Review: The Lawnmower Man (1992)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #729

Number of Views: Two
Release Date: March 6, 1992
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi/Horror
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $10,000,000
Box Office: $32,100,816 (US)
Running Time: 103 minutes, 141 minutes (unrated director’s cut)
Director: Brett Leonard
Producer: Gimel Everett
Screenplay: Brett Leonard, Gimel Everett
Based loosely on The Lawnmower Man by Stephen King
Special Effects: Erick Brennan
Visual Effects: Francesco Chiarini
Cinematography: Russell Carpenter
Score: Dan Wyman
Editing: Alan Baumgarten, Lisa Bromwell (unrated director’s cut)
Studios: Allied Vision, Fuji Eight Company Ltd., Lane Pringle Productions
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Stars: Jeff Fahey, Pierce Brosnan, Jenny Wright, Geoffrey Lewis, Mark Bringelson, Jeremy Slate, Dean Norris, Austin O’Brien, Rosalee Mayeux, Ray Lykins, Colleen Coffey, Troy Evans

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Dusty Springfield “Magic Garden”

[2] Tangerine Dream “Force Majeure”

[3] Neil Young “Computer Age”

[4] Clarence Carter “Strokin”

[5] KraftwerkMan Machine”

I’ve never really been one for green fingers. Gardening has particularly never appealed to me and, when the summer sun is at its fullest, nothing fills me with dread quite like the prospect of mowing the front lawn. If I had my way, I’d surround myself with concrete just to save myself the headache.

However, for some, nothing is more important than ensuring their garden grows correctly. In the United States alone, homeowners spend roughly $30 billion per year on their lawns and the average American spends four hours per week maintaining their little slice of utopia. That’s a lot of powered lawnmowers all humming in unison and it may surprise you to learn that 68,000 injuries a year result from turf trimming.

On the flip side, I’ve always been one for virtual reality, at least, way back in the early nineties when VR was all the rage. Capable of generating realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user’s physical presence in an artificial environment, virtual reality was touted as the true future proof technology and the sky no longer appeared the limit. It was all terribly exciting and I recall thinking to myself that shit simply didn’t get any better than this. Of course it did and, two decades further down the line, such primitive science is starting to look decidedly long in the tooth.

When Brett Leonard’s The Lawnmower Man, based on a 1975 Stephen King short story of the same name, first arrived at my local multiplex, I hadn’t the vaguest clue what to make of it. The title didn’t generate a great deal of confidence but, rumor had it, that this particular movie represented the very pinnacle of VR technology and I was powerless to resist purchasing my ticket (with some trepidation I might add). To assist in the process, I dropped acid an hour before taking my seat in the auditorium as this had worked a treat the year previous for the premiere of James Cameron’s similarly snazzy Terminator 2: Judgement Day and I was right about ready for a repeat performance.

Was I dazzled? Actually yes, it was something of a seat-of-the-pants rollercoaster ride through Technicolor nirvana. However, once the drug’s effects wore off, I remembered precious little of the film itself. I wasn’t alone either as, despite turning a reasonable profit during its brief theatrical run, The Lawnmower Man was met by a wave of indifference and forgotten soon afterwards.

Granted, the visual effects were simply out-of-this-world, but that aside, there wasn’t a great deal about Leonard’s film that lodged in my memory banks. As a result, it has taken well over twenty years to return for my repeat viewing and time has seldom been less kind than it has to this predictable, melodramatic cinematic nondescript.

Originally and audaciously titled Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man, the author successfully sued the producers for attaching his name to the project as it “bore no meaningful resemblance” to his original story. With King’s fine name no longer a potential bargaining tool, its armory consisted of little more than purty visuals and the fear factor of people’s lack of understanding with regards to not only predicting the future but also the capabilities of computers. Strip away all that surface gloss and Leonard’s tale is as old-fashioned as they come; a cautionary tale about mankind’s endless quest for knowledge and being careful what you wish for.

Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) is Virtual Space Industries’ golden boy and his unorthodox research into the virtual reality as a means of heightening intelligence is going great guns behind closed doors. Alas, he has taken his studies as far as he can using chimpanzees as his subjects and is crying out for a real-life patsy to put through the technological ringer. A pacifist by nature, Angelo’s experiments teach the chimps all manner of warfare tactics, and he knows how damaging this intelligence could be in the wrong hands. Thus he keeps his secrets precisely that and even his own wife Caroline (Colleen Coffey) doesn’t get to sniff his cheese.

After she packs her bags and leaves his sorry ass, Angelo is left with even more time on his hands and decides it’s high time he seizes the moment. Enter Jobe (Jeff Fahey), a local landscape gardener suffering from severe learning difficulties who would make the ideal guinea pig for his new pet project. You see, Angelo’s basement is effectively a gaming zone, and he has all the amenities on hand to elevate Jobe’s lowly IQ into triple figures.

He dangles the carrot and Jobe responds with something along the lines of “Oh look, a carrot. Yummy. Scrummy” bless him. One quick hook up later and the signs are extremely encouraging. Should Jobe now attempt to peel a banana, then chances are, he’ll not pick up an aubergine by accident. Pat on the back time beckons.

It’s all terribly exciting for Jobe, who spends half his life mowing lawns and the other being thrashed with a leather belt by the local priest for not completing his chores. His home is a garden shed, his punishing penance daily, and there appears no clear and present danger of Jobe misplacing his virginity any time soon. That said, with every dose of juice that penetrates his frontal lobe, he’s getting a little bit smarter and suddenly new doors are opening that were previously deadbolted.

“Falling, floating, and flying? So, what’s next, fucking?”

One of these leads directly to the boudoir of well-to-do widow Marnie (Jenny Wright) and she’s been making all sorts of eyes at Jobe while he parades her front lawn topless, with his blade-driven monster at full growl. It’s only natural that all that exhausting mowing beneath the blazing sun will leave Jobe feeling a tad parched and Marnie’s vagina just so happens to double up as a drink dispenser so it’s time for our man-child to surrender that second barrel so to speak. You guessed it, a still relatively simple creature like Jobe cannot resist the urge of pink lemonade when poured suggestively between the crack of a good woman’s tits.

He’s a quick learner for sure and this extends to Angelo’s studies as Jobe’s intelligence has now considerably exceeded projections and a Nobel Prize could well be soon beckoning for innovation in the field of science. That said, there do appear to be a few side-effects, most worryingly, Jobe’s newfound aggression and the abilities both telepathic and pyrokinetic that he appears to have ingested with all this free tasty brain food.

The hallucinations are getting progressively more nightmarish, Jobe’s grip on reality is slackening, and Angelo is forced with a decidedly uncomfortable decision. Shut the project down before shit goes live or prepare to face the fiery wrath of the lawnmower man and dissolve into a mobile mass of jittering lottery balls.

“You realize, Dr. Angelo, that my intelligence has surpassed yours…”

Both Brosnan and Fahey are fine, particularly the former who brings just the right amount of nervous energy to his role as frustrated future sailor. However The Lawnmower Man only ever comes to life when we wire into the mainframe and explore its brave new world first hand. And herein lies my issue. You see, what was one brave and new in equal measures, is now sheepish and jaded.

Technology waits for no man and the lucid landscapes twisting and morphing before us is about as inviting as the garden shed where Jobe receives his daily lashings. With its only USP no longer anywhere near exclusive, Leonard’s film is as hollow as a politician’s public addresses and similarly soul crushing to sit through.

“…my birth cry will be the sound of every phone on this planet ringing in unison”

To be fair, the closing shot is way cool and there does exist a 141 minute director’s cut which my assist in padding out the threadbare story some. However, if that equates to another 38 minutes of watching Jobe emptying his grass box, then I think I may just quit while ahead you know. It will take more than a few additional scenes to fix the problem here as fundamentally it all boils down to surpassed technology.

I refuse to be too mean as every film deserves to be provided a certain degree of perspective and I’d rather sit through The Lawnmower Man again than get hands-on with my Flymo. But the main reason to grant access to its mainframe twenty-five years on is morbid curiosity over just how far mankind has come during the interim.

Ultimately and ironically, what Leonard’s film could have done with most was a taste of its own medicine as, like the Jobe of yesterday, it has precious little to say other than “I saw God! I touched God!” and we all know the almighty doesn’t pixellate when you stroke his beard. VR is quite clearly dead, so you can stick your lawnmower where the grass don’t grow. I’m heading off back to Videodrome this very moment as I’d rather get my new flesh televisually thank you very much.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10

Grue Factor: 1/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: I regret to inform you that The Lawnmower Man consists of little more than a load of balls, quite literally in fact. Actually this is a kinda cool effect and I’ll never shake the sight of Jobe’s mentalist mower trimming some poor chump’s cerebral lawn on its most sinister setting.

For the Pelt-Nuzzlers: Meanwhile, thanks to our professional widow Caroline, we now know how to make missionary fun and rewarding for both parties. I’m thrashing myself with a belt-buckle right now just thinking about what I’d do if I was in Jobe’s position.

Read Hollow Man Appraisal
Read Scanners Appraisal
Read Videodrome Appraisal
Read The Fly (1986) Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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