“Jack in, jack off; what’s the difference?”
In the sequel to LAWNMOWER MAN the greatest terror to be found is the movie itself. Exaggerated, visually anachronistic, and filled with bad dialog (one liners like, “They check in, but they don’t check out,” and “The caboose is loose”), the film barely registers as a sequel worth writing about. But, indeed here I am parsing out those few moments worthy of our discussion of the sub-genre of virtual reality, because in many ways the 1990s’ perspective on technology is fascinating enough. Immersed in the moment of a rapidly connecting America, writers and filmmakers could only look to sci-fi and speculate on the aesthetics of cyber culture and virtual reality with mostly terrible results.
In 1996 alone, according to Computer Hope, for the first time more e-mail was sent than postal mail (snail mail), a US patent is granted for the digital encoding process of MP3 files, a thing called Google is first developed, and the domains imdb.com and myspace.com first came online. There was an explosion of interest. Cyberspace was a new world, one that promised (or over promised) users the ability to shape and personalize their experience even through virtual reality. In the case of this film, the two (cyber and virtual) co-exist, as is the goal of current developers like Google and Facebook.
In LAWNMOWER MAN 2, we find Jobe’s (now played by Matt Frewer) physical body miraculously surviving the huge explosion at Virtual Space Industries (even though we saw it shrivel and die in the first time). Only this time, instead of an intellectual disability, his body now suffers with both legs amputated. After being “saved” and then forced to build a V.R. / Web-like world called Virtual Light, by Virtual Light Industries, the film jumps into a future Los Angeles. And this is where time becomes confusing. Jobe’s old friend, Peter (Austin O’Brien), returns as a street smart, teenage hacker (one of a group of these teens who live in abandoned L.A. subway system). Yet, L.A. is now a dark, dystopian setting, with huge technological advances. Less than ten-years have passed, but visually it appears like technology has progressed by 50 years.
Director and co-writer Farhad Mann (MAX HEADROOM) chose to look to a future inspired less by suburbia (as with the first film) and more by a cyber punk and faux hacker aesthetic. The jump is much too hard and much too fast to be taken seriously. Gone is the believability, however small, of the first film; enter sci-fi adventure and failed epic. This confusion is not helped when one of the young hackers complains to Peter, “Adults have betrayed me my whole life,” creating a strange sense of déjà vu. Maybe this is Peter Pan and the Lost Boys?
Virtual reality has changed since the first film too. Whereas the graphics of Jobe’s world were filled with now familiar retro geometric like structures and gorgeous, near hyper-mystical colors (think artist Alex Gray), the new V.R. world of Virtual Light is one that attempts to recreate, in hyperrealistic terms, the “real-world.” This melding of the real and the virtual is the goal of antagonist and owner of V.L.I., Jonathan Walker (Kevin Conway) who besides hoping to create a powerful business by “connecting” the world has also been using Jobe and Virtual Light to access data of political enemies. At the same time Jobe has covertly been working to build his own power over both Virtual Light and the real world.
In may ways the promise of Google Glass—to keep you connected, networked, and social with the smallest technology—and the Facebook purchase of Oculus Rift are real life examples of corporate developers’ attempts to marry the real and the virtual like never before. This perpetual connection means unending consumption and social media data mining—it therefore may also result in control. Arguably, this is already happening.
The nefarious Jobe uses his newfound power to kill a politician and cause havoc in the subway system before later gaining near god like power. Jobe’s foil is the scientist, now turned hermit, and Mad Max look-alike (featuring braids and dreadlocks) Dr. Benjamin Trace (Patrick Bergin). Trace works with Peter and his hacker crew to dismantle Jobe’s rise to power by “jacking in” to the network and partaking in an unbelievably out-of-place virtual sword fight which would fit in better with KRULL rather than cyberpunk. Jobe is defeated and returned to his lawnmower man state—only this time confined to a wheelchair—friendly, servile, and helpless, Jobe is back to being in-real-life (IRL).