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Review: The Lawnmower Man (1992)

The Lawnmower Man (1992)

Directed by: Brett Leonard

Premise: A scientist (Pierce Brosnan) doing research on virtual reality and the human brain begins to experiment with a mentally indigent groundskeeper (Jeff Fahey). The sessions reprogram his brain, turning him into a genius, and eventually giving him the power to blend the physical world and the digital realm.

What Works: In the early 1990s video games had emerged as a major force in the entertainment industry, and with their popularity also came rising concerns about how they might impact the minds of the users. At the same time, early virtual reality simulators had been developed and they were anticipated to become a major force in technology and entertainment. Out of that zeitgeist came The Lawnmower Man, a movie that seized on both the possibilities and fears of this new technology. The film has several elements in it that are familiar from other movies; it is primarily a mad scientist story but it also has elements of an addict narrative and the cyberpunk genre. The combination works and each of those elements complements the other. The key element that distinguishes The Lawnmower Man, even now, more than two decades after its release, are the technical accomplishments of the film. This picture used digital technology to conjure images that were groundbreaking in 1992. Although the capacity of digital filmmaking has changed dramatically since then the movie remains an entertaining and engaging viewing because of its weirdness and creativity. Unlike Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which had been released a year earlier and set a new standard for special effects, the digital sequences of The Lawnmower Man do not try to replicate reality. Rather, the filmmakers create impressionistic visuals that don’t correspond to the physical world and because of that approach the limitations of the technology give the film a strange digital rawness. The storyline of Jobe transforming from a kindly simpleton and into a digital monster still has cultural currency and the way in which that monstrosity is visualized in the digital world is still distressing for contemporary viewers.

What Doesn’t: The Lawnmower Man was released in 1992 and it is very much a product of its time, especially in its regard for technology. In some respects that is part of its charm but the movie is also anachronistic. This is a frequent problem for movies in which the story is based around computer hardware and many movies that were released around the same time as The Lawnmower Man, such as The Net, Disclosure, Strange Days, and Brainscan, have a stunted dramatic impact because contemporary audiences have moved beyond the movie or the filmmakers’ predictions of the future were off the mark. Despite its datedness, The Lawnmower Man has aged a bit better than some of these other pictures partly because of the creativity of its imagery but also because the central premise remains a compelling one. The Lawnmower Man is far more dated by some of the filmmaking styles of the early 1990s, such as the use of choppy slow motion and the use of lighting and camera schemes that look televisual instead of cinematic. The picture is further hurt by its unsteady grip on logic and narrative. Jobe makes great leaps in his development but his corruption is not as convincingly mapped out and when the movie gets to its climax it gets absurd with sequences that don’t make any kind of sense. As a matter of trivia, The Lawnmower Man was initially announced and marketed as an adaptation of a short story by Stephen King. The horror author did indeed write a short story with that title but this film had little or nothing to do with it and King successfully sued to have his name taken off the picture. The irony is that several story elements of The Lawnmower Man recall Firestarter, another Stephen King adaptation that had been released almost a decade earlier.

DVD extras: When The Lawnmower Man was released on the VHS and laserdisc formats it was available in two versions: the 107 minute theatrical cut and the 140 minute director’s cut. Only the theatrical cut is available on DVD in the North American market. The Region 1 DVD of The Lawmmower Man is available in multiple runs. One version is packaged with The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace and has no special features. The New Line Platinum Edition DVD includes deleted scenes, interviews, and image galleries.

Bottom Line: The Lawnmower Man is not a great movie but it is entertaining and it is a very interesting curio of early 1990s digital filmmaking. The filmmakers achieved several technical breakthroughs that make this show historically important and its influence can be seen in later movies like The Matrix and Transcendence. But the digital scenes of The Lawnmower Man also demonstrate the as-yet unrealized possibilities of digital cinema to create impressionistic images that truly create a new reality.

Episode: #488 (April 27, 2014)