The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace (1996) [Midnight Movie]

I recently featured The Lawnmower Man, which was so far removed from the short story it was allegedly based on, Stephen King sued to have his name removed. (It turns out the script existed prior to the producers acquiring the rights to King’s story, so they amended his name and title to the project in order to sell tickets.) It only makes sense I would check out the sequel this week, right? Well, now that I’ve seen it I’m not sure anything about this movie makes sense.

Spoilers for the original film follow….

Jobe, whose digitized consciousness escaped the lab explosion in the original film, is inexplicably human again. Even though we saw his abandoned body wither away and catch fire, the corporate characters of this sequel have managed to recover it from the debris and employ him as a super sophisticated hacker in cyberspace. This time Jobe’s played by Max Headroom’s Matt Frewer, which has gotta be one of the laziest typecasting decisions in the history of film.

Pierce Brosnan is nowhere to be found, either. That’s fine. I have no problem with a sequel continuing the story without the original actors. After all, that was par for the course with these genre films back then. What I do have a problem with is the fact the only returning character is Brosnan’s kid neighbor, who was so insignificant to the original film I didn’t need to mention him when I explained the plot of the previous film two weeks ago.

See, actor Austin O’Brien was a no-name when the original Lawnmower Man came out, but in the following year he co-starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero. There’s no reason for the kid to be in this movie, but some executive likely thought they could bank on his newfound fame. That might have worked in more capable hands, but the filmmakers obviously wanted to take the story far into the future. Instead of setting the movie a reasonable amount of time into the future, they set it only six years after the first one (because O’Brien’s character would have been all grown up otherwise) and ask us to believe the world became a dystopian future practically overnight.

Worse, the adult nature of the original film has been sabotaged by a PG-13 rating and a cast of annoying children. I knew I was in trouble as soon as the kids flew around cyberspace via the magic of green screen. It looks like one of those totally radical 90s commercials for Kool-Aid or sugary cereal.

spoilers

In the lead role you have Sleeping with the Enemy’s Patrick Bergin who more or less looks like Tommy Wiseau. That’s not a complaint. He’s a lot more interesting to look at than Brosnan was in the previous film. He’s also more interesting than Fewer’s portrayal of Jobe, which is a major step back from Jeff Fahey’s nutty take on the character.

What’s amazing about The Lawnmower Man 2 is how far CGI progressed in the four years since the original. I complain about the overuse of CGI quite a bit, but it’s perfectly suited for films with this subject matter. I just think it was a mistake to insert the actual actors into the cyberspace sequences rather than digitize them the way the first film did, if only for continuity’s sake.

If you enjoy cheese as much as I do, this movie isn’t terrible. It’s entertaining enough and the production value is much better than expected—perhaps better than the first—but there are some serious flaws contained within. Again, that’s par for the course when you’re dealing with these kinds of movies.

I honestly don’t remember this movie getting a theatrical release. I always assumed it was a cheap, straight-to-video sequel, but it turns out it was actually a theatrical release which was a lot more expensive than its predecessor. Too bad it’s nowhere near as good.

The Lawnmower Man: The Director’s Cut (1992) [Midnight Movie]

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.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) [Midnight Movie]

The best part of an alien movie tends to be that build-up at the beginning, in which the terrestrial characters have no idea what’s going on. Independence Day more or less stumbled through it while Battle: Los Angeles completely eschewed it. What’s great about Close Encounters is Spielberg sustains the build-up for the entire movie—we have no idea what’s going on until the very end. Even then, the mystery isn’t completely explained, which is perhaps my only complaint.

I’m not saying I wanted every little question answered, but as-is the aliens seem like complete assholes. Kidnapping people from their own time and returning them to the planet several decades later is probably a fate worse than death; all your friends and family are dead or dying and the culture shock would drive you insane. Now, had there been an unintentional reason why the aliens committed these kidnappings, I would have been properly distracted.

On second thought, they’re fuckin’ aliens. Why the hell should we understand what they’re up to?

There are two plots running in tandem until they inevitably cross paths near the end: in one, Francois Truffaut and Bob Balaban play a couple of G-men globetrotting from one mystery to the next. In the other, middle class electrician Richard Dreyfuss is driven mad following a late night UFO sighting. Teri Garr is alienated by her husband’s newfound eccentricities, which leads to him losing his job and a mental breakdown for her. Dreyfuss only finds an ally in the form of Melinda Dillon, a single mother whose three year old seems to have a unique connection with the visitors.

So you have two duos racing to reveal the truth from completely different angles. Most movies don’t have one interesting duo (Exhibit A: any action-comedy film coming out this season), much less two, and the fact Truffaut and Balaban aren’t the emotionless agents seen in almost every other alien movie makes this one all the more special. It’s curious the two men have to overcome their language barrier, which they’ll do again with the aliens themselves.

My favorite thing about this movie is Truffaut, who feels like an accidental brushstroke in just the right place. How did Spielberg know the guy could act? What made him think Truffaut would work out at all, much less so brilliantly? Why the hell didn’t Truffaut act in more movies?

If it isn’t clear at this point, Close Encounters is one of my favorite Spielberg movies. I think it’s the crowning achievement of his earlier career and the phrase “movie magic” was invented for stuff like this one (I would kill to see it at my local drive-in). It contains absolutely everything summer blockbusters forgot how to do in the twenty-first century.

There are three versions of Close Encounters: the theatrical version, the editing of which Spielberg felt was rushed; the Special Edition, in which the studio pressured Spielberg to add interior shots of the mother ship (bleh); and the Collector’s Edition (a.k.a. the Director’s Cut), in which Spielberg removes the Special Edition junk and really nails the ending. (Spielberg maintains the end of the film was the most difficult sequence he and Michael Kahn ever edited.)

If you’ve already seen the theatrical version, I think the Collector’s Edition is where it’s at. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which version you’re getting, but if the run-time is listed at 2 hours and 17 minutes, it’s most likely the Collector’s Edition. And even if you’ve never seen the movie, I still think the Collector’s Edition is a good place to start.

America 3000 (1986) [Trailer]

I have an irresistible attraction to movies with four-digit numbers in the title. Love is the only thing worth nuking for! Great trailer, but I suspect it’s a shit movie. 
Come back this Friday, midnight CT to read my thoughts on Logan.

* * *
Monday I bought a pinball machine and a Blitz ’99 conversion in a TMNT cab. I fixed the monitor (Looks brand new with no burn-in whatsoever!), but I haven’t even touched the Blitz PCB or hard drive yet. The pinball machine is a little overwhelming, to be honest. I haven’t done much other than poking it with a multi-meter and checking fuses, but I have read about fifty-million pinball-related webpages in about two days.
As for my Pac-Man restoration project, the cab is sanded and primed, but a tube rejuvenator verified a heater-cathode short in the monitor. Looks like I’m doing my first tube-swap very soon, but I’m still exploring options.
As always, you can see pictures of my games on my Instagram

Repo Man (1984) [Midnight Movie]

“Ordinary fuckin’ people… I hate ’em.” — Bud

Otto (Emilio Estevez) is “just a white suburban punk” (his own words) who loses his shitty job stocking groceries in a shitty store. After finding his girlfriend in bed with another punk, he takes to wandering the streets of Los Angeles, looking for trouble as he chugs his beer.

Beer, like most of the consumables in Repo Man, is labeled generically. People who live in this version of LA, which is portrayed no more seriously than Grand Theft Auto’s highly satirical Los Santos, are too busy being hypnotized by their television sets to worry about the freedom to choose; there’s no need for brand names because it’s all the same shit anyway. You just get Beer.

A stranger named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) spots Otto on the sidewalk and offers him a job as a repo man. Bud’s eager to share his trade secrets: a repo man shall not cause harm to any vehicle, a repo man thrives on tense situations, and a repo man does speed. Whenever they’re not repossessing cars and getting shot at, they’re starting fist fights and car chases through the Los Angeles River.

Why? Because why not.

Meanwhile, a suspiciously odd driver is making his way through town in a Chevy Malibu. We don’t know much about him, but we do know whoever looks in his trunk gets vaporized by something extra-terrestrial in nature. (It’s worth noting that Weekly World News is the newspaper of choice in Repo Man.) One day there’s a $20,000 bounty put on the Malibu, pitting Otto’s friends and rivals against one another. Otto’s friends and rivals, by the way, are pretty indistinguishable.

Amidst the flurry of action-packed scenes are relatively quiet ones in which the supporting characters launch into wordy monologues about life, the universe, and everything… without saying anything significant at all. (It kind of reminds me of David Byrne’s True Stories… so much of this stuff isn’t relevant to the plot, but then again, there really isn’t a plot.) Miller, a grease monkey, makes far-out observations which might sound sensible coming out of the mouth of a new age guru, but if you actually look for meaning you’ll find a whole lot of nothing. Otto, who’s too stupid to look for meaning in the first place, just kind of raises an eyebrow.

Back to Bud: he’s a well-meaning everyman who’s fearful of commies and convinces himself his hard work is going to result in the American dream. (His idea of the American dream is running a repo business of his own.) In other movies, the main character’s protégé might have shone light on the film’s deeper meaning by becoming a thinly disguised parrot for the filmmaker’s beliefs. In this movie he’s just a guy who hates bums… Christians, too. It probably doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t have to mean anything when it’s as witty as this.

So yeah, Repo Man isn’t a typical movie. It’s a movie that feels just as fresh, unpredictable, and effortless as it felt the first time I saw it. Even the most conventional aspect of the movie—the trunk-kept MacGuffin—refuses to adhere to any traditional rules of storytelling. Whenever you hear screenwriting experts go on and on about the importance of structure and carefully measuring the beats of your plot, you’re not wrong to think: “Yes, but you won’t ever make a movie like Repo Man that way.”

Come to think of it, I have no idea how this movie got made. It’s too funny, too alien, and too genuine to have been created by a mere human. I can’t imagine it working on the page and it shouldn’t work as a film, either. Somehow it does. And how it manages to sustain its breakneck pace until the very end, I’ll never know. Impossibly, Repo Man doesn’t get bogged down by cramming too much into it the way Buckaroo Banzai did (a movie I also adore, though not as much as this one); somehow it thrives on becoming bloated with too many characters, too many subplots, and too many words which don’t necessarily mean anything in and of themselves, but speak volumes about the film’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude.

Honestly, I don’t know why this uneven movie runs like such a finely tuned machine. Yet for anyone raised on Mad Magazine, it’s just about the perfect middle finger to all that is average. Stay in this weekend and watch it instead of going to see Movie.