Editor’s note: With our own Junkfood addict Brian Salisbury busy writing through the typhoon that is SXSW, we’ve farmed out his column to similarly-minded Rejects. This time at bat – Kevin Carr!
Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema, where our best exercise is lifting food into our mouths and working those jaw muscles. This week, we’re looking ahead to the future by looking into the past. Remember when reasonable people saw virtual reality for its true dangerous potential: to control people’s minds?
You don’t? Well, try telling that to the filmmakers from 1992 because apparently it was a real threat. Today, we’re examining the gloriously convoluted dangers of virtual reality in a world of ooey gooey polygons and cybersex.
The film that warned us of these dangers: The Lawnmower Man.
What Makes It Bad?
No discussion of The Lawnmower Man can be made without first acknowledging that the movie doesn’t have a diddly damn to do with Stephen King’s short story of the same name. Well, there’s a lawnmower involved, but that’s about it. King originally published the story “The Lawnmower Man” in the May 1975 issue of his skin mag benefactor “Cavelier.”
The original story was about conservative suburbanite Harold Parkette, who hires a company to mow his grass. However, he soon discovers the guy they sent is a satyr who worships Pan. The Lawnmower Man proceeds to strip completely naked and gobble up anything that a remote-operated lawnmower chops up, including grass clippings and a butchered mole that didn’t get out of the way. When Harold calls the cops, the Lawnmower Man turns the magical mower on him for a human sacrifice.
To be fair, there’s a character named Harold Parkette in this film (though he’s a professional wrestling-watching, drunk, abusive father to young Peter Parkette, played by Austin O’Brien). He does get chased by and slaughtered by a self-propelled lawnmower. There’s also a snippet of dialogue preserved from the short story, which is delivered when the cops find his remains. (These entirety of the preserved lines include: “Hell of a thing,” “Where’s the rest of him?”/”The birdbath.” and “The world is full of nuts. Never forget that, Cooley. Schizos.”)
That’s about it. The story didn’t mention virtual reality. Hell, it didn’t even have a goddamned computer in it. No wonder Stephen King successfully sued to remove his name from the film and all associated marketing material.
The movie itself was originally a script entitled Cyber God and only retrofitted to include elements of “The Lawnmower Man” because New Line owned the rights. What we’re left with is a bizarre early 90s cautionary tale about virtual reality and mind control, as evidenced by the following quote at the head of the film:
“By the turn of the millenium (sic) a technology known as VIRTUAL REALITY will be in widespread use. It will allow you to enter computer generated artificial worlds as unlimited as the imagination itself. Its creators foresee millions of positive uses – while others fear it as a new form of mind control…”
Take off your VR glasses that are obviously now in widespread use and take a deep breath. Not only does the film not believe in hyphenating words, it also never shows us any real scientists who fear virtual reality as a form of mind control. Instead, it tells the story of Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan in his acting doldrums between Remington Steele and the James Bond franchise),who is developing drugs that will enhance the mental performance of chimpanzees. He’s being overseen by The Shop (which is a Stephen King invention, incidentally, though again totally unrelated to his original story), a dastardly research organization with ties to the government.
Angelo uses virtual reality to train the chimps, and The Shop has changed their drugs to make them more aggressive. When a chimp goes on a gun-toting rampage, they kill the project and don’t let Angelo move to human subjects.
Not ready to see his research undone, Angelo begins private treatments on a mentally challenged man named Jobe (Jeff Fahey), who cuts his lawn. (See, I told you a lawnmower would show up at some point.) When Jobe shows remarkable advancement in his mental abilities, The Shop uses an inside man to replace Angelo’s mind-enhancing drugs with those that made the chimp go postal in the first scene. The result is even further expansion of Jobe’s mind, but also further expansion of Jobe’s aggression. We also see Jobe get greater powers, like the ability to read thoughts and move things with telekinesis.
Now what does this have to do with virtual reality? Why does Dr. Angelo need VR to perform treatments on Jobe? I have no freaking idea. But trust me, it’s related somehow. Otherwise, you’d never be able to have Jobe physically project his essence into the computer network, leaving a withered, dried-up corpse in a VR suit.
The movie begins as a high-tech yet dumbed-down version of Daniel Keyes’ story “Flowers for Algernon,” but by the third act, it goes completely off the rails with Jobe going on a murderous rampage in his VR suit, complete with not-so-subtle anti-religion overtones. He accidentally wipes the mind of his cougar-esque girlfriend, literally mows the town bully’s brain with a CGI version of his face and sets the local priest aflame with digital fire. He also sends his self-powered lawnmower after Peter’s abusive dad, but we already talked about that.
Angelo tries to make things right at the end, and he even plans to blow up the lab with C-3 bombs. (Yes, you read that right… for some reason, The Shop’s explosive of choice of this movie is C-3, which was put out of use by the military in favor of the superior C-4 during the 1950s. Why? Again, I have no idea.) Inexplicably, Angelo lets Peter and his mother tag along, ostensibly because his car was demolished by Jobe. But when Peter slips away to head into the lab, his mother decides to run – not drive – after him.
Eventually everything gets blowed up by a huge frakking C-3 explosion, but not before Jobe makes a virtual version of himself and finds a backdoor out of the network. The movie ends with him Jobe making good on his promise to announce his infiltration of all computer networks by making every phone in the world ring at the same time. Imaging the long distance bill from that.
Why I Love It!
First of all, I’m a sucker for any movie that features a scientist who is trying to develop a technology to better humankind only to have it goes horribly awry. Whether it’s an older film like The Fly or a modern movie like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, these are a guilty pleasure of mine. While The Lawnmower Man left out a lot of the graphic violence seen in these films, it made up for it in bizarre 90s-era visionary elements.
Trust me, in 1992, this was a cool-ass movie. It was a big-screen movie. Digital environments on the big screen had been around since the days of Tron and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, but as a filmgoer back then, I couldn’t resist a movie like this. Forget the fact that computer-generated dinosaurs were only a year away with Jurassic Park. The idea of frolicking around cyberspace was damn intriguing.
The Lawnmower Man reeks of the 90s in terms of fashion, technology and aesthetic sensibilities. But it also has remnants of the 80s technology cautionary tales and religious ramblings. Virtual reality hasn’t quite emerged into full-blown chimpanzee-rage mind-control as predicted in the film, but honestly, who knew back in 1992? I’m also still waiting for all that cybersex from the widespread use of VR promised in this movie. Le sigh.
This movie is the quintessential junkfood film. It’s all flash and unnatural flavor with very little substance. It’s the kind of cinematic comfort food that’s fun to watch on a rainy Saturday but leaves you hungry for more in a few hours. And there’s even some boobies in the mix as well.
Junk Food Pairing: Laffy Taffy and Orange Crush
Back in 1992, it was cool to avoid photorealism in favor of wildly colorful and completely unnatural environments. The cybersex sequence in The Lawnmower Man in particular features Jobe and his girlfriend literally becoming a gooey paste and morphing together.
Laffy Taffy offers a high dose of sugar, impossible pliability and colors that have never existed in a natural environment, much like the VR world that Jobe inhabits. Wash this down with Orange Crush, which comes in the color of blaze orange that hunters use to stand out in the forest. No paleo diet for this movie. Consume the junkfood that is born completely in a lab, like Jobe’s cyber god.