The Lawnmower Man/Virtual Wars (1992) ½
So, when is a Stephen King movie not a Stephen King movie? How about when a studio buys the rights to one of King’s stories, chucks everything but the title and one death scene, and then staples them onto a movie so insultingly awful that the author sues to have his name taken off of the film? That’s about what happened with New Line Cinema’s The Lawnmower Man. The story from which it took its title is a weird little tale about a man who inadvertently hires a satyr to mow his lawn (I somehow suspect that King was baked like a tuna casserole when he wrote it), and is a lot of fun in a “what the hell were you thinking?” sort of way. The movie, on the other hand, is a cyberpunk reworking of “Flowers for Algernon,” and is so dire and dismal that slightly later techno-shitstains like Hackers and Johnny Mnemonic— or even that putrid demon-in-the-internet episode from the first season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”— look nearly brilliant in comparison.
The Lawnmower Man begins by refuting the once universally accepted crap-movie principle that monkeys make everything better. The monkey in question (a chimp, actually) is named Roscoe-111, and he is the star of a research program which Dr. Larry Angelo (Pierce Brosnan, from Mars Attacks!), of Defense Systems Industries, is conducting at the behest of a shady government agency called the Shop. Presumably the latter is the same outfit that turned Drew Barrymore into a human napalm thrower in Firestarter, but with the coming of a new decade, they’ve gotten out of the psychokinesis business to pursue new avenues of obviously impractical malfeasance. The 90’s being all about computers, the Shop is now interested in using virtual reality technology to create the perfect killing machine. Now in the real world, VR has proven quite useful to the military by allowing for the creation of more realistic and immersive training simulators, but that’s not at all what we’re talking about here— no, that would be far too sensible. Instead, the Shop wants to create a force of hormonally enhanced chimpanzee warriors who will go into battle wearing Laser Tag get-ups with computerized helmets that cause them to see the world as if it were a poorly thought-out video game, and as Angelo never tires of telling his boss, Sebastian Timms (Mark Bringleson, of Dollman and Ultra Warrior), Roscoe is the closest he has ever come to satisfying the Shop’s bizarre requirements. Of course, since the Shop is a shady government agency, one of the components of Roscoe’s hormonal enhancement is something to ramp up his aggression along with his intelligence, and so it was basically inevitable from the get-go that the super-chimp would eventually kill one of the DSI security guards and escape from captivity.
Roscoe understandably sticks to the woods after making his break for freedom, and so it is that the first person who sees him is Job Smith (Jeff Fahey, from Psycho III and Body Parts), who makes his home on the edge of those woods. Job is the handyman and groundskeeper— that is to say, the lawnmower man— at the neighborhood Catholic church, and he has an IQ somewhere in the neighborhood of the middle 40’s. Consequently, rather than taking one look at Roscoe and going, “Holy shit! That’s a chimpanzee wearing a Laser Tag outfit!” Job immediately concludes that he has been blessed with a personal visit from his favorite comic book character, Cybo-Man. (I assume that the producers of “Dr. Who” must have had the foresight to trademark the name “Cyberman.”) And folks, this is as good as the writing in this movie is ever going to get, so you’d better fucking enjoy it while it lasts. Job takes “Cybo-Man” in at his shack in the lot behind the church, but the oddly attired ape catches the eye of Father Francis McKeen (Jeremy Slate, from Curse of the Moon Child and The Centerfold Girls), who calls the police to report a strange animal on his property. Word rapidly gets back to DSI headquarters, and Job’s shack is soon surrounded by blue-jumpsuited gunmen. Dr. Angelo comes as fast as he can, and he tries gamely to keep the situation from spiraling out of hand, but it avails him fairly little. The DSI/Shop SWAT team blows Roscoe away the moment Job responds to Angelo’s coaxing and comes out of the shack, Job flies into hysterics at “Cybo-Man’s” death, and Timms is forced to bribe Father McKeen with a huge donation to the church in order to have any hope of keeping the story under wraps. Angelo, for his part, becomes so disillusioned with his paymasters that he takes a hiatus from the project to sulk in his basement, drink too much, and bicker petulantly with his wife (Colleen Coffey, of Indecent Behavior III and Relentless IV: Ashes to Ashes) over his obsessive dedication to the cause of virtual reality.
Let’s take a moment now to examine life in the little town where The Lawnmower Man mostly takes place. Angelo and Job seem both to be vying for the title of Town Weirdo, the former for being a mad scientist and the latter for being a retard who nevertheless has an uncanny way with machinery. (The latter plot point simply drops off the face of the screenplay at about the hour mark, by the way.) Both spend a lot of time with Peter Parkette (Austin O’Brien), the pubescent son of Angelo’s next-door neighbors, who enjoys the handyman’s company because he’s basically just an overgrown kid, and the scientist’s because of all the bitchin’ video game-like VR equipment he has in his basement laboratory. Peter’s mother (Rosalee Mayeaux) is sort of flighty and put-upon, and seems to have her eye on Angelo— partly because any idiot can see how strained Larry’s home-life is, and partly because her own husband (Ray Lykins, of Suburbia and Man’s Best Friend) is a hard-drinking, short-tempered son of a bitch. Job has his own short-tempered son of a bitch in Father McKeen, who has raised him as a ward of the church since he was five years old, and who routinely slaps the shit out of him with a leather belt for no better reason than that we need enough hate-worthy characters in this movie to justify a respectable third-act body count. That’s also the only apparent reason why gas station attendant Jake Simpson (John Laughlin, from The Hills Have Eyes, Part 2 and Gacy) even exists; Lord knows none of the shitty things he does to Job every time the two of them share a scene have any visible connection to the real plot. Then there are the two adults who are actually nice to Job. One is Father McKeen’s brother, Terry (Geoffrey Lewis, from Salem’s Lot and Trilogy of Terror II), who acts as Job’s boss whenever he carries his groundskeeping duties off of church property and into the town at large. The other is Marnie Burke (Jenny Right, of Near Dark and I, Madman), one of Job’s regular lawn-mowing customers, who will give at least serious consideration to fucking any man younger than the McKeen brothers, no matter how low his IQ might be, and who makes a habit of dressing in the skimpiest robe consistent with conventional notions of decency whenever Job stops by to cut her grass.
As you’ve undoubtedly surmised already, it doesn’t take very long before Angelo gets it into his head to use the same brain-boosting techniques he had developed for the Shop to improve Job’s lot in life. After all, it’s not like he’s got anything better to do now that he’s on a leave of absence from DSI, and a regimen that can make a chimp smart enough to fight America’s next war could surely bring Job’s intelligence at least up to dull normal. Furthermore, this sort of techno-messianism was always more Angelo’s speed than that nasty military shit that’s been paying his bills all these years. Angelo whips up a modified version of his old drugs-and-VR routine (one without the aggressiveness-enhancing chemicals the Shop wanted administered to the chimps), and begins working his mojo on Job. The resulting changes are rapid and stunning. Job learns to read; he learns to stand up to both Jake Simpson and Father McKeen; he gets good enough at Angelo’s virtual reality games to give Peter next door some credible competition; he even finally starts getting the hints that Marnie Burke and her teeny, tiny satin robe keep dropping on him from the second-floor back balcony while he mows her lawn. But because this is a movie that at least pretends to be based on something written by Stephen King, things simply have to go monstrously awry after a little while, in a way that involves both sinister government moustache-twirling and psychokinetic powers. You see, once Angelo reaches the limits of what he can do in his basement at home, he goes to see Timms in the hope of securing the use of his real lab at DSI. Timms agrees, but then calls his contact at the Shop (Dean Norris, of Total Recall and The One), who immediately insists that Timms begin secretly adding the DSI ultra-violence drug to Job’s injection cocktail. Now that would be bad enough all by itself, but Angelo has also greatly underestimated the extent of the changes his treatments have effected upon Job’s brain. Within just a few days of his arrival at DSI, Job’s intelligence has reached supra-genius levels, and the rate at which he absorbs and retains information has become downright superhuman. He also develops a battery of vaguely defined psionic powers, ranging from standard telekinesis (as when he takes to operating his lawnmower from inside Marnie’s house while the two of them are in bed together) to the ability to discorporate people into masses of little round dots (presumably he’s supposed to be “digitizing” or “pixelating” them, his powers having been imparted to him at least partially by a computer). Indeed, by the time the guys from the Shop are ready to take a look at what Angelo has accomplished, Job is for all practical purposes a low-rent god— and thanks to Timms and his rage injections, he’s a low-rent god of raw, dick-swinging destruction. Good job, guys!
The front cover of the copy I rented quotes Arizona Republic reviewer Bob Fenster, calling The Lawnmower Man “One of the hottest science-fiction movies to blow your mind since Total Recall!” Sorry, but I really don’t think it was my mind that this movie was blowing. While I suppose there might be worse 1990’s computer-mania films out there somewhere, I sure as hell haven’t seen them, and if it had been one of my stories being claimed as the basis for this travesty, I’d have sued to get my name off of it too. It’s one of those extremely rare mainstream movies about which there is nothing good, and scarcely anything that is even tolerable. Given that we’re talking about a guy who would be playing James Bond just a few years later, it’s incredible how perfectly devoid of charisma, style, or even just simple life-energy Pierce Brosnan’s performance here is. Of course, it doesn’t help any that Larry Angelo is both a fool and a wacko, whom writer/director Brett Leonard nevertheless insists upon treating as a sympathetic, stand-up guy, but the force of Brosnan’s not giving a fuck is breathtaking all by itself. Jeff Fahey at least seems to have tried to do something with the part of Job, and I suppose he deserves a little pat on the head for that. But although he manages a couple of halfway-convincing moments during the part of the film when Job is still a garden-variety halfwit, he really might as well have joined his costar in phoning in the performance; the role was a dud, the movie was a dud, and there wasn’t a damn thing Fahey by himself could have done about it. The vast majority of the supporting cast has it even worse, in that they’ve been saddled with parts that have only the most tenuous connection to the ostensible plot. Indeed, a fair percentage of them never have any impact at all upon anything. The story is little more than a steady stream of half-baked idiocies trying desperately hard to seem relevant, substantial, and possibly even groundbreaking— an endeavor which might have been helped if somebody involved in the project had possessed more than the most cursory understanding of what virtual reality actually was, or what might possibly have been accomplished by exploiting it. On the other hand, there was certainly no shortage of people in the early 90’s making ridiculously inflated claims about how a technology that really amounted to little more than a formula for the most involved and involving video games yet seen was somehow going to revolutionize everything and change the whole fucking world, dude!!!!
And that brings us to what looks to have been the primary justification for this rancid movie’s existence, its half a million dollars’ worth of computer animation. Honestly, Tron’s was a lot more impressive. The main fault with The Lawnmower Man’s CGI is that, in the context of the film, it’s supposed to represent some earth-shattering new paradigm in the world of technology, but it doesn’t look all that much different or better than the three- and five-minute cartoons Pixar was producing in the mid-1980’s. We’re told that Angelo is involved in something that has never been done before, but what we’re shown is merely something that New Line Cinema had never been able to afford before. Like Angelo’s wife says, “It may be the future for you, but it just looks like the same old shit to me.” And in those scenes where the CGI is used to show the exercise of Job’s powers in the real world, the result is outright laughable. The “digitization,” the animated fire that kills Father McKeen, the lawnmower-mouthed Pac-Man shown munching on Jake Simpson’s cerebral cortex when Job finally goes all Scanners on his ass— “pathetic” is too mild an imprecation.
Finally, The Lawnmower Man is just plain tacky. Watching it today, it’s impossible to believe that this movie actually played in theaters; apart from a couple of second-string name actors and the eight minutes of expensive but ultimately self-defeating CGI, the production values in The Lawnmower Man are on par with those of a relatively well-funded direct-to-video release. Brett Leonard’s overboard use of heavy blue filters achieves the opposite of the effect that most discerning low-budget filmmakers now strive after, making 35mm film look like TV-studio-quality videotape. The sound quality is also noticeably sub-par, with voices and sound effects alike seeming strangely flat and bereft of resonance. But the worst defect of all is reserved to those foolish enough to rent or buy the “unrated director’s cut.” The Lawnmower Man is a trial even at its 107-minute theatrical running time. The director’s cut is nearly half an hour longer, meaning that it’s not only chintzy, stupid, and irritating, but boring and flabby as well! That’s something for which no amount of monkeys can compensate.