The first time I saw The Lawnmower Man was at my friend’s birthday party when I was about 10 years old. We were all pretty obsessed with the Super Nintendo video game inspired by the movie, and my friend’s mom was cool enough to not only let us all watch a rated R film, but it was also a sleepover where she rented a whole bunch of video game consoles for us to play on all night—including the topically relevant but sadly short-lived Virtual Boy. I’m pretty sure that was the first and only time that any of us actually played Virtual Boy, but whether that’s because the movie made us all terrified of virtual reality, or because the headpiece-goggle-console thing was incredibly uncomfortable to play, I can’t recall. But I do remember that it was pretty much the coolest movie ever, and virtual reality was totally awesome and it was going to change everything ‘cause it was so cool. Plus, the SNES video game had these neat VR scenes where you got to enter “virtual reality” even though it was still technically 16-bit graphics on a TV screen.
Re-visiting the film today with my hopefully-at-least-somewhat-more-evolved critical thinking skills, I was pleased to find that it didn’t feel quite as dated as I had suspected it would. The movie stars a (pre-Bond) Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Lawrence Angelo, a scientist at Virtual Space Industries who spends most of his time experimenting on chimpanzees using cutting-edge VR technology. Like any good pacifist, Dr. Angelo is more interested in the evolutionary benefits of this technology than the military applications, which of course leads him to butt heads with The Board Of Shadowy Figures. After Angelo’s wife leaves him because the considerable special effects budget only allowed for one female actress, he strikes up a friendship with Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey), the eponymous lawnmower who suffers from Generic Learning Disability (also known as GLD). Angelo begins exposing Jobe to the virtual reality training systems originally intended for the chimpanzees (minus the aggression enhancers), and observes as Jobe begins to change. The once child-like Jobe begins to engage in such civilized behavior as maintaining standard hygiene, learning Latin in under two hours, and having sex with the hot blonde widow whose lawn he mows. I mean, literally. Because he’s a lawnmower man. Get your mind out of the gutter.
As Jobe continues to evolve, he unlocks latent telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Despite the initial pain brought on by constant psychic feedback, Jobe wishes to continue the experiments—but the Board Of Shadowy Figures has other plans, and secretly swaps Jobe’s medicine with the aggression factor chemicals previously used on the chimpanzees. Jobe continues to grow increasingly unstable, and soon decides to exact his revenge on all those who abused him back when he was still a simpleton lawnmower man.He sends a telepathic “lawnmower” to “mow” the brain of that jerk at the gas station to render him catatonic, for example, and also literally mows down Dr. Angelo’s abusive alcoholic neighbor Harold, whose victimized young son is a good friend of Jobe’s. But not in a creepy way. Come to think of it, I’m fairly impressed with the ways in which this film doesn’t address pedophilia, when I feel like many similar films would go there just to be “dark” (even the priest from whom Jobe rents his shack is “only” physically abusive, although I suppose this movie did come out a few years before all of those scandals hit the news). Ultimately, Jobe attempts to upload his consciousness to the Internet in order to evolve into a being of pure energy, although they never quite explain how long it takes to upload a file of that size on what I assume was a 56k modem.
Despite my snide commentary, I actually think that The Lawnmower Man was a pretty progressive film, addressing issues of posthumanism and the dangers of abusing technology to play God that most other filmmakers wouldn’t attempt to explore until the turn of the millennium several years later—issues that are still relevant today, and perhaps even moreso. The final ambiguous moment of the film is particularly chilling, even if it does ring (ha!) reminiscent of good ol’ dial-up Internet. Whether intentional or not, the story clearly riffs on the classic Flowers For Algernon trope, albeit with a darker and much more violent twist as it examines what would of course be the inevitable military application of such evolutionary technologies. While I feel that the term “virtual reality”—and the accompanying imagery of sitting in a gyroscopic chair with a large headset on for an “immersive 3D experience”—feels very 90s, the truth is that it’s not that far off from some of computerized simulations and augmented reality technologies that we use today. Just, ya know, with slightly better graphics. Like all speculative fiction, the technology presented in The Lawnmower Man has become science fact (fudging a few aesthetic details) in the 20 years intervening. This kind of immersive technology has in fact been used to educate people as animals, and treat certain kinds of psychological conditions. One could even argue that Jobe was just really investing himself in Second Life. That being said, science has pretty well established by now that even with an intelligence evolved as far as Jobe’s did in the film, it’s almost certainly impossible to “pixelate” a person to death in real-life because, well, that doesn’t exactly make any sense, even if it did look kind of cool.
I had vague recollections of this, and the Internet now confirms it for me (although that could very well be Jobe’s insidious influence on Wikipedia, who knows), but the film was actually originally released as Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man. The original spec script was called Cyber God, which impressively enough might be a worse name than The Lawnmower Man (hey kids, remember “Cyber Space?”). The movie studio apparently owned the rights to a Stephen King short story also called The Lawnmower Man, and decided to combine aspects of that story into the script because hey, King’s name always sells, right? Unfortunately, the original short story had less to do with technology and more to do with an evil Satyr who kills people with a lawnmower under the guise of being a pastoral garden care service. So I mean, I guess both stories ultimately involved someone getting brutally slaughtered by a runaway lawnmower, so there’s that in common, anyway. And they decided to name The Board Of Shadowy Figures after “The Shop” from several other stories in the Stephen King canon. But apparently this still wasn’t enough for Mr. King, who had his name stricken from the title.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only mess of creators and name changes in which The Lawnmower Man as a franchise was involved. A sequel, called The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace, was released several years later in an attempt to cash in on the cyberpunk trend. The original film makers had little to do with this mess, receiving credit only for the characters, and the film was ultimately a flop. By the time it was released on video, the film was retitled Jobe’s War, but somehow this name change was unable to improve the quality of the film. Supposedly, comic book writer Grant Morrison was also approached to write treatments for two Lawnmower Man sequels, with the instructions to take the franchise into a more “superhero-type direction,” but nothing ended up coming of the project. Soon enough, the 90s were over—and with them went The Lawnmower Man.
Thom Dunn is a Boston-based writer, musician, homebrewer, and new media artist. He enjoys Oxford commas, metaphysics, and romantic clichés (especially when they involve robots). He firmly believes that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is the single worst atrocity committed against mankind. Find out more at thomdunn.net