Considering its appeal as a vintage novelty horror about the evils of virtual reality, I had no choice but to enjoy The Lawnmower Man. The film opens with a gravely sincere title card warning that virtual reality will be “in widespread use” by “the turn of the millennium”, which despite its “millions of positive uses” could lead to “a new form of mind control.” It’s the exact kind of instantly dated cash-in on fad technology that’s dismissed for being embarrassingly obsolete in the years following in its initial release, but then ages wonderfully as a cultural time capsule of its era as the decades roll on. Listening to the radical computer programmers of The Lawnmower Man pontificate about how virtual reality is “a new electric dimension” that “holds the key to the next evolution of the human mind” is hilariously goofy in hindsight, especially when paired with the cutting-edge CG graphics of its early-90s video game VR. It’s also a great snapshot of how far-out & psychedelic the concept of immersive gaming was at that time, so that the film has just as much value as an anthropological record as it does as an accidental comedy. I had just as much fun revisiting it in the 2020s as a cultural relic as I had watching it as a totally normal cable-broadcast horror flick as a 90s kid. Still, it really pushed the outer limits of how much bullshit I’m willing to put up with to indulge in the precious Outdated Vintage Tech goofballery I love to see in my killer-computer genre movies. It turns out the answer is “way too much”.
Pierce Brosnan stars as a put-upon research scientist for the sinister corporation Virtual Space Industries, working to expand the capabilities of the human mind through experiments in virtual reality. He goes rogue when the company perverts his research to develop weapons instead of developing the human mind, leaving him jobless and bored. From there, The Lawnmower Man turns into a mad scientist story, with Brosnan continuing the VR experiments in his basement on an unwitting human subject. He establishes a Frankenstein-and-monster relationship with his neighborhood’s landscaper, a “born-dumb” “halfwit” played by Jeff Fahey. Luckily, Fahey plays the mentally disabled test subject as more of an overgrown child than a broad-strokes exaggeration of real-life neurodivergent tics; or at least it helped that I watched Will Sasso completely biff the same type of role in Drop Dead Gorgeous the night before. It’s still embarrassing to watch, though, and the only true saving grace is that his humble beginnings as a “poor idiot” don’t last long. The mad scientist’s VR research works way too well, in fact. The titular lawnmower man goes full galaxy-brain at an alarming speed, zooming right past neurotypical adult mental functions to becoming a self-declared “CyberChrist” with godlike powers over all minds and computers in his immediate vicinity. In his early kills as a virtual reality god, he uses telekinesis to launch his lawnmower at his former bullies’ bigoted faces. Later, he obliterates his enemies by pixelating them to death, erasing them from existence as if he were just deleting them from a hard drive. I don’t know that I could describe it any better than Letterboxd user LauraJacoves, who succinctly declared it “Flowers for AlgeTron“.
Of course, the ickiness of Jeff Fahey being asked to play mentally disabled is a huge hurdle to enjoying The Lawnmower Man, and most of the film’s problems are rooted in its depictions of reality-reality. If you can get past that discomfort, though, the movie is a hoot. It’s overloaded with one-of-a-kind vintage CGI sequences that attempt to blow the audience’s mind with the endless possibilities of VR but instead feel like a hokey tour of mid-90s screensavers. In one sequence, two virtual figures engage in literal cybersex then morph into a single dragonfly that soars over matrix-grid mountains. In another, the mad scientist crams physical illustrations of human knowledge directly into his pet project’s brain, which rumbles with brainstorms & brainquakes in stressed-out overload. It’s a true wonder, one that can only be described by the fake 90s slang the youngest member of the cast roadtests while playing the mildly psychedelic video games: “Sketched!” “Dudical!” It’s a shame that The Lawnmower Man couldn’t have been more immersed in its totally dudical virtual world, like a 1990s update to Tron. At the very least, it could have sidestepped the queasiness of the Jeff Fahey performance by sticking to Brosnan’s initial test subjects: chimpanzees. There’s an early sequence where militarized chimps are navigating the mad-sketched VR landscapes while armed with assault rifles as if this were a high-concept first-person shooter. I understand the Big City Tech vs. Rural Bumpkins dynamic the movie was aiming for, but it could’ve easily kept all of its best images if Brosnan had stuck to experimenting on himself and his chimps (minus the cybersex).
What’s really funny is that if The Lawnmower Man had dropped its titular lawnmower man test subject, it also would’ve sidestepped a lot of unnecessary legal trouble. Horror legend Stephen King successfully sued to have his name removed from the film’s promotional materials and home video products, since it bares essentially no likeness to his original short story (about an occultist landscaper who answers to a new boss, Pan). If the film were instead about Killer CyberChimps or if the mad scientist character had become the killer CyberChrist himself the movie would almost certainly be a more widely beloved cult classic – one with fewer legal fees added to its production & distribution budget and, let’s face it, one with a much better title for a novelty sci-fi horror of its era. As is, it’s a lot of over-the-top vintage fun; you just have to put up with some totally unnecessary bullshit to enjoy it.