The Lawnmower Man might just be the first movie which fueled my lifelong obsession with virtual reality (I’m writing this mere minutes after an Elite Dangerous session in a VR headset, an experience I’ve been dreaming about for decades). The movie’s obviously significant to me, but is it any good? I guess it depends on where you’re coming from. (I don’t think I’ve ever featured a 90s cyberpunk movie unfavorably on this blog, so if you’re looking for an objective review, you’re not going to find it here.)
I love this kind of shit. I don’t see past the glaring problems so much as I embrace them. The motion-controlled chairs I thought were so awesome when I was a kid? Today it’s obvious they’re cheap recliners, which the actors are lying on backwards while off-screen stagehands buck them back and forth. What looked so cool in the 90s now looks awkward and impractical; Jeff Fahey is clearly struggling to hang on.
The movie begins in a top secret laboratory where a research team is using a combination of drugs and virtual reality to train chimpanzees for war. Naturally, one of the chimps escapes the lab and goes on a killing spree. When it seeks refuge at a church it bumps into Fahey’s character, Jobe, a mentally challenged groundskeeper who mistakes the chimp for a comic book character. Whoever suggested actors shouldn’t go full retard was obviously ignorant of Fahey’s Jobe, which is probably the most entertaining aspect of the movie. Blue collar actors like Fahey will never win an Oscar, but his performance here is contextually perfect.
Then the police show up and murder the chimp. Jobe is traumatized by the shooting, as is the head researcher on the project, Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan). Angelo decides to take a break from top secret military research and spends most of his downtime chilling in virtual reality while drinking himself silly. It’s there he concocts a plan: he’ll continue conducting his research, but he’ll do it without the government breathing down his neck. And instead of a chimp, he’ll use a human test subject this time. Jobe is the perfect candidate because there’s no need to have him sign a NDA as he has no idea what’s going on anyway. He just thinks he’s there to play Angelo’s awesome games.
The research, however, has the unintended consequence of improving Jobe’s mind well past the boundaries of a typical human. Later in the movie, he’ll develop the ability to soak up entire encyclopedias in minutes. Angelo, who seemed to have no real ethics to begin with, is frightened by Jobe’s progress, but it’s too late to pull the plug now that his subject is developing disturbing thoughts and inhuman powers.
From the beginning, it’s absolutely clear where all this is headed. Many characters are unnecessarily mean to Jobe because those characters were born to die. We’ve seen this formula many times, especially slasher films. This movie just does it better than most. You can’t help but like Jobe so you root for him.
I am a little disappointed in Brosnan’s performance because, even though he’s the biggest name in the movie, he just doesn’t get the material as well as his lesser known co-stars (Jenny Wright and Geoffrey Lewis are perfect for a movie like this, and Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris understands what he’s gotten himself into as well.) I wonder if there was a version of the script which explored Angelo’s unethical side rather than completely ignoring it so that he could become the flawless hero who saves the day by the end of the movie.
If you weren’t impressed by the theatrical cut of The Lawnmower Man, you’re not going to be thrilled by this one, either (Scream Factory is releasing the film on Blu-Ray in June… all versions are currently unavailable on VOD services, unfortunately). It doesn’t radically alter the story like The Assembly Cut of Alien 3, it just makes it longer. But considering I was legitimately entertained throughout, I’m going to recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of the original.