A scientist performs experiments involving intelligence enhancing drugs and virtual reality on a simple-minded gardener. He puts the gardener on an extensive schedule of learning, and quickly he becomes brilliant. But at this point the gardener has a few ideas of his own on how the research should continue, and the scientist begins losing control of his experiments. Written by
Ed Sutton <firstname.lastname@example.org>
At the start of the movie, just after the New Line Cinema logo, the following Virtual Reality 'statement' is given (the director stated that this was rewritten many times): By the turn of the millenium a technology known as VIRTUAL REALITY will be in widespread use. It will allow you to enter computer generated artificial worlds as unlimited as the imagination itself. Its creators foresee millions of positive uses - while others fear it as a new from of mind control... See more »
Given the absolute trainwreck that this film is in many respects, it's surprising that the story works as well as it does once it gets going. The middle of the film is actually somewhat engaging, there are scenes where odd flashes of competence shine through, and the beginning of the climax, at least, is pretty suspenseful, even though it peters out when it should be reaching a fevered pitch. Even with the plethora of problems, The Lawnmower Man is worth watching for fans of "so bad it's good" films (even though this isn't exactly so bad that it's good), just to witness the atrocious special effects (almost all CGI) and the bizarre concatenation of elements that it's almost impossible to imagine anyone thought would be a good idea if they weren't intentionally shooting for a comedy or an absurdist genre film. Yes, director/writer Brett Leonard, co-writer Gimel Everett and the production team were serious, and thought that they were producing a cutting-edge, hip and thrilling genre film--something like the Matrix of its time. That alone is funny enough once you've seen a few minutes of the film to make this worth a watch.
The story has two protagonists, one of which eventually becomes something of an anti-hero. The film begins with a text prediction about just how prevalent and influential virtual reality will be at the turn of the 21st Century. In retrospect, it underscores just how ridiculously inflated revolutionary or "savior" technology predictions tend to be. We then meet Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan before he was in a position to turn down starring roles), who is engaged in virtual reality research for the government (his superiors call their project/division "The Shop"). He's experimenting on monkeys, and per his superior's orders, the focus is on military uses--the monkey is being virtual reality trained in battle strategy while they're manipulating its aggression levels. As anyone who has seen at least two or three genre films could guess, this ends up backfiring. The monkey freaks out and runs rampant through the secret government facility, attacking employees.
Dr. Angelo semi-voluntarily goes on hiatus. He had wanted to eventually test human subjects for susceptibility to his virtual reality "mind expansion", without the emphasis on violence, but that seems a lost cause. However, after his wife leaves him, he decides that maybe he can do the research on his own. He decides that the perfect test subject is the titular lawnmower man--his neighbor Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey). Jobe happens to be developmentally disabled. Of course, things do not go exactly as planned with the tests on Jobe, either, especially once The Shop gets wind of what Dr. Angelo is doing.
The Lawnmower Man grew out of a Stephen King short story that most famously appeared in his Night Shift collection. The King story is only a few pages long, and it bears almost no resemblance to the film. The only scene that's at all similar is the one involving a lawn mower and Peter Parkette's (Austin O'Brien) father. It might be informative for those who have a less than consistently favorable opinion of King-oriented films to note that King sued to have any reference to his name removed. I actually like most King-oriented films, but I find the suit amusing, too.
What makes The Lawnmower Man such a trainwreck? The most prominent problem, because it is such a focus of the film, is the CGI. When Dr. Angelo is working with human subjects in The Shop's facilities, they wear "spiffy" spandex suits reminiscent of Tron (1982). That may be enough of a problem in itself (and just who made those suits if Dr. Angelo had never been authorized to work with humans?), but the bigger problem is that the CGI is also reminiscent of Tron. That's not to say that Tron isn't successful, but it had very primitive CGI. There, it was more excusable for three reasons. One, it was made in the late 1970s/early 1980s, when CGI _had_ to be much more primitive. Two, realizing this, Tron director Steven Lisberger aimed at creating more of a minimalist world. And three, once introduced to us, most of Tron took place in that world.
By the early 1990s, computer graphics had progressed quite a bit. Yet, Leonard allows The Lawnmower Man's CGI sequences to almost exclusively consist of brightly colored, low-resolution, simple geometric shapes floating around in a featureless world. Admittedly, The Lawnmower Man was a bit low-budgeted. But I'm not sure that excuses computer graphics that look like they were done on a Commodore 64 by someone working through a basic pixel animation book. And this stuff is supposed to "accelerate the evolution of the human mind?" It wouldn't matter so much if this were not the crux of the film. But the CGI is as important here as the scenes inside The Matrix are to that film. The effects work a bit better when they're integrated with cinematography. But Leonard avoids that more than he should.
And the CGI isn't the only problem. The story otherwise is extremely awkward. Most of it is unintentionally absurdist. Jobe lives in a little shack in an otherwise normal suburban neighborhood. A sadistic priest regularly flogs him. A beautiful widow seduces him. Peter's family is almost a spoof of the typical King family, with an abusive, alcoholic father. All of these people bizarrely live right next door to Dr. Angelo. I could go on and on, but there isn't room.
Still, there are aspects of the story that work. When Leonard finally gets around to death scenes, they're pretty good. The suspense stuff when Dr. Angelo is in Washington is good. And the overall arc about Jobe transforming, but getting out of control and seeking revenge is enjoyable, pithy and certainly a classic, archetypal plot. But this isn't anything if it's not a mixed bag. Watch expecting a trainwreck, and you should be entertained for an evening.
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