Millennial Malaise 04: The Lawnmower Man

In Which Cyber Christ Is Born

Why was the culture at large obsessed with virtual reality in the 90s? It’s slightly befuddling, especially with the benefit of hindsight, that a technology that is just barely functional at a mass level now seemed to be the wave of the future nearly thirty years ago. In fact its interesting to see VR always being portrayed as the thing that will completely revolutionize humanity when almost every time it hit the market at a consumer level, it was either dismissed entirely or only moderately adopted. So why in the 90s was it infused at every level, in every cyberjunk tech thriller imaginable?

My biggest guess is that at the time it seemed like the logical endpoint of the personalization of tech throughout the 20th century. Computers morphed from whirring mammoths in the basements of huge business to desktops that one could easily tuck away in the home. Video games moved from the clunky cabinets of the arcade to the small and sleek consoles that could be played on a family’s television. These things were all entering our personal space, so wouldn’t it make sense that the next step would be us literally entering the virtual space? If we were becoming more integrated with tech in our lives than VR is the logical endpoint.

That’s what Brett Leonard’s nutty 1992 film The Lawnmower Man thinks at least. A movie that postulates, in the most ham handed and tonally bizarre way possible, that VR was the path towards apocalyptic transcendence for the human race. That the future was, in fact, right in front of us, and it is full of wacky computer effects that are barely a step above the graphical prowess of Bubsy 3D.

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The story of the film (originally based on Stephen King short, but he successfully had his name removed when the film had absolutely no resemblance to his written word) is basically a reworking of Flowers for Algernon, but with more murder. Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey) is a mentally challenged landscaper who is brought it for testing by Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnen). Angelo wants to see if he can improve the intelligence of a human. The tests work, but too well. Soon Jobe is a super powered cyber being who takes vengeance on those who abused him in his enfeebled state before conquering the world by entering “the network.”

Interestingly this story plays out in a pretty King like fashion. The dullard Jobe is reminiscent to many of King’s unfortunate characterizations of the mentally challenged (in fact Fahey’s performance is incredibly similar to King’s turn as an actor in Creepshow). The overheated religious imagery is all in place from stuff like The Stand, and the steady increase of powers for Jobe are not dissimilar to the arc of the lead in Carrie.

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Despite the buggy imagery and wild turns in tone the story snakes through, the narrative here is actually quite rote and expected. It’s Algernon mixed with Frankenstein with a new twist on the tech that inspired those stories. It’s a fear of the future tale that has no concept of how the future works (the film starts with a title card warning of VR being the mind control of the 21st century, but the movie seems to still be set in the 90s). It’s reactionary and cruel to the mentally challenged, and it has zero sense of how to make its VR based fears feel like anything other than bizarre coloring for its reheated narrative beats.

But The Lawnmower Man thrives in the bizarre images and grandiose pronouncements of its characters. Of course there are the now infamous CG effects that populate the film, but there’s also the of out of place religious symbolism, weird carnival gyroscopes that are used for the VR tests, and of course a chimp dressed in a Robocop outfit rampaging through the church yard (“this time he’s killed for real” a character mournfully intones about the Robocop chimp). The interest of The Lawnmower Man comes from the juxtaposition of sincere awe and terror about technology with the now hilarious effects created in part by the same tech.

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I could spend the rest of this piece listing the bizarre visions and seriously delivered monologues about man’s relationship with technology, but that wouldn’t be a very good thematic synthesis of the work on display. Yes it is hilarious when Brosnan solemnly declares that, “VR holds the key to the evolution of the human mind” before turning on a program that just blasts Fahey with images of math problems and alchemical symbols. Yes it is highly amusing when Brosnan’s girlfriend dismissively says of VR, “what’s next fucking.” And then down the road Fahey and his girlfriend have wild VR orgasms that involve transforming into human dragonfly hybrids and having their cyber bodies melt and morph into grotesque shapes. Yes it is really goofy to have the heavy-handed religious imagery climax in a flailing VR Fahey avatar crucifying another CG being upside down.

All enjoyment from this film can be boiled down to the dichotomy of high minded and serious ideas undone by the ridiculousness of the visuals and tone of the piece. This is a film where characters attack floating CG images in way that makes Birdemic look good.

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But there has to be something here besides reheated future shock and monster plots, and there are little interesting thematic bits tucked away into the niches of the film. One is the odd obsession Dr. Angelo has with the Gulf War. He’s tormented by the images of bombs being dropped, and the constant threat that his work with VR chimps will be shoved into the heat of battle. Dr. Angelo seems slightly terrified by the prospect that wars will be fully fought by proxy; either though his supercharged monkeys, or with juiced up VR enhanced super soldiers, who have a similar screen displays as the cameras on bomber planes during the war. There seems to be an underlying fear of the way things are turned into “Video Games.” The Gulf War was famously compared to gaming, while Jobe’s character increases his power by playing “games.”

Another odd through line is how the film approaches sex. For Dr. Angelo the idea of carnal relations is tossed aside for his scientific pursuits, but for Jobe his new intelligence and power has finally thrust him into the concept of sexuality for the first time. One man’s sex life is basically eradicated by VR while the other’s is based entirely upon it. And as goofy as the VR sex scene is, there’s a hint of reality to it. Pornography and sex always follows in close step with the ebbs and flows of tech, and while VR is still not quite the force that people dreamed it would be, the pornography for it is just as real as the day is long. Though I don’t think it yet involves people getting into giant gyroscopes and spinning around.

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There’s also some gesturing to the ideas of tech crossing over with religion. That Jobe ascending to the level of Cyber Christ will somehow fundamentally alter our beliefs and understanding of the world. Bu this seems more like an excuse to indulge in some digital crucifixions and pixelated conflagrations of an abusive priest.

The fireworks of the effects are still the end all be all of The Lawnmower Man. There seems to be no other purposes to watch this film other than to enjoy famous people participate in gonzo imagery. Yes I want a giant floating Fahey head or a giant brain being destroyed by a digital lawnmower or digital bees. So that’s kind of how to think of it, a visualizer or test sample for the possibility and wonder of digital work. Never mind that it was technically outclassed by T2 or would be rendered obsolete by stuff like Jurassic Park or The Matrix, just sit back and enjoy the insane ride of a man, his lawnmower, and the quest to be digital God.

Odds and Ends

  • When Brosnan was announced to be the next Bond did people on the nascent forms of the internet flip out because it was the sexy doof from The Lawnmower Man?
  • For some reason I saw that director’s cut of this movie which was 140 goddamn minutes long. Not Recommended.
  • As bad as the effects are in the film they stand as shining counterpoint to real VR systems of the time like the Virtual Boy.
  • Guys it was really hard to write coherently about The Lawnmower Man.

As always check out the Millennial Malaise letterboxd list for the pool of possible articles, and follow me on twitter for hilarious jokes about Howard Schultz.

Next week we begin romance month with Ben Stiller’s 1994 Gen X dramedy Reality Bites.