Virtual Deity: 'The Lawnmower Man' Review
Though the title credits might indicate that this is Stephen King’s work (I watched the digital version from iTunes), mind you, it is not.
That’s one of the fascinating aspects of Brett Leonard’s The Lawnmower Man. Other than a short scene featuring, well, a lawnmower man Leonard’s film mostly involves the dangers of virtual reality. After he has trouble with animal subjects, Dr. Angelo (played by a pre-James Bond Pierce Brosnan) decides to experiment with a human subject to continuing his work on virtual reality. This is where Jobe (played by Jeff Fahey), the titular character, comes in. Since Jobe has an intellectual disability, then Angelo decides to use him to further his human trials but what he doesn’t know is that he’s unleashing Jobe’s potential. Angelo gives Jobe drugs that rapidly begin to change him and give him powers like telepathy.
With the knowledge that Leonard and the studio were going to advertise this as Stephen King’s, King took the filmmakers to court and successfully sued them for saying that it was based on his work. But what makes the film a quasi-fascinating watch is seeing Brosnan in a pre-Bond fashion and of course the groundbreaking, at the time, use of CGI.
Following Tron, which was released in 1982 and featured at the time arresting visuals with cutting edge computer graphics, Leonard’s vision of the virtual world owes a lot to Steven Lisberger’s Disney cult classic. The visuals for the film, while dated today, definitely hearken back to previous portrayals of the cyber world and completely have a retro feel towards the visual landscape of the cyber world. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is Jobe’s overall arc and where it takes him. While he starts off by displaying telekinetic abilities Jobe’s transition into becoming a dangerously all-powerful being, once inside the virtual world, is explored in the film and at times even gives hints of possible singularity ideas.
But aside from some pretty innovative ideas, The Lawnmower Man doesn’t do anything with them or explore them in any significant way. It's cool seeing those retro visuals now, but the effects do have a certain “retro quaint-ness” to them that they just can’t escape and without a doubt, Jobe’s portrayal, which is no fault of Jeff Fahey's, borders on cartoonish. As they point out in an episode of the hilarious and excellent podcast, “How Did This Get Made?” it does feel like Fahey’s Jobe is the influence on character design for Ben Stiller’s Simple Jack character in Tropic Thunder.
That being said, just like Tron in 1982, Leonard’s film is one of the first films to explore the concept of virtual reality and in the process helped popularize it. There’s something oddly World on a Wire about Dr. Angelo’s chair where Jobe plugs into the virtual world to expand his being. So in many ways this film is a progenitor of exploring the concept of virtual reality as a whole, you’d just wish that maybe they could’ve done something more with that premise.