Is ‘Lawnmower Man’ Hollywood’s Definitive VR Film?

There was a 2014 “Wired” cover story that touted the arrival of the Oculus Rift, the Palmer Luckey-created virtual reality headset,

My awareness of virtual reality, both the sci-fi concept and the slowly developing reality, dimmed in the late 1990s. After reading about failed prototypes, unworkable headgear and unrealized potential, it seemed the idea of immersing oneself in a digitally realized world would never come to pass.

Then, Luckey reportedly made the best version of a VR experience to date, got Mark Zuckerberg involved and suddenly, the future once again looked extremely virtual.

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Let’s put on our Rod Serling thinking caps for a moment and really consider this. For now, VR is an option mostly for gamers and, at its full potential, still a thing of the future.

Still, I can’t help but mentally leap off of the William Gibson coined-“cyberspace” and bounce straight into a Twilight Zone both dizzying and terrifying. Rather than ear plugs, could VR users watch movies on a plane by donning a headpiece that makes them think they’re in a movie theater and not an uncomfortable seat in business class?

Couldn’t VR users believe themselves to be gorging on icing-heavy wedding cake, then remove their headpieces to clarify, giddily, that they haven’t actually consumed a single calorie? Couldn’t VR users go through an imaginary dating AND marriage scenario with someone they don’t even know?

Perhaps someone lacking smarts could don a VR helmet, play games that could tap into their subconscious and make them smarter? That last idea is neither Serling’s nor mine but the premise of Brett Leonard’s “The Lawnmower Man [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray],” perhaps the definitive VR movie to date.

The Lawnmower Man: Collectors Edition (1992) - Official Trailer (HD)

Jeff Fahey stars as Jobe, a mentally-impaired, child-like groundskeeper who lives in a shack behind a Catholic church. Jobe is religious, kind and used to being bullied by nearly everyone he knows.

When an on-edge scientist (Pierce Brosnan) offer Jobe a chance to play VR games that will make him smarter, Jobe doesn’t hesitate. The experiment becomes a Frankenstein-like tragedy, as Jobe’s simple-minded demeanor fades into a psychic-powered variation of those who tormented him. Jobe becomes a cybernetic Lucifer who uses the “mainframe” as a means of creating a personal hell.

Leonard’s film is lean, pulpy and mean-spirited. Most of the supporting characters are alcoholics, abusive or both. Jobe is much like Carrie White: a gentle soul with a supernaturally unleashed tendency for violent revenge.

FAST FACT: 1992’s “The Lawnmower Man” earned a respectable $32 million at the U.S. box office. That year’s number one film? “Aladdin” with a $217 million haul.

The local Catholic priest is depicted as a controlling, lecherous bully and Jobe’s boss (played by the always-game Geoffrey Lewis) is a likable country bumpkin. If any of this sounds like it belongs in a Stephen King movie, you’re right.

That’s what this is…or was.

The Lawnmower Man: Collector's Edition (1992) - Clip 1: Dr. Angelo and Jobe (HD)

“The Lawnmower Man” was titled “Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man” when it played in theaters during the spring of 1992. Without question, the King brand name brought audiences in droves as much as the flashy trailer.

There are recognizable similarities between King’s unique and grotesque 1975 short story (namely a mind-controlled lawnmower and a reference to an insidious organization referenced in King works called The Shop).

Yet, the connection between the short story and the film is faint. King’s work is ghoulish and deals with mysticism, while Leonard’s film is all high-tech thrills and mad scientist melodrama.

Lawyering Up

King famously sued to have his name taken off the film and won, though not before the movie became a medium-sized hit with his moniker attached.

Fahey’s commanding performance keeps us fascinated with his character’s bizarre evolution. Despite a first-act appearance that makes Jobe resemble a twin brother to Jeff Daniels’ Lloyd in “Dumb and Dumber,” Fahey makes Jobe sympathetic, touching and, in the end, riveting.

Jobe is about as plausible as anyone in “Tron” and, in a touch too funny to have been accidental, he takes his lawnmower with him when he sets out for revenge.

Made during that shaky, post-“Remington Steele,” pre-Bond period where Brosnan gave his all to some ridiculous movies (“Live Wire,” “Detonator” 1-2), the actor has nothing to be ashamed of here.

FAST FACT: Pierce Brosnan was offered the role of a lifetime – playing James Bond – twice. He had to decline the first offer due to TV commitments.

Brosnan invests an over-the-top intensity that would be fine for “Hamlet,” but is especially enjoyable in a B-movie like this.

His decision to portray Jobe’s painful probing of his mind by jabbing his fingers into his eyes is especially inspired and shows impressive commitment.

The Lawnmower Man: Collectors Edition (1992) - Clip 2: Jobe Attacks (HD)

As dated and early as the CGI effects are, they maintain their beauty and ability to induce awe. Late in the film, Jobe’s giant head appears, golden and floating above a lawn; he turns his opponents into screaming, disassembling dots. The effect has a bizarre, surreal quality. So do the climactic scenes, with Jobe becoming a golden cyber-god, master of his mainframe and sporting Fahey’s stretched, fearsome mug.

The grand finale, in which Super Jobe battles cyber-Brosnan (appearing as a Christ-like embodiment of good) are as stunning and weird as you remember.

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Leonard’s film (still his best) is burdened by a lame synthesizer score, has boardroom scenes that play like subpar “Max Headroom” outtakes and feature Dean Norris and Austin O’Brien in tremendously silly roles.

Yet, as goofy as this gets, “The Lawnmower Man” maintains its fiendish grip.

VR Movies: A Work in Progress

Defining a virtual reality movie isn’t easy. Many portray the use of technological as a means of uncovering a hidden truth or entering a pre-existing world (namely “The Matrix”). “The Lawnmower Man” fits in that category of early VR-themed movies where the specific headset and you-are-there experiences illuminates the user in varying ways.

FAST FACT: The 1996 sequel “Lawnmower Man: Beyond Cyberspace” proved a critical and commercial dud. Matt Frewer of “Max Headroom” fame took over for Jeff Fahey as Jobe.

Lawnmower Man 2 - Trailer

To name a few noteworthy examples, Douglas Trumbull’s still-amazing “Brainstorm” (1983) is the finest, clearest reflection of what the technology once suggested and now (mostly) provides for real.

The 1993, multi-director, Oliver Stone-produced “Wild Palms” is a nutty, ahead-of-its-time but engrossing depiction of VR controlled by a religious cult. The strange, VR climax of Barry Levinson’s “Disclosure” is riveting but barely sidesteps camp.

On the other hand, the unintentionally hilarious Keanu Reeves vehicle, “Johnny Mnemonic” (1995) doesn’t and neither does Leonard’s later “Virtuosity” (1995); it wound up being an unfortunate, VR-infused, first-time Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe vehicle.

On the other hand, Katherine Bigelow’s 1995 kinetic, disturbing and brilliant “Strange Days” is, like Trumball’s “Brainstorm,” an essential work that unearths the scientific and carnal possibilities of virtual reality.

Where’s the Science in This Fiction?

The early VR movies share a commonality with early home computer movies like “Tron,” “Electric Dreams” and “War Games.” They’re all very entertaining, but they seem to have sprung from screenwriters who didn’t fully understand how the technology actually worked.

The cyber-ized Demi Moore stalking a VR goggled-Michael Douglas in “Disclosure” is every bit as ridiculous as the boy/girl/computer love triangle of “Electric Dreams.” The game-scapes of Leonard’s film have been surpassed in both cinema and gaming but underscore a cautionary tale with real kick.

The new “The Lawnmower Man [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray]” from Scream Factory is one of my favorites in their remarkable genre library. For “Lawnmower” fanatics the extras will seem like a tall stack of unwrapped Christmas gifts.

If you’ve never seen “The Lawnmower Man” or aren’t a super-fan, then the wealth of info and additional content provided will make you feel like you’ve attended a lengthy film class on the subject.

We get both the theatrical version and the far longer Director’s Cut. The latter offers a different, fuller start, strong character building scenes and juicy moments for the supporting cast.

While I don’t mean to undermine how cool it is that both versions of this movie are in this package, I have to admit I don’t care for the two and a half hour Director’s Cut. The extensive Psybo-Man opening is unpleasant and really awful.

Brosnan invests an over-the-top intensity that would be fine for 'Hamlet,' but is especially enjoyable in a B-movie like thisClick To Tweet

Yes, I felt bad for Roscoe the Chimp (both the character and the poor primate who had to don that ridiculous, quasi-Laser Tag outfit) but those scenes add nothing. Neither do the tacky segments where Jobe is vividly depicted as a faithful Catholic abused by the priest who mentors him (at least cinephiles can see what a sci-fi “Sleepers” would have looked like).

The much-tighter theatrical cut does seem rushed and truncated. It’s still preferable to the ordeal of the 140-minute version.

That said, I’m grateful both versions have been cleaned up and presented in the best quality possible. Both come with highly informative but overly self-satisfied commentary tracks by writer/director Brett Leonard and writer/producer Gimel Everett.

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The no-stone-left-unturned making of documentary, “Cybergod: Creating The Lawnmower Man,” traces the production from its short story origins to its current day status as prime example of VR Cinema. One of my favorite tidbits: Leonard chose Fahey because of his performance in “Body Parts” and co-star Jenny Wright because of her work in “Near Dark.”

I like his taste in movies!

Keyes, not King

Also, Leonard wisely admits that Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers For Algernon” and the growth of the tech industry (and not King’s story) is what influenced him the most. A telling detail is how the interview subjects only refer to King as “the author of the short story” and never by name.

The Master of Horror’s lawyers had a lasting impact on the film.

Although the original trailer is included, King’s name, both in the narration and above the title, has been edited out (which wasn’t the case in 1992). In addition to stills, striking conceptual art, a cool storyboard comparison of the famous VR sex scene and the original press kit, there’s an easy-to-find Easter Egg that frequent watchers of the original videocassette release will remember well.

At one point, Jobe declares that his inevitable takeover of the world will come with a sign: he would announce his dominance with the simultaneous ringing of telephones worldwide.

“By 2001, everyone will be in the mainframe.”

Just substitute the word “mainframe” with “Internet” and Jobe is absolutely right. We are wired, always eager to absorb cyber-news, stare at those glowing screens and bow in the direction of our all-powerful Jobe.

If the Internet ever needed a fallen angel figure to represent the worst of our narcissistic, cloaked in anonymity but still monstrous ids, then look no further than Jobe Smith.

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