Dozens of movies have emerged that take this concept to heart. Whether intentional or not, by making the movie worse, it gets better. This may well be the truth with most cult films. The director or producers realize that what they have is garbage, or someone says "Hey, I've got a great idea!" and suddenly a straight-up adaptation of Sense and Sensibility becomes Killer Klowns from Outer Space. True story.
This is what happened with The Lawnmower Man. On the surface, it's a film about solid ideas and interesting concepts, which throws away a chance at the AFI hall of fame in the name of intrigue. The end result; an awesome movie that only certain people can and will enjoy.
In his pre-James Bond days, Pierce Brosnan plays a scientist experimenting with virtual reality. He has been working on a program to make monkeys intelligent, tactical, violent war machines. Tired with the prospects of helping wage war, he wants to test his programs on a human to make them smarter.
Enter the Lawnmower Man, Jobe Smith, played to perfection by Jeff Fahey, a mentally challenged person with savant capabilities towards machinery. He makes his living mowing people's lawns, loves comic books and is abused by the local priest (not sexually abused, mind you). On one particular day, while mowing 007's lawn, the scientist decides that Jobe's the perfect test subject. With a low IQ and striving to be smarter, Jobe excitedly agrees to become the first experiment.
This creates an amazing, terrifying premise for the movie. What if we could use computers to enhance our intelligence? While Virtual Reality never took off, computers are always becoming more sophisticated, more powerful. In a recent news article (that was given five seconds of air time) a group of professors are investigating the possibilities of downloading a person's memory. If they succeed, it's only a matter of time until we are able to upload information into the human brain. And if you think the quantum computer is still impossible, you haven't been reading your Discovery magazine lately.
Pierce Brosnan's experiment is successful, and Jobe's mind begins to absorb knowledge at an astronomical rate. Soon, Jobe is as normal as everyone else and begins a romantic relationship with one of his customers, the beautiful neighborhood whore. He learns the entire Latin language in an hour and creates a psychic lawnmower which he controls with only his thoughts. And then the movie takes a turn for the worst, or in my opinion, for the best.
Brosnan's home computer is no longer capable of teaching Jobe anything new. He has to take his subject to the main lab, where the most powerful simulators are. This is where "The Shop" comes in, the evil corporate leaders of Brosnan's company who seem to think that they are part of the CIA. They pop up on TV screen to deliver sinister messages, send men wearing black suits around to do their nefarious deeds and apparently want to rule to world with their brilliant war-monkeys. They soon decide that Jobe is ripe for the military applications of the experiment.
Jimbo Bond learns the plan and goes through pain-staking measures to keep the lawnmower man out of The Shop's clutches by bringing the experiments to an end. But Jobe's mind is hungry for more knowledge, and he begins sneaking to the lab himself to continue his programming. This is where the movie really starts to fall apart, simultaneously getting better every second. Jobe becomes psychic and wants to control the world from the virtual reality system. He takes revenge on the belt-wielding priest and a young friend's asshole father before putting his plan into effect. He wants to upload all of his being into the world's communications system and "infect" them with his brilliance. In short, everyone and everything will become Jobe Smith. It becomes a race against time to stop Jobe and save the world.
Solid acting performances are given by Pierce and Jeff, including a decent performance by a very young Austin O'Brien from My Girl 2, who has now disappeared off the face of the Earth and has likely been fully absorbed into the internet for handy distribution. The horrifying idea of creating human intelligence through computers keeps this movie from becoming terribly dated, even though Virtual Reality is a museum piece. But when intrigue and suspense are added, the movie goes from Oscar winner to cult classic. The Shop is the typical shadow-league of evil-doers, terribly misplaced but very entertaining, and Jobe's psychic powers begin to resemble the virtual reality world he has grown so fond of. The last time I used my psychic powers I didn't create a bunch of pixilated bees from nothing, some guy's head just exploded.
The special effects are well done, and this one of the few films that I will ever agree with the use of computer animation, since it plays a vital part to the movie. No cartoon-like Hulk running around, no cheesy looking monsters or heroes ruining the experience. Just an amazing glimpse of what might have been, had Virtual Reality never become an abandoned practice.
The case could easily be made that this is only a special effects film and nothing more. I am inclined to disagree. As mentioned previously, the possibilities of using computers to alter humans is startlingly close. This idea carries the film beyond the special effects, into a somewhat philosophical realm. Now, thanks to The Lawnmower Man, we can all sit with our friends in a coffee shop and discuss the possibilities of computer-enhanced intelligence, and the resulting psychic powers.
The directing is done well by Brett Leonard, of Virtuosity and Hideaway fame (even though Hideaway kinda sucks). No better or worse then your average cult film, but the Virtual Reality worlds are perfectly realized and there is no god-awful camera work to turn your stomach upside down, like in The Blair Witch Project. He's not going to win an Oscar anytime soon, but he does the job well enough to tell the story clearly.
Sadly, the concept of "make it worse to make it better" doesn't always carry through. After the success of this film, a sequel was released, titled Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace (or called Jobe's War depending on which title your video store is currently stocking). The only actor to return from the first is Austin O'Brien, with Patrick Bergen replacing 007 and Matt Frewer taking over for Jeff Fahey. For those unfamiliar with Frewer's work, he's a solid actor, unrecognized but always good in his roles. Sadly, he's the only good thing about this train-wreck of a sequel. On days when I'm really depressed and lethargic, I like to pretend that Lawnmower Man 2 was never created, and my day instantly gets better. Avoid it or suffer the consequences.
An interesting side note, when the movie was first being released it was credited as Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man, claiming to have been based on one of King's early short stories found in the Night Shift collection. The only similarity is the title. The written story consists of a man hiring a landscaping company to cut his lawn and being sent a nutcase who eats the lawn instead of using any machinery. Far from King's best work, and he should have allowed this movie to take it's place. Instead the horror author filed suit to have his name removed from the film.
So the next time you're at the video store, don't fool yourself into renting a "true classic", like Casablanca or American Beauty. Sure, they won plenty of awards, so what? The Best Picture winner tends to be a lesson on how to spend six dollars and overcome insomnia. What philosophical connotations can be raised from Platoon except that war is terrible? Not much to discuss then, unless you happen to think that war kicks ass and want to argue the point. No, leave the Best Picture winners out of your VCR and DVD players, and grab a movie that was made better by being made worse. Pick up a copy of The Lawnmower Man. Or 3000 Miles to Graceland.