Home Video Hovel: The Lawnmower Man, by Tyler Smith
It would be easy to laugh at Brett Leonard’s The Lawnmower Man. Like so many other films in the early 90s, it utilizes what was then cutting edge computer graphics to portray a digital universe, while it pontificates about the future of virtual reality. I’m sure it was amazing to see in the theaters at the time; a mind-bending experience that suggested the seemingly limitless potential of technology, both in film and in our daily lives.
Of course, like so many things that are groundbreaking at the time, The Lawnmower Man hasn’t really aged well. Its predictions about virtual reality were shown to be incorrect (though there are some abstract ideas about people living their lives primarily in cyberspace that have proven to be broadly prescient), and the computer graphics now look on par with an old PC screen saver. Like I said, it would be easy to look back at a film like this and scoff. But there is a certain elitism in dismissing a work of art in retrospect, simply because society has moved on from its primary reason for being. So, with its special effects no longer an asset, we must move on to the story and characters. Is this a film worth remembering?
Yes and no. The story is, in many ways, pretty standard. A brilliant scientist working for a shady corporation experiments with virtual reality as a means of enhancing brain function. Unsurprisingly, the corporation wants to explore this technology’s militaristic applications, with disastrous results. The scientist, Dr. Angelo (Pierce Brosnan), is discouraged, so he retreats to his basement lab. Once there, he spies a simple-minded gardener named Jobe (Jeff Fahey) working on his neighbor’s lawn. Angelo decides to experiment on Jobe, whose disabilities make him a target for those looking to take out their frustrations. Sure enough, Jobe responds to the experiments, first by becoming smarter, then through telekinesis. As Jobe becomes more powerful, he starts to take revenge on those that have wronged him.
There’s nothing particularly original about this story. It’s part H.G. Wells, part Stephen King, and a lot of Frankenstein. And, like the Monster in that story, Jobe is a very sympathetic character, who didn’t ask to be given these abilities. His resulting megalomania seems less like a choice, and more a byproduct. Where the film becomes a bit more complex is with Dr. Angelo. Ostensibly our hero, it is his tinkering that created all of this in the first place. We may eventually root for Jobe to be stopped, but there’s no mistaking that he is the first victim of Angelo’s recklessness.
It’s a dynamic that I can really respect, especially when the two lead performances are as committed as these. Jeff Fahey ably embodies every aspect of Jobe, from the slow gardener to the would-be cybergod. Fahey has always been an interesting on-screen presence, in that we always feel like he is assessing those around him and figuring out how best to proceed, though never in an overtly-intellectual way. It’s one of the reasons that Fahey has always excelled at playing streetwise lowlifes and, as he got older, world-weary working men. When watching his performance here, I couldn’t help but notice his eyes. As Jobe grows smarter – and more dangerous – Fahey’s eyes slowly go from wide and wounded to penetrating and judgmental. He is truly the emotional heart of the film.
Brosnan turns in a solid performance, as well. As Dr. Angelo, he is young, charismatic, and good-looking, complete with hip earring. Everything about him suggests a passionate young man trying to change the world. But Brosnan expertly pivots from passion to obsession, and Dr. Angelo starts to briefly fall into “mad scientist” territory. His changes of heart – from wide-eyed idealist to uncompromising scientist and back again – are well-played, and keep us from ever truly knowing where we stand on the character. It’s a welcome bit of ambiguity.
Despite these two grounded performances, the tone of the film is just as over-the-top as its CGI graphics. Every supporting character seems ripped out of a first-draft Stephen King story. They are one-dimensional, representing either a help or hindrance to Jobe or Dr. Angelo. As such, we are treated to a series of broad, flailing performances in a film that becomes increasingly histrionic itself. There are plenty of eye-rolling moments in this film, and not just from the dated effects.
So, in the end, The Lawnmower Man winds up being a fairly mediocre film, recommendable only for its two lead performances, and memorable only for what it represents. It is another of Hollywood’s early attempts in the 1990s to capitalize on emerging technologies, both thematically and artistically, without ever really understanding either.