Friday 17 December 2010

Obscurity Files #33 - The Lawnmower Man

With Tron: Legacy finally hitting our screens this weekend, I thought we could take a look at another film that's at least partially set inside a computer mainframe. Today, it's 1992's Pierce Brosnan/Jeff Fahey starring cyber wet dream that is The Lawnmower Man.

Through the use of technology and scientific research, Dr Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) has come to the realisation that Virtual Reality software can hold the key to the evolution of the human mind. So far Dr Angelo's only trial subject has been a chimp, but when that research comes to a standstill he starts to look for a human willing to take part in the tests. Luckily for him, the neighbourhood gardener with severe learning problems, Jobe (Jeff Fahey), is willing to subject himself to the tests.

The start of the film introduces us to Angelo's high-tec labs, where a super intelligent monkey dressed like Robocop goes on a killing spree whilst trying to escape the complex. He's spent too long inside the virtual reality world and his aggression levels have risen to a dangerous high, meaning the guards have had to shoot him down to protect themselves... from a super chimp. It's this stand still in Angelo's research that makes him take a sabbatical at home, where he just happens to notice that the guy mowing his lawn is a perfect candidate for his experiments.

Now, I'm trying to be as PC about this as possible, but Jobe is a simpleton. During his early scenes Fahey plays him as an idiot man child, dressed like Dennis but with Kurt Cobain's hair. He stutters and mumbles and smiles happily at life, despite being constantly beaten down and picked on by the local residents. Dr Angelo may chastise the other locals for taking advantage of poor, simple Jobe, but that's exactly what he does when he needs a new guinea pig.

To enter the Virtual Reality world, Jobe is given a headset that shoots images towards him like some cyber Ludovico technique, instantly increasing his brain power and knowledge. He also gets to play on a F-Zero type racing game where he becomes a plane, traversing through a maze of obstacles. How it makes him smarter I don't know, but soon Jobe's showing the ability to wear things other than dungarees and comb his own hair.

It doesn't take long before Jobe has advanced his mind beyond that of Dr Angelo, and he realises he's attained some new skills that make him more than human. He's now able to use telepathy and telekinesis to control things in the real world, and starts to think of himself as a new god. He's even able to get himself a girlfriend, although a trip inside the virtual world for a roll in the virtual hay together doesn't go too well. Hmmm, those costumes do look familiar though.

As is painfully obvious from that clip, the VR world is horrendously dated. The humanoid characters looks so simplistic and metallic, and the background looks like a paint bomb's exploded in a tie-dye factory. Now, it might seem a bit unkind the pick this film up on its special effects 18 years later, but let me just remind you that this was from 1992; only one year before Jurassic Park hit our screens. Yes, the budget would have been much lower for this film, but it looks like some bad Windows '95 screensaver.

I do remember this film being released, and how it was hailed as ground breaking at the time. Well, we've come a long way since this was made, and none of the effects have held up at all. As well as the VR landscapes, there's a few SFX shots in the real world, and they're about on par with Super Mario Bros: The Movie. It's so adorably 90's, like listening to grunge or wearing a Global Hypercolor t-shirt. I miss that in a way.

If you watched the trailer, you may have noticed the mention of Stephen King a couple of times. That's from before King demanded he have his name removed from the films marketing, as all they'd taken from his original short story was the title, using a completely different story called Cyber God as the basis for the script. The story has so much ham-fisted religious allegories and imagery throughout that calling it Cyber God might have been a bit too nail on the head (or in the hand, maybe?). Stephen King's works are notorious for having shoddy adaptations (anything by Frank Darabont is of course excluded, and yes, there are others), but he refused to allow them to use his name for something that was so far removed from his original story.

As for the performances, Brosnan is okay as the cyber scientist, but the sight of the future James Bond with an ear-ring is a bit odd. The Lawnmower Man himself, Fahey, has the most work to do, switching gears from the affable retard to a crazy eyed megalomaniac. He does seem to enjoy playing the bad guy, exacting fiery revenge on the people who put him down when he was just a gardener. As for his portrayal as the friendly, harmless version of Jobe; well, I don't think he'd have won any humanitarian awards for it. Jobe may be handy behind a lawnmower, but the idea that he's just a math's lesson short of being a dangerous criminal is, at least, insulting.

The film's finale heads into the VR world more fully, and is a showcase for what this film had to offer. Jobe sacrifices his body to become one with the computer mainframe, transforming into a cyber version of himself that could ascend to god like status. Pierce's doctor has to also head into the mainframe to battle and trap Jobe there, so he can blow up the building and stop him from spreading himself to worldwide omnipotence. Luckily, he finds a shit load of abandoned semtex, so that'll help.

I believe the kindest way to describe this film is to say that it was 'of it's time', but that's just a nice way of saying it would be laughable to today's audiences. The easy comparison is with Avatar, which has been described in similar ways to the way The Lawnmower Man was back in 1992. Avatar may be approaching photo realistic in a way that this film clearly wasn't, but I can't help but wonder how long it'll take for Avatar to suffer a similar comparison. I'm not quite sure how much 'realer' you can get, but call me in 18 years and we'll see how well James Cameron's epic effects showcase has held up. The Lawnmower Man certainly hasn't.

Save from obscurity? NO


  1. Avatar's specials effects will suffer the same fate 10 years now. I was more impressed with Lawnmower Man in 1992 than I was with Avatar in 2010. We had such a slow build up in effects quality leading up to Avatar, that I think a lot of people failed to be "wowed". Lawnmower Man was one of those "right place, right time" releases where people bonkers over the effects of the film and that of T2: Judgement Day.

  2. Great movie, a fun romp, comic-book plotline as an early vehicle for cyberspace philosophy. One of my favorites.

  3. To the author ~ You're forgetting that the Company, Virtual Space Industries, that 'Dr Lawrence Angelo' worked for were tampering with Jobe's progress, by giving Him the: "bad red med's" (Although I'm not quite sure how the Doc' didn't notice the obvious switch, seeing as He was administering the stuff) that sent the super Chimp crazy in the first place.

    Yes, the narrative is a little simplistic in its delivery ~ But it plays out just like a perfect (I concur with Anon' 28.03.12) Comic strip. So Jobe went from lovely mild mannered simpleton, to a power crazed megalomaniac.

    It's a real nature Vs synthetic excess fable. And I'm sure the Matrix Movies drew a lot of inspiration from it, and Transcendence too. It's a beautiful Film ~ Plus I'm a real sucker for some good ole' retro polygons.... *{; D

    1. But, to reiterate your point: Save from obscurity? HECK NO!!!

      Some things should stay quite little cult pleasures....