Plot: God made him simple. Science made him a god.
The Lawnmower Man is one of those post-The Abyss (1989) special effects extravaganzas that for one reason or another never quite made it to the big time. It was mildly philosophical when it tried and attempted to be cerebral in a time when that quality was very much frowned upon. It very much wanted to be the 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969) for the Computer Age but somehow ended up in Albert Pyun territory instead. As subtle as a sledgehammer and about as nuanced as a bulldozer The Lawnmower Man also is needlessly pretentious, a tad on the long side, and jarringly violent when a measure of restraint would have sufficed. In other words, The Lawnmower Man is a relic from the 90s, that bygone era where genres shifted superficially enough to, in the best of days, pass themselves off as something they were not. In one of the prior decades (especially the sixties, seventies, possiby even the eighties) and in the hands of different director The Lawnmower Man could have been a cautionary tale about the dangers of emerging technology or a body horror about digital godhood. Instead it is a techno-thriller too afraid to commit to itself and often a victim of its more exploitative inclinations.
The career of director Brett Leonard is one of odd twists and turns. He was one of the Klown performers on Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) before directing his own zombie movie The Dead Pit (1989). That directly led into Leonard being hired to direct music videos for MC Twist, erstwhile Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel, and Billy Idol. For all intents and purposes The Lawnmower Man was his first big project and supposedly his ticket to the Hollywood big time. The Lawnmower Man was based on an original script called Cyber God co-written by him and producer Gimel Everett. It was originally released as Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man, but title and a few vague references aside, it practically bears no meaningful semblance to King’s 1975 short story of the same name. King, understandably, was none too pleased having his name associated with the production and succesfully sued to have it removed. After The Lawnmower Man Leonard helmed the thriller Hideaway (1995) (with Aerosmith babe Alicia Silverstone) that saw author Dean R. Koontz sueing to have his name removed. Leonard directed the science-fiction feature Virtuosity (1995) (with Denzel Washington) that had the ill fortune of being overshadowed by a little movie called The Matrix (1999) from the Wachowskis. Leonard then directed the IMAX feature T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (1998) before helming Feed (2005), a thriller in the mold of The Silence Of the Lambs (1991) and, more importantly, Se7en (1995) – but only a decade late. To say that Brett Leonard has had a strange career would be putting it very mildly.
Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) is a benevolent computer scientist employed at Virtual Space Industries where he has developed a revolutionary VR treatment that allows to open the doors of perception and boost intelligence. His research into psychoactive drugs and virtual reality experiments on simians have produced extraordinary results. He has, much to his chagrin and dismay, been contracted by the military through the highly secretive clandestine group The Shop to weaponize his emerging technology with aims of creating the ultimate highly-efficient, disposable infantry soldier in what has been dubbed Project 5. Angelo’s been so consumed by his work that he barely notices that his estranged girlfriend Caroline (Colleen Coffey) is about to pick up and leave. Project director Sebastian Timms (Mark Bringelson) encourages Angelo not to bite the military-industrialist hand that feeds him. The Director (Dean Norris) reminds Timms of the techology’s strategic importance prompting him to swap Angelo’s new formula with the old Project 5 medication. A decision that will have far-reaching consequences as this leads to the escape of Angelo’s most promising test subject, the chimp Roscoe-111. As the chimp flees into the sleepy adjacent town Larry meets intellectually disabled and put-upon Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey) - a warden of the state, and laborer for landscaping company Pastoral Greenery – wasting away neglected in a rundown shed near the church. Jobe has an interest in superhero comics and shows an uncanny affinity for mechanics. Angelo realizes that he has at long last found the suitable human test subject to complete his research.
Jobe is constantly at the receiving end of abuse from his supposed legal guardian Father Francis McKeen (Jeremy Slate) and gas station attendant Jake Simpson (John Laughlin). The only one really looking out for his best interests is Francis’ semi-alcoholic gardener brother Terry (Geoffrey Lewis). He has a friend in teenager Peter Parkette (Austin O’Brien), Angelo’s next-door neighbor who often comes over to his laboratory to play with the VR equipment. Peter’s mother Carla (Rosalee Mayeux) is sweet on him, if only to escape her suburban nightmare with abusive husband Harold (Ray Lykins). Platinum blonde poor white trash beauty queen Marnie Burke (Jenny Wright) has eyes for Jobe, but (so far) he has been oblivious to her advances. Larry’s treatment on Jobe proves succesful seeing him finally stand up to his abusers and win the affections of Marnie – all while his intellligence continues to boom exponentially. Once the resources in his basement laboratory have been exhausted Angelo moves Jobe into VSI’s spinning aerotrim gyroscope where the software is far more advanced and radical. Soon Jobe becomes too powerful of a mental force for even Angelo to contain and The Shop deploys para-military forces to stop him. As Jobe attains superhuman intelligence he rids himself of his frail mortal form by downloading his essence into the VSI mainframe. In cyberspace he declares that every telephone on the planet ringing simultaneously will foretell his ascent into virtual godhood and digital immortality.
In 1992 Pierce Brosnan was a hungry young Irish actor looking for his big break. He had headlined the British television series Remington Steele (1982-1987) and was in no uncertain terms destined for made-for-TV movie and low budget action/thriller purgatory if it weren’t for The Lawnmower Man. From there Brosnan went on to star in Chris Columbus’ multiple Academy Award-winning dramedy Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) with Robin Williams that helped raise his international profile considerably. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) put him on the path to play secret agent James Bond in GoldenEye (1995), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The World Is Not Enough (1999), and Die Another Day (2002) – or what has retroactively been considered Bond’s darkest, most destitute, and creatively bankrupt period of the modern era. After Brosnan’s tenure as the debonair and womanizing MI6 agent the Bond series went on hiatus and was reimagined with the 2006 remake of Casino Royale (1967) and with Daniel Craig in tow.
The Lawnmower Man was the screen debut for Austin O’Brien who went on to do a little movie called Last Action Hero (1993) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, probably the most intelligent and meta/self-reflexive action movie deconstruction. In the following years O’Brien would go to star in high profile productions as My Girl 2 (1994) and Apollo 13 (1995) from director Ron Howard. The odd woman out is Jenny Wright who famously played an American groupie in the rock opera Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) and from there landed parts in Near Dark (1987), Young Guns II (1988), and I, Madman (1989). Here she looks like a cheap stand-in for Patricia Arquette, Elisabeth Shue, or Amanda Peet. Dean Norris played a bit part in the big budget James Cameron action blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) the year before. Jeff Fahey’s career cannot be put in proper words. Suffice to say he’s been active on the small – and the big screen. In The Lawnmower Man he shines as a budget-friendly Billy Zane and emanates the same untethered madness.
It’s all too often and easily forgotten that once upon a time not so long ago CGI wasn’t so humdrum, ubiquitous, and nefariously omnipresent as it is today. The Lawnmower Man had state-of-the-art computer generated imagery in 1992 and, at least for a while, acted as the standard to which everything else was measured. It's almost impossible to fathom today but in the early 1990s computer games and movies looked distinctly different. Games had cinematic cutscenes and movies used computer graphics, but each was a different niche. For a time at least The Lawnmower Man was the gold standard in CGI. The company behind the CGI was Angel Studios, which would rebrand itself as Rockstar San Diego and become the powerhouse developer behind the Midnight Club and Red Dead Redemption games. Like Brainscan (1994) it’s very much a product of a time wherein technophobia and paranoia ran rampant. The Net (1995) (with Sandra Bullock), Johnny Mnemonic (1995) (with Keanu Reeves), and Strange Days (1995) (with Ralph Fiennes) all explored the possibilities and pitfalls of computer technology, the internet, and virtual reality. No matter how pioneering The Lawnmower Man was careless, if not outright irresponsible, in its caricatural depiction and treatment of domestic violence, mental illness, and abuse by community gatekeepers. It also had no qualms in parading Jenny Wright around in a very small nightie (this being PG-13 nonsense there’s not a naked boob anywhere) and almost all her lines are thinly-veiled sexual innuendo almost exclusively. There’s a decent movie somewhere in The Lawnmower Man, and the director’s cut gets the closest to that.
Somewhere between Altered States (1980) and Village Of the Damned (1960) and roughly following the contours of Daniel Keyes’ 1958 short story Flowers For Algernon The Lawnmower Man waxes faux-philosophically about the human condition while having the unfortunate tendency of biting off more than it can chew. Or at least the most widely available theatrical version suffers from this more than anything. Jobe’s growth is not gradual as in the director’s cut and it paints Angelo as a hard-drinking opportunist nakedly exploiting Jobe to further his own selfish interests. Brosnan is forced to read lines bordering on Ed Wood territory and Jenny Wright is hopelessly paraded around in either skimpy clothes or trashy lingerie. In between there are either sudden bursts of extreme violence, unexpected profanity, or tacky softcore sex. The Lawnmower Man is excruciatingly, profoundly, painfully 90s in its inanity. Had this come with a Simon Boswell or Brad Fiedel score it would have been perfect. This is a techno-thriller that never explains its technology, a body horror that never commits to either the body or the horror, and a character study without a viewpoint character. Possessing neither the foresight to predict the societal impact of the technology it plays with nor the will to explore the human implications thereof The Lawnmower Man is too by-the-numbers in every sense. It is everything and nothing, all at once. Something of a minor hit at the box office the inevitable sequel followed 4 years later ensuring that nobody would be crazy enough to revive the franchise for an encore…