The Lawnmower Man

The Lawnmower ManSynopsis: God made him simple. Science made him a god.

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.

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The Lawnmower Man 7.75

eyelights: Jeff Fahey’s nuanced performance. the then-groundbreaking CGI work. the theme. Pierce Brosnan’s hair.
eyesores: the b-level production. the many b-level performances.

“This technology has peeled back a layer to reveal another universe. Virtual reality will grow, just as the telegraph grew to the telephone – as the radio to the TV – it will be everywhere.”

When ‘The Lawnmower Man’ was released in 1992, Stephen King was still a huge draw. One might even argue that he was at the apogee of his cultural relevance, in that you couldn’t spend a month without a new book, movie, television miniseries or other King-related product being unleashed upon the world. He was just about everywhere and we were lapping it all up.

This made a lot of people lots of money.

But, predictably, it did nothing for quality control. For every ‘Misery’ there was a ‘Graveyard’ Shift’ and a ‘Sleepwalkers’, for every ‘It’ there was ‘Golden Years’ and ‘The Langoliers’. Producers were pleased to merely slap King’s name on their product, irrespective of quality. Some of us stopped seeing Stephen King as a trustworthy source for entertainment and simply switched off.

I know I did.

‘The Lawnmower Man’ is an unusual case because it’s not half bad, but it’s barely related to the original Stephen King oeuvre, which was a short story published in ‘Night Shift’. It’s actually a script called ‘Cyber God’, which was co-written by director Brett Leonard. He and producer/co-writer Gimel Everett merely tacked on a few token elements from King’s story and slapped its name on it.

Naturally, King sued the studio to have his name removed. It took multiple lawsuits before they complied, but they eventually did. What’s so confusing, though, is that this movie is a far better product than most of the crap that Stephen King proudly slapped his name on in ensuing years (‘The Mangler’? Please! ‘The Night Flier’? Riiight.). So why was he so incensed by this particular picture?

We may never know.

In 1992, I was still a fan. I had read most of his books and generally liked his output. I was eager for the next release and always had my ear cocked for the latest King adaptation. ‘The Lawnmower Man’ came around at the right time. I was a teenager then and my friends and I were intrigued by the premise of the picture. Further to that, it boasted early CGI and a rare appearance by Pierce Brosnan.

So I actually went to see it at the big screen, something I didn’t do that often anymore being that some of my friends had VCRs. We walked out of it very pleased indeed: we were blown away by what was then some really eye-popping animation, and we loved this notion that technology had the potential to develop the human mind to godlike extremes. It was exciting and felt cutting edge to us.

The picture remained a favourite for years, although it no longer has the same impact that it once did. For one, the CGI is so obviously outdated; the bane of any technology-based film is that it usually gets old fast. Secondly, I have developed a greater eye for detail over the years and I can’t help but see this script, the performances and production as subpar. It’s okay, but not great either.

The story revolves around Dr. Angelo’s attempts to mine the untapped potential of the human brain. In conjunction with a shadowy military corporation, he has been doing tests on apes. Unfortunately, this ends in tragedy after the ape he’s been using becomes both extremely intelligent and aggressive. To prevent his work from being corrupted by outside influences, Angelo decides to go on sabbatical.

That’s when he meets Jobe, a local handyman and lawnmower. An idiot savant, he is unable to take care of himself and lives in a shed behind the local church. Intrigued, Angelo decides to begin testing Jobe in his basement lab, subjecting him to all sorts of virtual reality games and learning programs. Soon he begins to see startling improvements; Jobe is developing at an astounding rate.

Sadly, his wisdom doesn’t grow commensurately with his newfound powers: Jobe is soon out of control.

I like ‘The Lawnmower Man’ because of its core theme of knowledge vs. wisdom. Is knowledge important for knowledge’s sake, irrespective of the consequences, of its impact on humanity? This is a long-standing debate that has virtually exploded since the technological advances of the mid-20th century. The atom bomb, in particular, permanently brought to the fore the question of scientific responsibility.

Although it’s wrapped up in a b-level science fiction motion picture whose scientific claims are more than a little bit dubious, the theme remains pure. It shows that, despite all good intentions, experiments can go awry: we can’t predict everything, mistakes happen and results can be bent out of shape. These potent concerns surge forth with every new advance we make.

If only we’d listen.

Another thing I quite like about the picture is its subplot of revenge. I always love a good revenge story and I like that Jobe develops enough so that he can not just defend himself, but best his tormentors. All I can think is that the poor guy deserved this sort of redemption. By the time he loses his marbles and decides to be rid of them, it’s both tragic and satisfying at once.

Then there’s the cast. By 1992, I had had a “man crush” on Brosnan for close to a decade, ever since his early ‘Remington Steele’ days. I was extremely disappointed that he was bypassed as James Bond and looked for any excuse to see a movie of his. He inevitably ended up in a string of b-movies, but he kept his panache; pre-Bond, Pierce was hot, with longish hair and a lean, trim figure.

He was also magnetic. Brosnan always overacted a little bit and he does here as well. But he has unmistakable star power. As Dr. Angelo, we believe that he’s fully committed to his cause, but we also feel that he’s not entirely real; Brosnan is clearly performing. Still, this remains one of his better parts and films in that dark period between playing Remington Steele and James Bond.

Then there’s Jeff Fahey as Jobe. Fahey essentially supports the whole picture with his performance, playing each phase in Jobe’s transition extremely well and he manages to do this over less than two hours – whereas this is a performance that should have required a mini-series. Somehow, thanks to his performance, it doesn’t feel abrupt or jagged, somehow. It’s rather impressive.

It’s strange because I’m not much of a fan of Fahey’s. Whenever I see his name somewhere, I immediately associate it to b-movie crap (perhaps because of this movie and ‘Psycho III‘). I also don’t find his glazed-over blue-eyed gaze appealing; I find it disturbing. Still, I can’t help but lavish praise on him for his turn as Jobe. And I’m beginning to wonder if I haven’t misjudged him.

‘The Lawnmower Man’, however, I believe I haven’t been unfair to; it’s a cheap-ish production that isn’t particularly well scripted or directed. It might have deserved better, and I wonder if a remake would be a good idea – you know, to spruce it up, to lend it a bit more credibility. Its themes and concerns remain true today, perhaps even more so than ever as we lunge forward into the future.

Maybe, more than ever, we need ‘The Lawnmower Man’. (snicker, snicker… ahem… even I have to laugh at that line)

Date of viewing: April 27, 2015

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