In 1973, Columbia University professor Dr. Herb Terrace embarked on one of the strangest scientific experiments of his generation (a generation, let’s not forget, that included Timothy Leary). He decided that by bringing up a newborn chimp, Nim, in a human environment and teaching him sign language, he could prove that the capacity to form language is not a uniquely human trait. The experiment failed to provide conclusive results; but what Terrace did prove is that if language is a defining characteristic that separates man from ape, then it is the only one, because compassion, reason and foresight clearly do not play a part.
The opening of Marsh’s film follows the aesthetic of his previous project, Man On Wire, by splicing grainy documentary footage with a stylised, almost noirish dramatic element. This approach worked so well for the suspense of Man On Wire, but it does little justice to Nim’s melancholy and bizarre story. Where Man On Wire was a high-octane heist movie, Project Nim is a slow-burning story of human endeavour and pathos. Marsh quickly retires this style, but with no back-up plan he never quite works out how best to tell his story, and reverts to ‘talking heads’ and archive footage for the rest of the film.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Nim’s first surrogate, Stephanie, is bat sh*t insane. She allows him to run amok and becomes obsessed with his “sexual awakening” and watching him masturbate. When Nim outgrows city life Terrace sets him up in a huge country mansion with a harem of buxom and pliable young female teachers who, in the space of a few months, teach Nim a considerable vocabulary of signs with which to express himself. Terrace remains distant throughout, his interest only piqued by occasional newspaper attention and regular sex with one or more of the “teachers”.
Eventually the entire experiment is abandoned as Nim becomes too powerful for his teachers; and he is dumped in a chimpanzee enclosure.
Terrace confirms himself as a repulsive and apathetic man: he has satiated his lust and is happy enough with the half-baked and arbitrary results of his mangled experiment. He allows Nim to tumble from enclosure to medical testing facility to lonely farm sanctuary without ever trying to intervene.
After 10 years of confusion, one of Nim’s old carers locates him and decides to visit. Bob approaches cautiously as a barely recognisable Nim rocks back and forth in his cage. Nim turns to face his old friend and immediately throws out his most simple and favourite sign, one of the few signs he created on his own, “play”.
Our sympathy for Nim, and our wonder at the madness of his captors, only takes us so far, however. By the end of the film we feel as if we know a bit more about Project Nim, but we aren’t sure why. Marsh is too content framin g the entire film around the narrative spun by its subjects, rather than stamping his own authorship on the film, and as a result it lacks the power and depth of his previous work.