I’ve finally got to the age when mowing my own lawn is a thing, and as a direct result, I’ve inherited a garage full of broken lawnmowers which I’m adding to assiduously. Of course, working in the garden wasn’t the big attraction of Brett Leonard’s early entry in the cyber-thriller stakes; The Lawnmower Man is more of a grim warning abut the dangers of a technology which was at a nascent stage back in 1992, but audiences were drawn to the virtual realty content and this film was a considerable hit back in the day. The Lawnmower Man was also much rubbished and derided, but has gained retro-cult status into the internet age.
So this director’s cut, substantially longer, is worth another look as it surfaces on Prime; Pierce Brosnan takes second billing, but is the obvious protagonist here. He plays Dr Lawrence Angelo, a maverick scientist who is experimenting on chimps by giving them virtual reality helmets and training them to be killing machines. ‘Dirty’ government money provides his funding, but the results are catastrophic and one experiment breaks out and heads for the nearest church, where it encounters Jobe (Jeff Fahey) a simple-minded gardener who befriends it before some government goons turn up to shoot the robo-chimp dead.
Angelo sees Jobe as a potential upgrade on his experiments, and soon plugs the unwitting chap into VR, causing him to make mental leaps and bounds that transform him into a genius, a villain and eventually some kind of cyber-god who has the power of telekinesis. Jobe revenges himself on local malcontents by flinging spinning-bladed lawnmowers into their front rooms, but his big plan involves inhabiting the new-fangled internets; ‘By the year 2001, there won’t be a single person who isn’t hooked on it’ Job says about the online experience, and give or take a few years, he wasn’t far off. This ‘new, electric dimension’ isn’t really seen, but the trippy VR effects, while primitive, have a certain fascination, particularly when viewed in today’s HD.
The Lawnmower Man was developed by veteran producer Milton Subotsky, and was supposedly based on a Stephen King short story, which features a lawnmower and a man, but that’s about the only connection. King understandably sued; it’s notable that the screenplay is ersatz King, with a multi-character community, a sinister black-ops team known as ‘the Shop’, and even a gas-station that comes to life that recalls Maximum Overdrive. ‘I never realised it was all so complex and disturbing’ says one character, but The Lawnmower Man is very much of the familiar ‘some things are better left undiscovered’ vibe of HG Wells’ The Invisible Man or Frankenstein. The computer paper, compact disk drives and other items make this a strangely nostalgic trip, and even if the story is rote, this wacky director’s cut is probably the best way to appreciate the skewed, past-tense vision of our future that we get a glimpse of here.