The 13th Floor

A Defense of 1992 Virtual-Reality Thriller THE LAWNMOWER MAN

We were all foolish when we were young. We liked dumb stuff, said dumb things, and espoused dumb philosophies. We took our life lessons from weird places, and often only grew by exchanging one form of immaturity for another. For many of us, it takes a while to follow the advice of 1: Corinthians and put away childish things.

Ask any 13-year-old what their favorite movies of all time are, and you’ll likely be treated to a list of expected bland blockbusters, weird-ass genre films, and silly comedies that aren’t funny to anyone over the age of 17. Yes, sometimes we have good taste when we’re young, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll find that, when viewed objectively, a lot of our childhood favorites are kinda crap.

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Case in point: One of my favorite movies when I was 13 was a sci-fi/horror thriller called THE LAWNMOWER MAN, based very, very, very loosely on a short story by Stephen King. THE LAWNMOWER MAN was released in March of 1992 to mild financial success, but to critical indifference. The CGI effects (called merely “computer animation” at the time) were cutting-edge in 1992, but look like a downright relic today. These images are leftover from the era of experimental short films.

Throughout Junior High School, and even into my teen years, I found myself frequently defending THE LAWNMOWER MAN to peers and, more embarrassingly, to my parents. I insisted that something profound was going on in this virtual reality thriller, that there was a deep, deep statement being made about human nature and about humanity’s relationship with technology. Over the years, I only slowly began to come to terms with the fact that THE LAWNMOWER MAN was actually an overblown and silly film with a oddball premise. I eventually stopped defending it.

In 2016, I returned to re-examine it… and I find that there is a lot to recommend about the flick. Hear me out. My 15-year-old self, now armed with adult notions and vocabulary, has something to say.

To briefly offer a a rundown on the story: THE LAWNMOWER MAN is about an ambitious computer scientist named Dr. Angelo (Pierce Brosnan), who has been using a combination of virtual reality technology and advanced drugs to turn chimpanzees into super-soldiers. Yes, there are multiple scenes of a chimpanzee wearing a helmet and cybernetic armor; it’s a silly-ass image we just have to accept. At least the film has the decency to put a gun in the chimp’s hand and have it gun down unsuspecting humans. Dr. Angelo’s real intent is merely to make chimps more intelligent, but his shadowy bosses insist on the soldier angle.

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One of his chimps escapes, and finds its way into the arms of a childlike, mentally-disabled man named Jobe (Jeff Fahey). The chimp is apprehended, but Dr. Angelo finds a new test subject in Jobe, and begins using virtual reality to make Jobe more intelligent, confident, and, oddly enough, more physically fit.

Jobe grows from a friendly simpleton into a more assertive person; he begins standing up to the local priest who regularly beats him, and accumulates enough sexual prowess to bed the town floozy (Jenny Wright). As an unfortunate side effect, he also begins to outgrow his friendship with young boy Peter (Austin O’Brien).

Of course, the experiment eventually goes haywire in unexpected ways: Jobe becomes super-intelligent, able to take complicated tests in a matter of seconds. He then develops mild psychic powers, and it’s not long before he’s floating furniture with his mind. Right when Dr. Angelo realizes he’s essentially making the next step in human evolution, his bosses step in and slip Jobe the super-soldier drugs, turning him into an insane, aggressive super-powered tyrant. The film’s climax takes place within virtual reality, when Jobe has inserted his brain into a computer, and intends to infect the world with his own tyrannical rule via telephone.

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In 1992, the public believed virtual reality was going to be the Next Big Thing, and living within entirely artificial environments seemed closer than ever. This was a thrill to tech enthusiasts, but also a grave warning for phobics. Reality would vanish and all that was “genuine” was now under threat. Movies and TV shows explored this a lot, and, indeed the director of THE LAWNMOWER MAN, Brett Leonard, would revisit the tech in his underrated thriller VIRTUOSITY.

It is now 2016, and virtual reality is being dabbled with again, this time on a bigger and more practical level. Should the tech ever take over, then THE LAWNMOWER MAN will suddenly become a salient and dark warning of things to come. What are we doing when we use our smartphones and VR goggles other than vanishing into another world? And what will that do to our minds? Is it a possibility that humanity will eventually supplant the natural world with one that is entirely constructed and artificial? How much further away is a “constructed world” from, say, a climate-controlled room?

THE LAWNMOWER MAN does come from another time, but as technology progresses, we may find that it’s more significant now than it was back then.

Also, the film’s approach to technology fulfills the ideal function of science fiction: when we look at speculative technology in our stories, we often like to see what the extreme might be. In EX MACHINA, we looked at a story of the moral and psychological consequences of making a “perfect” woman using our own imperfect male minds. What would that look like? What happens when we jump too far too quickly? Although the film is hated by many, the 2014 film TRANSCENDENCE is very smart about the ultimate endgame for technological advancement. What are we ultimately going to attain in our quest to invent better and better machines? Surely, all these films posit, we seek complete dominance of the natural world. We seek godlike dominion. And that, to modern eyes, smacks of hubris. So many of these stories are cautionary tales. THE LAWNMOWER MAN actually does have something to say in that regard.

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Also, the effects, while dated, still look — at least to this critic’s eyes — pretty cool. The filmmakers sought to include all the latest computer tech, and had to invent some of the most striking and original images to come from the era. Sure, when Jobe goes mad, he could have easily used telekinesis to run people over with lawnmowers (which he does do), but he also infects a person’s mind with a madness-inducing, brain slicing CGI image. In one bonkers scene, Jobe projects a 12-foot-tall image of his head into the world, only to reduce a pair of CIA men into what looks to be flying billiard balls. These are unique kills in the annals of horror, and showed a striking level of ingenuity on the part of the director.

Is a lot the film kind of ridiculous? Yes indeed. Some of the images and themes are so extreme as to be goofy, and the flick is far too earnest to play like a legitimate B-movie. And yes, that chimp-in-a-helmet stuff is very hard to get past. Also, the director’s cut is 144 minutes, which makes for breathing room as well as a lack of focus. (By the way, see the 144-minute version. The 103-minute version doesn’t make sense.)

Stephen King’s name was slapped all over THE LAWNMOWER MAN in the initial marketing blitz, but the adaptation is so very, very loose that Stephen King actively petitioned to have his name removed from the film. The original story was about a mad greens-keeper, secretly a satyr, who ate grass clippings and sacrificed humans to the gods. There was no mention of virtual reality, technology, or anything of that ilk. The only thing the story and the film have in common are the title, and a brief mention that a lawnmower victim’s guts ended up in their birdbath.

Over the years, THE LAWNMOWER MAN became a joke; it has a silly title, a dated premise, and one of the worst sequels of all time (seriously, THE LAWNMOWER MAN 2: BEYOND CYBERSPACE, a.k.a. JOBE’S WAR, set in the future and featuring Matt Frewer as Jobe, is nearly unwatchable). These days, one can hardly find it. It’s been lost to time, and many critics would see that as a good thing. While I can’t say it’s a great film, and can also easily sell the film on its campier elements, I hasten to fight against its bad reputation, and declare that it’s certainly worthy of at least reconsideration.

THE LAWNMOWER MAN. Timely, fun to watch, innovative, and even kind of cool.