10 remarkable things about The Lawnmower Man

Top 10 Ryan Lambie 14 Jan 2014 - 06:26

Our occasional series of journeys back into the weirder films of the past continues with 1992's VR horror thriller, The Lawnmower Man...

As a document of the early 1990s, The Lawnmower Man serves as a colourful time capsule. Aside from its big shirts, tight jeans and unaccountably buoyant hair, it's also a snapshot of the era's technology and fascination for virtual reality.

At a time when the media was gripped by images of people wearing cumbersome headsets and gloves pawing eerily at the empty air in front of them, virtual reality was widely considered to be the emerging technology which could transform life as we know it. And while this may yet come to pass - Oculus Rift has recently seen VR back in the news - we're no nearer to having our daily lives transformed by it than we were 20 years ago.

The Lawnmower Man, then, is quintessentially 90s. It has virtual reality helmets, Pierce Brosnan in white shorts, those spinning aerotrim gyroscope things you  don't see very much anymore, gratuitous sex scenes, and lots of once novel computer graphics. Join us, then, as we climb into cyberspace and take a look back at 10 remarkable things about this curious film...

1. The film's opening is shot from the perspective of a chimpanzee

After an opening slab of text warns us about the perils of virtual reality in the coming millennium, The Lawnmower Man takes us deep within the bowels of Virtual Space Industries, a science facility of high-tech, arcane experiments and oppressively dark blue lens filters.

As the camera prowls down one of the lab's long corridors, we hear a voice echo among its walls. "They've got to understand," says the voice. "My treatments are making him smarter at an incredible rate. It's more important than training him for war."

This voice belongs to one Doctor Lawrence "Larry" Angelo (Pierce Brosnan), a scientist bent on using computers and virtual reality to expand the horizons of the mind. Although Larry's a sworn pacifist, the shadowy government military types funding his research are not - they want to use his virtual reality experiments to create a new wave of super soldiers.

It's then that we realise that the opening sequence is largely seen from the perspective of a chimpanzee. And that the chimpanzee appears to be dressed in a RoboCop outfit.

The RoboCop outfit consists of a computer-augmented headset, which allows the chimp to play virtual reality games which, along with a course of injections, somehow expand his intelligence. Unfortunately, the experiment has a nasty side-effect: while Larry's at home asleep, the chimp picks the lock to his cage, steals a gun and attempts to shoot his way out of the facility.

As amusing as it sounds, this hairy take on The Terminator - complete with first-person digital views of said chimp shooting a security guard directly between the eyes - is a foreshadowing of events to come.

Because if you think a clever chimp's scary when it loses its temper, wait until you see the havoc a power-mad Jeff Fahey can cause.

2. Pierce Brosnan smokes, drinks, and enjoys solo gaming experiences in his basement

Directed by Brett Leonard, The Lawnmower Man came a full four years before Pierce Brosnan would strap on a Walther PPK for the role of James Bond, and his character here couldn't be much more different. Larry's bespectacled, obsessed with computers and a bit too fond of a drink and a smoke for his own health, though to be fair, there's a good reason for that: his refusal to use his research for military means sees his project reach an abrupt dead end.

And then he gets the phone call from his crisply-suited colleague Timms (Mark Bringelson) informing him of the monkey business at the lab.

"Larry? It's Timms" the colleague says. "Your chimp's dead."

Thereafter, Larry spends long hours in his basement, adrift in the psychedelic virtual space of his own making. "Falling, floating, flying?" Larry's wife Caroline scolds, clearly irked by the pleasure he takes in his lone VR pursuits. "What's next? Fucking?"

Actually, Caroline's not too far off the mark, though we have about an hour of exposition and villain introductions to get through before we get to the cyber sex. Too impatient to wait, Caroline throws the script down, grabs her coat and disappears forever. If you had to recite lines like this, you'd probably do the same:

"I'm not going to become a recluse just for you. Come back to reality reality, Larry. Not this artificial reality."

3. The film stars Dean Norris' massive face

Yes, it's Dean Norris - here in his pre-Hank-out-of-Breaking-Bad days, and still looking pretty much exactly like Hank out of Breaking Bad. In The Lawnmower Man, he's a shadowy corporate type who's known solely by the name of Mr Director. We can tell he's one of the villains because he talks with a slightly stiff posh accent, and has his face projected on a massive screen in an under-lit boardroom.

Mr Director is the financier behind Larry's VR mind expansion, and he's determined to coax the peace-loving scientist into creating the ultimate big-brained super soldier. Watch Norris' eyes throughout the film - he never blinks, not even once.

4. Jeff Fahey's mind is a clean hungry sponge

Fifteen minutes into the film, and finally - finally - we get the scenes of actual lawn mowing action we've been waiting for.

This particular lawnmower belongs to Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey). A wide-eyed young man with an unspecified learning disability, Jobe spends his days gardening with kindly boss Terry (Geoffrey Lewis) who's afflicted by every Irish stereotype you can think of ("You can hear the pan pipes of the little people in the grass there!" he chortles).

In the evenings, Jobe sleeps in a shed owned by Terry's brother Father Francis McKeen (Jeremy Slate) who's one of those violently devout religious types you often see in the movies.

When Jobe's not being brutally punished with a leather strap by Father McKeen, or mowing lawns with the boozy Terry, Jobe trades comics and chats to a young boy in the neighbourhood, Peter Parkette (Austin O'Brien, who'd star in Last Action Hero one year later). Like Jobe, Peter's a vulnerable innocent who's treated cruelly by a grown-up - in this case, his violent, alcoholic father, Harold.

It's Jobe's incessant mowing of lawns that attracts the interest of Dr Larry. He's just wondering who he can perform his experiments on when he hears the chug and hum of Jobe's custom red lawnmower outside his basement window, and before you know it, he's whisked Jobe inside, shot him with some chemicals, and plugged him into his virtual reality mind gymnasium.

5. Jobe becomes too intelligent for comic books

In a modern movie landscape dominated by billion-dollar grossing comic book movies, this particular point becomes all the more glaring. Before Dr Larry's experiments, we see Jobe cheerily chatting about comics to his friend Peter, and we even see the cover of one, which is called Nuke Masters.

During Jobe's course of mind-expanding VR treatments, however, things begin to change. He stops wearing dungarees and buys a tight-fitting pair of jeans, and combs his unruly mop of Kurt Cobain/Ishmael Boorg hair into something closer to a smooth mullet. As Jobe's intellect grows, the movie makes a point of slotting in a scene where the character proudly renounces comic books.

"Want to go pick up some comics?" Peter asks excitedly.

"Nah, I gave them up," Jobe says. "As a matter of fact, I have my whole collection in the crate in the back of that truck and I'm giving 'em to you..."

Now, it could be said that The Lawnmower Man's makers have snuck in a dig at adult comic book readers here - which is slightly disingenuous, because it's very much like a comic book itself. But then again, there could be an alternative explanation.

Because the moment Jobe renounces comic books is also the point where things begin to get out of hand for him. He begins to experience headaches, wild distortions in reality, and even the faint, buzzing echoes of other people's thoughts. The cautionary message, surely, is to never stop reading comic books.

It's here that Jobe's newly-acquired dress sense, plus his habit of mowing lawns topless like a Diet Coke bloke, attracts the randy attention of town singleton Marnie Burke (Jennifer Wright). We can tell she's randy because all her lines are innuendos ("Would you check my fluids"; "I'd like you to mow my lawn sometime"), and also because, within a few minutes of seeing Jobe, he's dragged him into her bedroom.

In case you're too young to remember, it was a legal requirement that all 90s films contain at least one gratuitous sex scene. This is a family site, so we can't tell you much more about The Lawnmower Man's bedroom antics than that. Instead, here's a picture of some rabbits. 

Hilariously, Dr Larry had hoped to keep his experiments on Jobe a secret, and hadn't reckoned on the possibility that, once his intellect improved, people might notice his subject quoting extracts from Chaucer while filling in the latest Times crossword puzzle.

"Just try not to draw attention to yourself," Larry advises Jobe, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Jobe has transformed himself into a cross between Professor Brian Cox and a model from a Davidoff commercial.

6. Jobe squeezes a tube of toothpaste with his mind

Mind you, Jobe's new girlfriend Marnie Burke doesn't seem to notice his burgeoning powers, either. "I can read your thoughts" Jobe tells her. "Yeah right", she replies, failing to spot that he'd just said that without even moving his lips.

In plain sight, Jobe's powers are growing apace, as illustrated in the scene where he uses his convulsing brain to squeeze out the contents of a toothpaste tube with his telekinetic powers. It's an impressive demonstration, but a terrible waste of toothpaste.

7. Cyber sex

In the run up to its release in 1992, The Lawnmower Man was marketed on its then state-of-the-art computer graphics. These were created by Angel Studios, which would later become Rockstar San Diego, the developer best known for such games as Midnight Club and its numerous sequels, and Red Dead Redemption, which it created with Rockstar North in Scotland.

The Lawnmower Man will remain memorable for featuring what we're fairly sure is the first CG love scene in film history. In the story, an excitable Jobe drags his new squeeze Marnie to the lab at Virtual Space Industries, where they hook up on the digital plane for a bit of cyber naughtiness.

Perhaps realising that even a digital sex scene can't be too graphic, the film's makers illustrate the experience through some far-out symbolic imagery instead - such as a dragonfly soaring over a mercury sea. It's an arresting sequence, even if it does look a lot like a naughtier version of Dire Straits' Money For Nothing video from the 80s. That is, until the dark part of Jobe's subconscious takes over, turning him into a howling orifice monster and scaring Marnie so much that her mind is literally blown.

Thinking about it, female characters don't fare very well in The Lawnmower Man. Marnie's one of only four women in the whole film - the others being Larry's wife, who leaves in the first reel, young Peter's mother, who's terrorised by her abusive husband, and a woman who works in a coffee shop and is heard to remark, "I hope he doesn't puke on my counter."

8. It's a cyber remake of Carrie, Village Of The Damned and Flowers For Algernon

Horror writer Stephen King wasn't best pleased about this big-screen non-treatment of his short story of the same name. Beginning life as a script called Cyber God, The Lawnmower Man only took on the title and some scant elements from Stephen King's tale, and otherwise, had nothing to do with King's brief piece of work.

King sued to have his name taken off the film's credits, and New Line Cinema eventually relented. Interestingly, The Lawnmower Man bears a greater resemblance - coincidentally, we're sure - to another of King's stories: the best-selling Carrie.

Like Carrie, The Lawnmower Man is about a put-upon character who acquires supernatural powers and goes on a murderous rampage, as Jobe turns the tables on his tormentors one by one. Remember the nasty priest we mentioned earlier? He's stripped of his cassock and set on fire. 

Jake, the bullying guy who works at the garage? He has his mind turned to a pulp by Jobe's VR lawnmower.

Peter's violent, alcoholic dad? He's attacked by Jobe's killer lawnmower, which runs amok like the car out of Christine (another King story). 

To be fair, The Lawnmower Man also contains elements of the novel Flowers For Algernon, Village Of The Damned (more on this later), Frankenstein, and just about any 50s science-on-the-rampage B-movie you could care to name. It's a busy digital stew and no mistake.

9. The movie has its own Chief Wiggum

Seemingly thrown in as a bit of light relief after all the murders mentioned above, this cheerful police officer is The Lawnmower Man's own Chief Wiggum - a portly lawman who accepts all the mayhem going on around him with a shrug. When Dr Larry asks the cop what's going on - perhaps with a growing realisation that he's the inadvertent cause of it all - the cop rambles:

"Now, the lab guys say someone chased Parkette through the house with a power lawnmower. Schizo-fuckin'-frenia all over town last night. Someone torched poor old Father McKeen with a flamethrower. Probably a Satan cult or something. Either that or that weird spontaneous human combustion. That's been known to happen, you know. And Marnie Burke was found roaming the streets this morning, buck naked, laughing her ass off. I don't believe she'll ever stop laughing. Helluva thing..."

"Where's the rest of Mr Parkette's body?" a second cop asks as he wanders by. The first cop's reply is little short of brilliant.

"Oh, he's in the bird bath."

10. Jeff Fahey goes all thin and wobbly

By this point, Dr Larry realises that his treacherous colleague Timms - under the orders of Dean Norris' giant head - has secretly switched the drugs in Jobe's treatment. This means that Jobe's been taking the same drugs that drove that chimp gun-crazy at the start of the film, which explains why Jobe's been offing people all round town and saying things like, "Cyber Christ!" and "I am God here!" - he's been set to evil.

That Jobe's dangerously unstable and growing ever stronger matters not a jot to the shadowy head of Virtual Space Securities. When Mr Director sees two of his men reduced to a collection of small shuddering balls on Dr Larry's front lawn, he merely sees another business opportunity: "He's created a fantastic energy weapon, and I want it!"

Now intoxicated by his own towering intellect, Jobe ties Larry to a chair, and informs him of his intention to upload himself to the internet and dominate the world's computer systems in cyberspace.

"I'll become pure energy," Jobe says. "My birth cry will be the sound of every phone on this planet ringing in unison!"

With this mission in mind, Jobe heads back to Virtual Space Industries again, killing its security forces with an unconvincing digital wasp attack, before plugging himself into the web. As his consciousness is uploaded to the information super highway (there's a phrase we don't hear much anymore), Jobe's body mysteriously withers away like an empty juice carton. Why? It has something to do with science, we suppose.

Meanwhile, Larry's freed from his bonds by little Peter Parkette, and sets about hacking VSI's mainframe, essentially trapping Jobe inside the company's computer system. He then rushes off to VSI's headquarters with a duffel bag full of bombs, and plants them around the building in an attempt to blow up his experiment-gone-wrong.

Larry even finds time to connect head back into cyberspace to berate Jobe before they're both blown to kingdom come, though he may also have gone there to ask Jobe why he wants to exist inside the internet in the first place.

It's a valid question. Why would anyone want to live in the internet? It's all snarky comments and pictures of cats.

"I have things to do," Jobe explains, evasively. "I have people to see. A billion calls to make."

It all sounds a bit nebulous to us. We're guessing that Jobe wants to live in the internet because he really, really likes porn.

Jobe quickly changes the subject. "I sense your thoughts," he says to Larry accusingly. "What are you hiding?"

It's The Lawnmower Man's equivalent of Village Of The Damned (based on John Wyndham's novel, The Midwich Cuckoos) where the hero traps a bunch of alien invader kids in a school wired up with explosives. "You're thinking of a brick wall!" One of the brats memorably says, seconds before the bomb goes off.

A similar thing happens here, except Jobe displays a last-second shred of humanity and lets Larry go - the hapless young Peter's wandered into the building, and Jobe does the decent thing and sends Larry off to get him out before the place is sent crashing to the ground.

The Lawnmower Man concludes with Jobe's threat to humanity ended, and Larry living happily ever after with Pete and his mother, chastened by his experience yet determined to continue his work in secret. But just as the final credits roll, and we begin to wonder what happened to Dean Norris' character in the midst of all this, a phone rings. Then another. Then millions of them, all over the world.

Jobe has successfully annexed the internet - no doubt with a triumphant, "All your porn are belong to us!"

* * *

The Lawnmower Man, then, is a proper 90s relic. It's daft, a bit too long, and distractingly violent and profane when a more family-friendly edit may have given it a wider audience. But for all its flaws, it's an entertaining film from beginning to end, whether its chimps in RoboCop outfits or giant gold Jeff Fahey heads were meant to be funny or not.  

We should also point out that Pierce Brosnan deserves a medal, frankly, for his contribution to The Lawnmower Man. Whether he's shaking that embarrassingly wobbly rubber version of Jeff Fahey's body captured above, or navigating his way around some incredibly embarrassing dialogue, he remains straight-faced and dignified throughout.

So as a tribute to Brosnan's efforts, we sign off with a selection of Brosnan's best Lawnmower Man lines:

"He's the best chimp I've ever had!"

"I had a bad nightmare."

"This is something, and we haven't had something in a while."

"God damn it, Caroline. Never unplug a program when I'm engaged."

"I have a game in my house you might like to play."

"He absorbed Latin yesterday in two hours. Took me a year to learn the alphabet."

"I can't fly to fucking Washington tomorrow."

"No! You're trying to get inside my head. I can feel you pushing!"

"Yes! It's me!" 

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