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Cinema Obscura - a weekly trek through the darker and frequently more random and forgotten regions of Cult, Foreign and Obscure cinema and pretty much everything in between. Each week highlighting a film worth hunting down, for those who like to wander away from the more-traveled-roads of Mainstream cinema.
Although it might be hard believe it now, but when this film was released back in 1992 this film was pretty groundbreaking with its use of computer graphics and portrayal of Virtual Reality, with the film in turn sparking a whole craze for Virtual Reality, to the point were VR machines regularly popped up in arcades over charging for the experience, while consoles rushed out supposed VR titles such as “VR Racing" and the still popular “Virtual Fighter".
Essentially a cautionary tale about why man should not play god, the film explores theories regarding the use of Virtual Reality in this case as a way of increasing human intelligence, as scientist Dr. Laurence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) conducts experiments on chimps using a mixture of drugs and Virtual Reality to increase their intelligence as part of “Project 5", while constantly fighting with his superiors and their desire to use his research for military purposes. After one of his test chimps escapes and goes on the rampage, Dr. Angelo turns his focus towards testing on humans finding the perfect subject in the slow witted gardener Jobe (Jeff Fahey) who is also the titular lawnmower man. Starting a program of accelerated learning, with Dr. Angelo using the same drugs he had been using on the chimps only with out the aggression factors of the original drugs. Soon it is not long before Jobe's intelligence has greatly increased to the point were he is able to perform feats such as learning Latin in two hours, while also unlocking telepathic and pyrokinetic-abilities.
Soon Dr. Angelo's work draws the attention of his superiors who have been keeping tabs on his progress, with the Project Director soon swapping the new drugs for the original “Project 5" ones, which inturn drive Jobe insane with power and on a path of revenge against those wronged him, while searching for a way to reach his final evolutionary state in the Virtual World.
“The Lawnmover Man" explores some pretty big Cyber punk ideas, while easily drawing comparisons with Mary Shelly's “Frankenstein" with Jobe at one point even saying
"I'm sorry you hate what you created"
With the other key reference point being Daniel Keyes “Flowers for Algernon" which it probably shares the closest links to, while the theories explored here are done simply and interestingly enough so not to baffle new comers, while also making good use of the relatively new (at the time of the films release) Virtual Reality technology, which it's safe to say hasn't aged well in the years since it's release, which is always the risk with any use of CGI, but here it pretty evident as what was once considered mind blowing looks painfully dated as featureless characters float in space against acid trip background with only Virtual Jobe getting any kind of characteristics. Still if your willing to take these effects with an open mind there is a lot of fun to be had with the assorted uses which are not only limited to the virtual world, but soon begin leaking into the real world as the lines between the two continue to grow all the more blurred for Jobe, as he's able to reduce men to molecules and even more randomly project himself as a giant floating head. Still interestingly enough part of the studio responsible for these effects would later become “Rockstar North" a studio best know for the “Grand Theft Auto Series".
The two lead characters are both fascinating characters, with the pacifist Dr. Angelo constantly having to betray these beliefs to further his own research while, clearly caring about Jobe's progress even though at times he lets his passion for progress overwhelm his compassion frequently pushing Jobe into traumatizing situations in favour of his progressing his researching while Fahey is completely convincing as the slow witted Jobe, with his childlike curiosity and friendship with the young boy Peter (Austin O'Brien) who is essentially on the same mental level as Jobe if not higher, making their friendship seem completely natural, while Fahey naturally portrays the continually increasing intelligence of Jobe, to the point were he is able to change him from the lovable doofus to a terrifying megalomaniac as his power spirals out of control.
Despite being a cautionary tale, Jobe's actions are frequently seen as more than an insane quest for power, especially as he seen being so frequently abused by the local bully Jake who frequently taunts him, while being even more regularly flogged for forgetting to do his chores by the sadistic priest whose shed he lives in, with both of these characters soon being targets for his revenge, while also unleashing a telepathically controlled lawnmower on Peter's alcoholic father in one of the more laughable sequences of the film, while the majority of the other deaths at Jobe's hands usually being the result of him being antagonized and unsurprisingly these scenes form the weaker parts of the film with the more interesting parts certainly being the Jobe's ever increasing intelligence and Dr. Angelo intelligence enhancing experiments than Jobe's ongoing quest for revenge and god like power.
Perhaps a better use of virtual reality would have been to film an established cyber punk classic like William Gibson's “Neuromancer", but it did still pave the way for CGI in modern cinema by giving an example of what the effects could be used to create, while also leading the way to some abysmal attempts to follow up it's success like “Arcade" (1993) and “Virtuosity" (1995) aswell as the ultimately superior yet more old school effects driven “eXistenZ" (1999).
“The Lawnmower Man" despite now being largely forgotten outside of sci-fi fans, grizzled VR boffins who felt that the film gave an unrealistic expectations of Virtual Reality, aswell as a brief legal case with Horror legend Stephen King, for the connection to his own short story about a man who eats what he mows (yes really) and to which this film has zero connection outside of a throw away line about part of one of Jobe's victims being found in a birdbath and the less said about the sequel the better really, especially as the studio doubted that anyone would actually buy it so much, that they now give it away for free with this film. Still it is a film still worth giving a look even as a fun companion piece to the superior “Tron" (1982).