In 1973, a linguist named Herbert Terrace adopted an infant chimpanzee from a research lab in Oklahoma. “Adopted” is perhaps too neutral a term, though. As director James Marsh’s recent documentary Project Nim (Lions Gate DVD and streaming) reveals, he was ripped from his mother’s arms after she had been sedated. And yet that would be far from the unkindest thing to happen to him.
Terrace’s idea was to teach an ape sign language in order to discover if other primates shared the human mental capacity for speech, grammar, etc. The subject was dubbed Nim Chimpsky and given to a succession of well-meaning graduate students to raise him as if he were a human infant. Thus Nim’s life began on an early course of coddling (his first human “mother” breast-fed him for a time), permissiveness (this being the ’70s, he smoked marijuana), and close communion with his de facto keepers. As it was an experiment, Nim’s life was documented extensively, which allows Marsh to recreate his biography in significant detail with film footage and stills; many of his early human benefactors sit for talking-head interviews.
As Nim grew from an adorable spoiled-rotten baby ape into a fully mature chimpanzee—a wild animal despite his vocabulary of hundreds of signs—he became a danger to the humans who doted on him. And so back to the research lab in Oklahoma he went, penned up in a facility remarkably like the grim primate prison of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and thrown together with other chimps—a species with whom he’d had no contact since he was two weeks old. And as Marsh’s film unspools, Nim’s utter betrayal by the humans he trusted only deepens.
Project Nim is not a film to watch if you’re looking to feel good about our species. Terrace is unremorseful about Nim’s trajectory; his treatment of his research subject and his dalliances with his young female research assistants don’t help make him sympathetic. Time and again, as Nim is handed from one indignity to another, those humans who try to help him often wind up hurting him in the end. And Nim’s expressiveness, brought out by his years communicating with humans and captured by cameras, telegraphs his hurt, outrage, and bitterness. But then there’s Bob Ingersoll, a charismatic Deadhead who becomes one of Nim’s warders and friends, but, more critically, refuses to give up and leave him to whatever fate our society usually deals to captive wild animals. Project Nim offers a moving, exceedingly well-told story that doubles as a meditation of how little we can hold ourselves above the random cruelty of nature when it comes down to our treatment of our fellow creatures. And god bless Bob Ingersoll for giving Nim, and the rest of us, some hope for ourselves.
If you’re really not looking to feel good about our species, you could rent The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) (MPI DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming). Writer/director Tom Six’s sequel literally picks up where his The Human Centipede (First Sequence) leaves off—as the ending and end credits play on a laptop watched by Martin (Laurence R. Harvey), an obese security guard who watches over a dank underground parking garage in London. It’s not the first time Martin’s watched the film, obviously—he keeps a scrapbook devoted to it. He is a man obsessed, and since this is the sequel to The Human Centipede, his obsession leads him to start waylaying patrons of the garage and other random people he happens across in order to construct his own super-sized version of the first film’s surgically attached daisy-chain of wrongness.
Six proves once again that he has an eye for talent, among other things. Dieter Laser’s inimitable Dr. Heiter from the first film is gone, but Harvey offers an even more uncanny screen presence—he could have played Danny DeVito’s Penguin with minimal makeup, and he sells Martin’s sweaty depravity far past the point of ordinary actorly professionalism. Six gives him an outlandish sad-case backstory in what seems a half-hearted stab to make him sympathetic (the black-and-white Full Sequence could even be viewed as Six’s Eraserhead homage). But once Martin gets down to business, sympathy and other higher human emotional responses go out the window as the film descends to a level of savage, naked exploitation that makes the first film look like a PG-13 rom-com. Six has some grim fun getting meta (Martin tries to lure the unknown actresses who starred in First Sequence to England for “auditions”) and perhaps in pillorying the sort of folks who get off on films like these in the first place. But like First Sequence, Full Sequence is a bit too well crafted to dismiss as total heedless race-to-the-bottom junk (see also: A Serbian Film, Martyrs, etc.). Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Full Sequence is finding out that Six is working on The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence) and trying to imagine how he’s going to double down on this.