(Before we get started , I’d like it noted for the record that I LOVE MR. JEFF FAHEY!!! 🙂
Now that that my shameless fangirling needs have been appeased, I’m happy to also let you know that this review was submitted by Mr. Andrew Peters…Thanks, Ho-rror Ho-mie! 🙂 xoxo)
I believe the ‘90s had an extravagant way of overblowing technology in movies more than any other era in film. Sure, the ‘70s and ‘80s brought us some far out movies in terms of where they figured technology would go, but look at films like Alien where it’s very lo-fi. Or how about War Games that when you think it about isn’t as farfetched as it may seem. Even the show Max Headroom predicted quite a few things as crazy as that was amidst all its New Coke slinging. It seemed like movies were showing the progression of computers, from controlling ships to how we interact and communicate in the world to becoming a part of a livable cyber-world and while the examples I listed were fairly spot on in predicting the future, most films seemed to miss the idea. Or they were just having fun.
Something that films have yet to portray accurately – or at least non-unintentionally hysterical – is hacking and virtual reality. These were crazes that were taking the country by storm and being portrayed in the stupidest possible way in media. They were often shown as what old people thought young people thought could be marketed as cool; some kid with socks on his arms, neon colored hair and a ‘tude mashing on his keyboard while spitting made up cyber-jumbo, often pitted against “the man.” See films like Hackers or Game Over (a 2003 movie which uses 35 minutes of Sega CD footage as part of the story, I’m not kidding), but every now and then something would come along and take the material a little more seriously and while still being farfetched, it managed to walk a fine line of believability.
1992’s The Lawnmower Man was such a film, even though I think it’s much better looked upon now then when it was upon its initial release.The virtual reality popularity was at its highest, spawning dozens of movies and TV shows, like the underrated VR.5. Sure, the special effects were bad and the idea of VR never lived up to the hype and the fad died faster than the Lambada craze. Outside of film, the idea of virtual reality was never fully realized, but in cinema… it would change your life, become weaponized (somehow) make you god and would take over the world! Hey, at the time it seemed possible, probably because nobody really understood it or just how unimpressively limp it was. Still, some rather cool ideas came out of it. For example, I never thought I’d see a monkey in a bad Robocop costume.
Seriously. That’s how The Lawnmower Man begins. With a chimp doing some bad Robocop cosplay. Well, there is a reason behind it, so it’s not just something random for the sake of being stupid. A pre-Bond and pre-Mrs. Doubtfire Pierce Brosnan stars as Dr. Lawrence Angelo who is using virtual reality to make chimps smarter, because SCIENCE! Of course, the evil corporation (they are always evil, scheming evil plans to do something evil with your well intentioned creation) Virtual Space Industries – or VSI – wants to use it at a weapon and mixed with the chemicals they’ve been feeding it, the chimp goes ape shit (pun totally intended), steals a gun, guns down a guard and escapes. Now, let’s back up for a second here. VSI wants to use monkey soldiers. They are actually training chimps in virtual reality for use in combat. Now, I want you to think about this and then picture a hundreds of chimps dropping out of choppers or parachuting into combat and mowing down the enemy. Holy shit… this is how Planet of the Apes starts. I never thought the guy from Dante’s Peak would be the cause.
So much wild and weird stuff is happening at once and it’s only going to derail from here, so I’m gonna do my best to stay focused. This isn’t the best movie for someone with ADD to try and explain. It also doesn’t help that there’s a bunch of pretty colors and ‘90s computer graphics mixed with some pretty stupid dialogue. Paying attention to what the hell is going on in the plot was hard enough, now I have to try and not laugh at what I’m seeing and hearing.
The chimp eventually ends up finding and befriending Jobe (Jeff Fahey), a simple man who mows lawns. Hence, The Lawnmower Man. Unfortunately for Jobe, his friendship with the chimp is ended when VSI finds and guns down the primate shortly thereafter, but Dr. Angelo takes note of the surprisingly good looking and buff handicapped man and realizes that he mows his lawn. Wow, what a coincidence, huh? Dr. Angelo entices Jobe with the promise of video games that can make him smarter, so long as Father Francis, Jobe’s caretaker, agrees. Fortunately, he doesn’t seem to mind, just as long as it doesn’t get in the way of his lashing Jobe repeatedly with a belt. It’s a minor subplot, but a subplot nonetheless. I should also point out that although this isn’t taken out of the Stephen King story of the same name, but it is a Stephen King cliche that it follows; misunderstood sad sack who is tormented and picked on until he acquires super-powers and gets revenge.
The reason I’m only now bringing up that this was based on a Stephen King novel is because, well, it’s not. Aside from the name and the character being a lawnmower man, this has nothing to do with Stephen King’s story. In fact, Stephen King sued to have his name taking off the film and all promotional material during the film’s release and won.
Dr. Angelo begins with smaller, interactive quizzes and puzzles with Jobe, building him up to some good ol’ VR racing/action games with his neighbor, young Peter who would later move to a shady NYC neighborhood and have an unhealthy obsession with Arnold Schwarzenegger action flicks. Jobe is quickly getting the hang of things, much to Dr. Angelo’s surprise, even more so when Jobe is showing signs of rapid intelligent growth. Jobe is much smarter now, able to comprehend complicated math equations, any event in world history and to not dress like a country version of a Good Guys doll. One might say he is learning too fast and Dr. Angelo is becoming concerned, but luckily a sultry woman in need of her fluids getting checked, Marnie (played by one of the sexiest creatures on this planet, Near Dark’s Jenny Wright) distracts Jobe with mowing her lawn… and I mean that in both ways. She lays the sexual innuendos on so thick, it’s like biscuit batter. Not a very subtle approach, but then again she still thinks Jobe is mentally challenged. Wait, so why is she hitting on him?
Meanwhile, The Shop (another Stephen King reference) led by a giant head on a TV screen of Dean Norris sends someone to babysit Dr. Angelo and swaps out the improved chemicals he’s been giving Jobe with the old ones that made the monkey crazy to expedite results. Soon, things escalate and Jobe realizes that he now harnesses the power of telekinesis and telepathy and quickly becomes more overwhelmed by his powers and his learning speed. This starts to send him spiraling down a dark path, no longer having content for humans, because of the atrocities they’ve caused and with his newfound powers, sets out on a course of revenge. He even gears up in a sweet VR cyber suit, so at this point it’s almost like a superhero flick, which makes sense seeing as how Jobe’s character was obsessed with comic books. Becoming too powerful for this mortal realm, he decides it’s time to infiltrate the cyber world to take over the world! After all, they didn’t spend all this money on CG for nothing.
I’m sure everyone remembers all the promos on TV and especially in print of the cyber-Jobe. I remember seeing that image of his golden face against that blue, honeycombed patterned background. Advertisement for this movie was everywhere and they were expecting this thing to be huge. On a ten million dollar budget, the film only did about three times as much which wasn’t as much as the studio had expected it to make. Combine that with mixed to negative reviews, the film just kinda came and went. The virtual reality craze was on its way out seeing as how technology just wasn’t quite there and the way it was portrayed in media was now seen as a joke, The Lawnmower Man just went away. It did get a direct to video sequel in 1996, The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace (retitled to The Lawnmower Man 2: Jobe’s War for home video), but it was pretty much hated by everyone and still is. Personally, I fucking love it. It’s one of those ‘so bad, it’s good’ films.
What blows my mind is that Hollywood is still trying to make this movie. Not The Lawnmower Man, but the idea itself of a being becoming so intelligent that it wants to rule the world via computers. Transcendence comes to mind and shades of Lucy as well. It’s a recycled plot that for whatever reason people aren’t really interested in. I think it’s because The Lawnmower Man, as absolutely silly as it is once you think about it, did it really damn well. Sure, it’s not only taking the name from a Stephen King story, but similar plot elements with other various Stephen King stories. Not only that, the basic idea of a simple man becoming more intelligent through the use of technology is the premise of the novel Flowers for Algernon. In essence, you could say The Lawnmower Man is mish mash of cyber-punk with Stephen King tropes. And to be honest, I think it’s fantastic for that. Directed by Brett Leonard (who also directed to paranormal/zombie flick The Dead Pit) took various ideas and materials and wanted to make something that mixed the then trendy cyber-punk idea with various horror elements, like slasher and the idea of a ghost in the machine or a being becoming too powerful to control.
I have to also hand it to all of the actors involved for really selling what is pretty much an atrocious idea and making it work. Normally, this sort of film would have terrible special effects (well, worse than the ones on screen, even though they looked fairly decent for 1992) and littered with technobabble jargon, but all of that stuff is reserved. The use of VR footage is mostly scarce until the climax and Dr. Angelo talks like a normal human being instead of some “hip” hacker type of character just spitting out nonsense dialogue. Jeff Fahey even manages to make Jobe sympathetic, even when he begins to become too smart for himself and goes on a killing spree, but my favorite performance by far is Jenny Wright, because we get to see her boobs. I don’t care if that’s immature, she’s beautiful and so is her body. I’ve always had the hots for her.
The Lawnmower Man is finally available on Blu-ray, both the theatrical and the director’s cut on a 2-disc set thanks to your pals at Scream Factory. Disc one features the theatrical cut, which is also a 4K scan from the original interpositive and has a new look at the film called Cybergod: Creating The Lawnmower Man, featuring interviews with co-writer/director Brett Leonard, actor Jeff Fahey, editor Alan Baumgarten, make-up effects artist Michael Deak and special effects coordinator Frank Ceglia. Brett Leonard and Gimel Everett (writer and producer) provide an audio commentary and you can find some deleted scenes as well as the original EPK, some edited animated sequences and of course, the trailer and TV spots. Disc two is where you’ll find the director’s cut (which is also a 4K scan from the interpositive with additional “Director’s Cut” footage from the original camera negative) alongside another audio commentary from Brett Leonard and Gimel Everett, concept art, BTS and productions stills, as well as some storyboard comparisons. Needless to say, you get a lot of bang for your buck, but for me, just having both cuts of the film looking as freaking beautiful as they do here is worth it alone.
I absolutely adore The Lawnmower Man and that might have something to do with my fondness for the way the media sees computer hacking, gaming and technology. It brings back good nostalgic feelings and it’s worth some chuckles, but this film also takes itself very seriously and gets kinda dark at moments. Even though the idea of the movie is silly, it never once leads you to believe this is a joke and maintains a relatively good balance of taking place in the real world. Hopefully Scream Factory will release Jobe’s War in the near future.