January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I have decided to spend every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.
Released: 6 March 1992
Director: Brett Leonard
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Budget: $10 million
Stars: Jeff Fahey, Pierce Brosnan, Mark Bringelson, and Austin O’Brien
Intellectually challenged Job Smith (Fahey) works as a lawnmower man, he is regularly abused and mistreated by townsfolk. However, when Doctor Lawrence Angelo’s (Brosnan) research into using psychoactive drugs and virtual reality to improve the intelligence of chimps dramatically increase’s Job’s intelligence, the once childlike Job transforms into a hyper intelligent being whose sanity soon begins to suffer as a result.
The Lawnmower Man began life as a short story by my favourite author, Stephen King. First published in 1975, “The Lawnmower Man” told the story of a strange lawnmower man who was actually a satyr of the Greek God, Pan, and driven to kill a client in His name by telekinetically controlling a lawnmower. Quite how this translated into a cautionary tale about the potential dangers of virtual reality is beyond me but, regardless, this concept of digital worlds and the potential danger of technology was a popular one in the realms of science-fiction and clearly had a strong influence on the writing and production of this very loose adaptation. King was so incensed at the changes made to his original story that he sued to have his name removed from the film’s title and marketing, and the film received mostly mixed reviews, with the film’s special effects being a noteworthy highlight. The Lawnmower Man’s $32.1 million domestic box office made the film a moderate success, which justified the release of a far worse sequel about four years later and the release of a much longer and more intricate “Director’s Cut” on home media that I’ll be looking at today.
Like something out of a 1950s sci-fi film, The Lawnmower Man opens with a piece of blurb warning about the dangers of virtual reality; the potential of this technology (and computers in general), which was seen as so new and limitless at the time, to be the source of both enlightenment and corruption, were rife back in the day and these themes permeate throughout The Lawnmower Man. Immediately, we’re shown the scary potential of virtual reality as Dr. Angelo’s research has been used, in conjunction with various drugs and stimulants, to turn an ordinary chimp into a deadly engine for war…largely against his wishes.
This sequence, largely framed as a dream sequence in the theatrical cut, is expanded upon significantly here in the Director’s Cut as we follow the chimp as he uses his increased intelligence to escape from captivity, acquire a gun, and shoot his way out of the Virtual Space Industries (V.S.I.) facility (which is under the administration of the mysterious and malevolent governmental body known as “The Shop”, a semi-recurring agency in King’s works). In the theatrical cut, the chimp is killed curing the escape but, here, he makes it all the way to the nearby town thanks to the guidance of his V.R. headset; it’s while seeking sanctuary that the chimp meets Job, the titular simple-minded lawnmower man who mistakes him for the comic book superhero “Cyboman”. This introduces us to Job a lot sooner than in the theatrical cut, showcases both his kind, naïve nature and his childlike demeanour, and recontextualises the introduction of his father-figure, Father Francis McKeen (Jeremy Slate), who is directly responsible for the Shop’s mercenaries finding and killing the chimp, which leaves Job distraught and Angelo incensed.
A pacifist by nature, Angelo is frustrated by the Shop’s constant interference and insistence of twisting his research into a tool for war; he believes in the potential of virtual reality to improve the minds of men towards a higher calling, one far greater than conflict and death. Excited at how far the chimp came in its cognitive development and discouraged at his death, Angelo is driven to distraction by the potential of his research to help countless people just like Job. Even after taking a hiatus from work, Angelo refuses to focus on anything other than his work, which causes his relationship with his wife, Caroline Angelo (Colleen Coffey), to suffer. In the theatrical cut, she out-right leaves him part-way through the film but, here she acts far more aloof and instead goes out on the town with her friends, leaving Angelo in the basement with his work, his audio journal, and a bottle of Scotch.
Angelo sees vast potential in Job to realise the full potential of virtual reality; skipping over the V.S.I. “aggression therapy” and concentrating purely on virtual reality and stimulating concoctions, he convinces Job to agree to a series of sessions where, over time, his mental capacity is dramatically increased. Beginning as a simple, child-like man who man in the town take advantage of (including Father McKeen, who regularly beats, berates, and mistreats Job) with little understanding about personal hygiene or reasoning, Job is a hardworking lawnmower man with a natural gift for fixing mechanical things but, thanks to Angelo’s experiments, he becomes an excitable and incredibly capable individual. He is soon able to surpass his young friend, Peter Parkette (O’Brien), at Angelo’s V.R. games, outgrows comic books, and seeks to feed his growing intellect with knowledge and input of all sorts, which transforms his mind and body into a far more competent and capable form.
While Job runs afoul of the local town bully, the aggressive Jake Simpson (John Laughlin) and is regularly abused by McKeen for the smallest transgressions, Job actually has a couple of close friends who genuinely care about his well-being. Angelo likes him, for a start, and then there’s Peter, with whom Job shares a love of comic books and videogames. He’s also treated like a surrogate son by McKeen’s brother, Terry (Geoffrey Lewis), a local handyman and groundskeeper who employs Job and is one swig of booze away from becoming a full-blown alcoholic. In a nice twist, even as Job’s changes begin to negatively affect and overwhelm him, he never forgets those who have been kind to him and actively seeks out to punish those who have wronged him and others when he begins to develop awesome powers.
The core of the film is Job’s descent under the weight of his newfound abilities but this only really comes about because of the intervention of Angelo’s supervisor at V.S.I., Sebastian Timms (Bringelson); although Timms begins the film as a straight-laced, corporate ass-kisser who, unlike Angelo, doesn’t have a problem with bowing to the whims of the Shop, he soon becomes a real cypher and sends the plot spiralling into destruction and tragedy. Eager to impress the authoritative Director (Dean Norris), Timms swaps out Angelo’s formula for the original “Project 5” samples so that they can see what the effect will be on a human being. The result is unprecedented to all, but especially Angelo, who comes to realise, with mounting horror, that Job has developed awesome, unstable abilities and suffered a psychotic break that devastates V.S.I.’s employees and leaves Timms to a truly horrific fate.
I’ve always been a fan of The Lawnmower Man and I was excited to watch the extended Director’s Cut when I bought the DVD. Unfortunately, though, much of the additional material kind of bogs the film down, especially the extended sequence with the chimp which only bloats the opening. I was surprised to see the natural of Angelo and Caroline’s relationship issues change but there were some nice new additions, too, such as Angelo having more interactions with Peter’s mother, Carla (Rosalee Mayeux), him asking Father McKeen for permission to take Job away from his duties at the church and with Terry to run his V.R. experiments, and some slightly longer scenes at V.S.I. showing Angelo trying to calm Job’s growing thirst for knowledge and input and Job experimenting with the limits of his powers to cause lesions to form on his skin. Another significant addition is Job using his psychic powers to manipulate Caroline into conflict against the Shop’s agents, thus causing her death, something which is entirely absent in the theatrical cut and goes a long way to show just how far gone Job is at that point.
While The Lawnmower Man is only partially based on King’s original story, some of his traditional tropes still show up in full force; thankfully, there are no writers here but a couple of abusive, aggressive assholes show up in full force. There’s Jake, who I mentioned before, who routinely mocks and mistreats Job for his childlike demeanour and is angered into a fury when local hardbody Marnie Burke (Jenny Wright) takes a shine to Job after he begins to show more confidence and physical appeal. There’s also Peter’s father, Harold (Ray Lykins), who regularly yells at and beats his wife and child. Both of these reprehensible individuals fall victim to Job’s wrath when he begins to exact his revenge upon those who have wronged him; it’s not entirely clear what Job does to Jake (though it seems to be implied that he made Jake a simpleton like he (as in Job) used to be) but he rips Harold to shreds with his lawnmower and daunting psychic powers in perhaps the only part of the film that is similar to the original story.
The Project 5 formulas are noted several times by Angelo to heighten a subject’s aggression, but they have an entirely unexpected additional effect on Jon; he gets splitting headaches and begins to pick up on the thoughts of those around him before developing telekinesis. His mind absorbs information and input “like a clean, hungry sponge”, allowing him to surpass Angelo’s intelligence at a rate that leaves Angelo speechless in fear. As these changes begin to take hold, Job suffers a serious of worrying seizures and struggles to adapt to his newfound abilities but soon suffers a psychotic break and comes to see himself as accessing powers and abilities lost to mankind generations ago; all but forcing Angelo to continue his experiments, Job begins to grow more and more unstable, turning to violence and hurting Marnie, reducing her to a gibbering wreck, as he begins to lose control of his abilities and sanity.
Impressed with a demonstration of Job’s abilities, the Director orders him to be brought in to the Shop for further testing and study; angered at Timms’ betrayal and scared half to death at Job’s increasing instability and growing God complex, Angelo is unable to protect Job from the Shop’s mercenaries, which sees him projecting a digital version of himself into the real world and reduced them to pixelated atoms! Job’s wrath is only increased when an errant shot leaves Terry dead and, having dispatched all of V.S.I.’s security with a swarm of pixelated bees, he enters the facility unimpeded to put his insane plan into motion.
Having come to regard himself as the bridge between reality and virtual reality, Job plans to upload his very consciousness into the virtual world, becoming a “Cyber Christ” in the process, and spread his influence across the entire world. Although Angelo believes all of this to be a psychotic delusion, Job is able to complete his plan, transforming himself into a being of pure energy and Angelo is forced to try, one last time, to appeal to the last remnants of Job’s humanity in cyberspace. Having trapped Job behind a computer virus, and threatening him with death from bombs he placed around the facility, Angelo is ultimately no match for Job’s awesome powers but, when he realises that Peter and Carla are also in danger, Job allows Angelo to leave before they all die in the explosion.
Although it appears as though Job perished in the blast, he is finally able to crack Angelo’s lock and escapes at the very last minute, with the final shot of the film being his “birth cry” as very telephone around the world rings in union, ending the film on a semi-ambiguous note that, sadly, the sequel dropped the ball on following up on. Still, The Lawnmower Man continues to impress me; its effects and realisation of virtual reality and cyberspace may be wildly outdated and based in pure fantasy but I think they hold up pretty well and are indicative of the technology and fears/speculation of the time. What also bolsters the film, for me, are some captivating performances from both Brosnan and Fahey; beginning as a wise mentor whose admiration of Job’s progress soon turns to fear for his sanity, Angelo is an admirable idealist whose wishes to use V.R. for the betterment of mankind result only in destruction. Similarly, Fahey does a fantastic job portraying Job’s childlike innocence, his pain and confusion at his growing psychic powers, his thirst for knowledge, and his descent into both stoic, unnerving menace and aggressive, unstable insanity.
Fahey delivers some truly awesome and memorable lines here, such as his gibbering, terrifying statement of “I saw God! I touched God!”, his later stoic declaration of him becoming “Cyber Christ”, and his eventual declaration when he has fulfilled this objective of “I am God here!” (not to discount Brosnan’s moving whisper of “”Oh, dear God…” when he realises how far off the deep end Job has gone), all of which tie into the additional themes regarding faith and religion. Such notions, which originally were used to keep Job in check and under threat of reprisal for his transgressions, quickly become redundant as Job begins to experiment with his abilities; free of all fear and boundaries, he sets Father McKeen ablaze, easily manipulates the minds of others, and soon transforms from a meek, mentally challenged man into a monstrous being both in and out of virtual reality.
I don’t see The Lawnmower Man talked about enough when the subject of sci-fi films comes up. Sure, it’s maybe not aged too well and is absolutely nothing like the story it’s based on but so what? Total Recall (Verhoeven, 1990) is nothing like the short story it’s based on and that didn’t hurt it; obviously, it’s not a fair comparison and Total Recall is a much better film but my point is that debates about fidelity to the source material are often meaningless when the result is an enjoyable piece of media. By gearing the story into a cautionary tale regarding the unknown dangers and potential of technology ad virtual reality, The Lawnmower Man presents a truly unique twist on the concept of V.R. as a gateway into the untapped potential of the human mind. The effects are still pretty impressive for the time; it helps that the V.R. sequences are all entirely computer-generated rather than splicing humans into cyberspace and, for me, they hold up pretty well and tie into the overall plot of Job transforming into this digital tyrant. Some solid performances only bolster the film’s appeal for me and, while the Director’s Cut actually causes the runtime to drag a bit more compared to some others, I can never get enough of a good thing. For having a truly interesting premise and execution, some stellar performances by Brosnan and Fahey, and some chilling sequences involving Job’s wrath, The Lawnmower Man is an unfairly under-rated gem of a science-fiction romp and I highly recommend it to fans of the genre who are looking for something a little different.
Have you ever seen The Lawnmower Man? If so, what did you think to it and do you enjoy this longer cut of the film? What did you think to the film’s premise and the performances, particularly Brosnan and Fahey? Did you enjoy the film’s depiction of virtual reality and cyberspace or do you feel it’s a little too dated? Have you ever read the original story and, if so, would you have preferred that the film was closer to the source material? What is your favourite Stephen King adaptation and how are you celebrating National Science-Fiction Day today? Whatever your thoughts on The Lawnmower Man, or sci-fi in general, be sure to leave a comment below.