The style [of "Primate"] is typical of a Wiseman film: leisurely, flat, unnarrated, often repetitive, utterly free of polemic. But the subject matter is intensely emotional. Not only is it grisly, with enough vivesection, exotic behavior modification, implantations, vomiting and probing to turn the strongest stomach, but also profound in the questions it raises about science, compassion and the eternal tension between the rational and spiritual sides of man's nature.
Wiseman raises these questions simply by observing scientists as closely as scientists observe primates. In the process, he exposes their callousness, their obsessiveness, the little games they play with one another and with their funding foundations, and, most revealingly, their peculiarly narrow view of life in general. (pp. 1, 31)
To Wiseman's credit, the film does not exploit the lovableness of the animals. "Primate" is never sentimental. Although the animals appear pitiful, the point of the film is not just to protest cruelty. Wiseman is asking, subtly and usually through dark humor, "Is this necessary?" When the benefits to mankind are so far off, and when more urgent problems confront us daily, must we know this?… In our passion to know more and more about less and less, are we losing perspective?
Wiseman implies we are.
In "Primate," as in earlier Wiseman films, the institution, the method and the bureaucracy are all shown to smother the original humanistic purpose….
The "de-animalization" of the monkey becomes a metaphor for the subtler kind of de-humanization afflicting our social institutions generally—emergency room, classroom, courtroom, monastery, barracks. And, as "Primate" so vividly demonstrates, it permeates even the realm of "pure" science, with animals the inanimate means to dubious ends. (p. 31)
Chuck Kraemer, "Fred Wiseman's 'Primate' Makes Monkeys of Scientists," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 1, 1974, pp. 1, 31.