matthew Broderick, Helen Hunt, Bill Sadler, Johnny Ray McGhee, Jonathan Gammell, Stephen Lang, Jean Smart, Chuck Bennett.

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG (Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.)