Exploiting our Archives: The Lawnmower Man and the Weird Charm of Getting It Early, Getting It Wrong

Early internet and virtual reality movies like Disclosure, Hackers, The Net and 1992’s The Lawnmower Man, which Shout Factory is releasing in a 25th anniversary two-disc Director’s Cut Blu-Ray tomorrow, are irresistible to camp aficionados, bad movie lovers and Gen-X nostalgists because they get the future of technology so exquisitely, surreally wrong. 

The 141 minute Director’s Cut of The Lawnmower Man, which I watched because I love you, even begins by assuring us that by the turn of the century (that would be the long-ago days of the the late 90s and the once spiffily futuristic 2000) virtual reality will have changed everything. And while it is true that between the release of The Lawnmower Man and now the internet really has changed everything in ways even the most deliriously optimistic of cyber-utopians couldn’t have envisioned, virtual reality has somehow remained in some weird primitive holding pattern, locked forever in a weird world of nerds in dorky helmets or glasses wearing Tron light-up bodysuits and walking down corridors or floating through chintzily kaleidoscopic computer-generated worlds. 

Silicon Valley has introduced some virtual reality-based plots in the new season. One of the running jokes is how unremarkable even the most impressive virtual reality remains in 2017. While we live our lives online, virtual reality somehow still tops out at being able to walk around and, in the world of Silicon Valley at least, look for a long time at a milkmaid. 

The Lawnmower Man does not have a sense of humor about itself or its vision of the future, nor is it subtle or apologetic about appropriating huge elements of classics like Flowers for Algernon, Frankenstein and 1984. The movie seems inspired by just about everything other than the Stephen King short story of the same name, with which it shares only the elements of a lawnmower and a man. Yet that somehow did not keep the people putting this out from trying to do so under the more immediately commercial, if intentionally inaccurate title Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man.

King successfully sued to have his name taken off the film, although that didn’t keep the video company from initially trying to release it as Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man. King took to the courts to be distanced from a movie. Think about the movies from this period with King’s name. For him to take drastic action to let people know that he does not approve of a film’s connection to his work, or quality really says something, since the brand for movies with Stephen King’s name at the front of their titles is generally “hot garbage with a tangential relationship to its ostensible source material at best”

Though I will argue that The Lawnmower Man is entertaining, even important hot garbage, it is wonderfully trashy and its relationship to King’s story, about a lawn-mowing worshipper of Pan, does indeed have jack shit to do with The Lawnmower Man, which is overflowing with weird ideas of its own, many of them second-hand. 

Like all science fiction motion pictures of ideas, the Director’s Cut of The Lawnmower Man opens with a super-intelligent, aggressive, brainwashed chimpanzee soldier playing a sophisticated (for its time) virtual reality simulation that goes awry and leads to some non-virtual bloodshed. 

The super-intelligent primate seeks shelter in the shack of Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey), a simpleton suffering the trials of Job (slick symbolism, guys!) as a Faulknerian idiot man-child horrifically abused by the creepy, sadistic opportunists around him, particularly an evil Priest. The chimpanzee is the handiwork of Dr. Lawrence Angelo, a brilliant scientist played by Pierce Brosnan, who was bound for bigger and better and Bondier things. Jeff Fahey, who would go on to play the “scene-stealing” Dennis Hopper/Jack Nicholson role in the fan-fiction Easy Rider “sequel” Easy Rider: The Ride Back, in addition to many, many films that skipped the multiplexes, was not.

Can VR transform this man into a God? The answer won't surprise you!

Can VR transform this man into a God? The answer won't surprise you!

The chimpanzee is killed and a frustrated Brosnan, whose science definitely falls on the “mad” side of the sanity fence, decides to continue his experiments in better living through VR on the dull-witted titular lawn mowing gent. How bad is Fahey as a vacant-eyed man-child bumbling through a hellish gauntlet of earthly torments? In the scene where his exemplar of child-like innocence mistakes the high-tech, killer chimp for one of his favorite comic book heroes, the chimpanzee acts circles around Fahey. It’s easier to believe that a super-intelligent chimp, who has become a genius thanks to virtual reality smartening, is making a doomed last stand than it is to buy Fahey as a mentally challenged man. 

Every moment Fahey is feigning sub-par intelligence, all I could think about was Ben Stiller as dim-witted but good-hearted star of Simple Jack in Tropic Thunder. The distractingly dumb haircut, the grotesque burlesque of simple-minded boyishness, the rank sentimentality, it perfectly matches up with Fahey’s unintentionally hilarious performance here. 

Jack and Jobe—brothers from other mothers?

Crazy to think, but the human eye was once impressed by images like these

Crazy to think, but the human eye was once impressed by images like these

I don’t want to be lookist, but I have a hard time buying that a man who looks like Pierce Brosnan, who has Pierce Brosnan’s cheekbones and Pierce Brosnan’s dashing good looks, would choose science as a field rather than, say, male modeling or playing James Bond. And it’s hard to buy that a man who looks like Brosnan would be named “Larry” but maybe that’s just my weird issue. 

The Lawnmower Man is a profoundly strange film that saves money for its then-groundbreaking (sort of, kind of, they were also kinda silly even back then) special effects by populating its virtual reality-crazed near future with about a dozen people in total, and a whole lot of big empty rooms and corridors. 

Poor Brosnan spends much of the film talking into various recording devices about the progress of his virile blonde science experiment. The movie gives Fahey the juicy role, and a role way beyond his very limited range, then makes Brosnan play most of his scenes as a thankless extended solo forever delivering dreary exposition to move the plot forward. 

Are you not entertained?

Are you not entertained?

Faster than you can say “Flowers for Algernon” the good doctor’s VR lessons are paying rich dividends and Fahey’s rapidly-improving schmuck is transformed first into a formidable intellect, then a superior intellect, and finally into an intellect so vast and powerful he terrifies the doctor and threatens the very fabric of the universe. 

Fahey gets progressively less terrible as his character makes a predictable evolution from pushed-around sap to avenging angel to superhuman and then finally a malevolent cyber-deity but the incredibly primitive computer animation, from the company that would become Rockstar Games, gets worse and worse, yet remains fascinating precisely because it’s such a riot of hideous cyber-colors, such a fascinating headache of tacky computer spectacle. . 

Not gonna lie: this legit was an impressive special effect.

Not gonna lie: this legit was an impressive special effect.

Forget the uncanny valley. The groaningly, even reassuringly familiar neanderthal computer animation here never looks remotely enough like anything human or real to be disconcerting on that level. 

I was sixteen year old when The Lawnmower Man came out. I know that I saw it, if not in its theatrical run then on videocassette, where it was a big favorite at the Blockbuster I worked at the time. So my fondness for the movie is also wrapped up in the VR kitsch of the era, whether it was the ambitious but phenomenally disappointing Sega-CD format or music videos or stoner head tapes (like The Mind’s Eye) using the same primitive but somehow impressive (at least if you were super high or had low expectations) computer animation as Lawnmower Man. 

The Lawnmower Man knew that virtual reality was going to change everything. It just wasn’t sure how so it got everything surreally mixed-up. A quarter century after its release, The Lawnmower Man remains as wonderfully off-base as ever, while serving as an early version of movies like Lucy and Limitless, where normal or mentally-challenged people become smart enough to alter the very fabric of the universe. That’s a fun little sub-genre, and at times The Lawnmower Man feels like a much trashier and more fun version of the Johnny Depp as super-computer snoozer Transcendence. 

Oftentimes we hail science fiction for being prescient. The opposite applies to The Lawnmower Man. It represented an early 1990s’ conception of what the future of computer/human technology held that couldn’t be less accurate, or more campily fun to revisit from the vantage point of a future it got wonderfully wrong. 

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