The Sunday Cult Film Corner: “The Lawnmower Man (1991)”

24 Nov

Sundays are knackering. It should have been a day spent nursing a slight hangover with tea, bacon & eggs, general sloth and corpulence. What has transpired instead was a day spent traipsing all round the city signing contracts, buying radiator keys from hardware stores, seeing tenants and relatives, and still having the time to venture to the ghetto (Breiðholt) to spend some moments in the best pool in Reykjavik.

But all of this rushing has caused me to miss my Sunday creature comforts. I am moody and restless, and I need a film that is not particularly clever, or confusing…. or that good. Yes I need a real dollop of steaming celluloid cheese for my Sunday cult film. And for tonight’s installment of THE SUNDAY CULT FILM CORNER, I think I have a true classic of a B-movie with A-list pretensions. A story of the dangers of technology and some godawful special effects. Ladies and gentlemen I give you THE LAWNMOWER MAN.

The film was directed in 1991 and was supposedly based on a short story by Stephen king, although the film bore no resemblance to the story and King actually threatened to sue the filmmakers to take his name off the poster. The film was directed by a guy named Brett Leonard. This was in many ways, his best known movie as he would go on to make assorted tosh, such as the film adaptation of the Marvel 3rd rate comic character MAN THING, and the 5th (!) sequel to Highlander, titled HIGHLANDER: THE SOURCE.

TLM stars Pierce Brosnan (In a real case of slumming it, before he finally found his feet playing James Bond) as Dr. Lawrence Angelo, a scientist working on a government project to increase human intelligence though the use of drugs and virtual reality. However his experiments goes awry when the army orders him to use chimpanzees in military style situations, controlling their aggression levels. Naturally, of course, one chimp runs amok breaking out of his cage by picking the lock (!) and stealing a gun from a guard and shooting him (!!!).

After this disaster, Angelo retires to his home lab, where he displays maverick scientist behaviour by smoking, drinking, and having the top buttons on his shirt undone, which causes his wife to leave him. In a booze and fag fug, he decides that the way forward is to experiment on humans, so he decides that the best person for this is his neighbour, a wild haired, bug-eyed man called Jobe Smith (Played by Jeff Fahey) who mows the neighbourhood lawns. Jobe has had a bad deal in life. He is what you would politely call “Educationally Subnormal,” he lives in a shed (even though the neighbourhood is full of nice expensive houses), and he is beaten by all sundry, from the gas station attendant to the local priest. Of course, he is the perfect choice!

So the new experiments start in earnest and of course the initial results are a success. His brainpower increases exponentially so he can now make whole sentences, learn Latin, and keep his tongue in his mouth. His hair now looks as if it has product in it, and he spends most of his time with his shirt off and seducing the alluring rich widow next door. Oh and there are some little known side effects, such as the ol’ telekinesis and telepathy powers. Naturally Angelo’s old military employers get wind of this and change Jobe’s medication, which cause Jobe to go batshit crazy and start taking revenge on the peeps who have bullied him throughout his life. Then Jobe decides that he must evolve to become pure energy and take over all of the world’s computer networks. So naturally Angelo needs to stop him in the virtual reality world before Jobe can fulfill his maniacal plans. Exciting, eh?

The Lawnmower man is a classic example of the genre known as the “Virtual Reality” film. Often these films would consist of the main protagonists having to enter “virtual” worlds, either of the mind, or created by this newfangled computer technology. More often than not these films would also take the form of a cautionary message of the dangers of such “progressive” technology falling into the wrong hands or being used for evil. The genre first started in earnest in the ’80s with TRON, and BRAINSTORM, but it was the ’90s where they would come into its own with such films as VIRTUOSITY (Amazingly also directed by Brett Leonard. This is a man who loves his computer graphics), ARCADE, and DISCLOSURE, before reaching their zenith at the end fo the decade with THE MATRIX and EXISTENZ. But THE LAWNMOWER MAN would end up being one of the best known of the genre.

And of course THE LAWNMOWER MAN’s main selling point are the wonders (And dangers) of this technology and how it will completely change our lives. The opening credits of the film for example, starts with the following statement (That the director stated that this was rewritten many times);

 By the turn of the millennium a technology known as VIRTUAL REALITY will be in widespread use. It will allow you to enter computer generated artificial worlds as unlimited as the imagination itself. Its creators foresee millions of positive uses – while others fear it as a new form of mind control…

Ooh, big words! Naturally of course VR never turned out to be such a gamechanger in society (Although we’re still waiting on whether Google glasses will turn us all into drones). However it is safe to say that time has not been kind to this film. The biggest thing that has dated is the film’s main selling point, the CGI graphics. Of course we can’t compare today, where you have films containing armies of people spunking millions on graphics that  can wipe your frontal lobe clean, to a film made in 1991 that had seven people taking eight months to complete the effects, on a budget of $500,000. But still, the results of the CGI in THE LAWNMOWER MAN are a bit of a letdown. It’s all just low resolution shapes moving jerkily in a featureless world. The rest of it just looks like a 2nd class video for an early Future Sound Of London track. 

And of course there is the overall cheesiness of the film. As stated at the top, this is a B-Movie with A-list blockbuster pretensions, but the whole thing creaks like your gran’s arthritic hip. The soundtrack has nasty cheap sounding synths and the camerawork, and lighting are rather low rent. Special notice should be taken of the opening scene where there are scenes showing the “monkey” on the run that are as fucking funny as they are shoddy.

And there are other issues with the movie. The story and script are clunky to say the least, and of course with it being all about “Virtual Reality,” there has to be the obligatory “sex in virtual space” scene which of course is preposterous as it is “erotic.” But there are some delights, such as the performances from the likes of Jeff Fahey (A real B-movie’s B-movie man), who spends his time eyeballing everyone out in the first half of the film doing a fine of Forest Gump-ery not seen since “Happy Jack,” before he gets all evil and clever,  when he takes on the guise of a low-grade Bond Villain. Meanwhile Brosnan just clearly doesn’t give a flying fuck and spends the film traipsing about, smoking and saying “fuck” a few times.

The thing though is that for all it’s faults, THE LAWNMOWER MAN is not that bad a film, just not a great one. It is rather entertaining schlock, and underneath all the silliness, there is still the kernel of an idea about the nature of reality and just what are the boundaries of human insight and experience. You just have to go and really look for it. Some beer and hash will help on this….

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Posted by on November 24, 2013 in Film


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