Reviewed Jun 21, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
When the revolutionary technology known as Virtual Reality was in its relative infancy, The Lawnmower Man was the first film to tackle its potentially radical redefinition of human perception and even human capability. That it did so as intriguingly as it does on such a limited budget is a testament to the impulses of its creative team although does not disguise its borrowings from such hit precursors as Charly and Frankenstein. Although purporting to be inspired by a short story by Stephen King, whose above-the-title name was subsequently dropped, the film has only the most tangential relationship to the supposed source. It is thus not really part of the King collection of cinematic adaptations, although that is perhaps to its credit. Subsequent films have explored the themes in The Lawnmower Man and expanded on the notion of cyber-space as another realm, but few have the kind of techno-mysticism that director Brett Leonard was able to bring to this film and to his subsequent, not dissimilar works Hideaway and Virtuosity, all concerned with humanity in a state of psychic evolution as assisted by technology. However, this evolution is always bound to notions of psychosis, as if it is the quality of human arrogance that is paradoxically liberated and even resurrected into a form of monstrousness. These works make Leonard a truly under-rated visual stylist within the science fiction thriller genre and The Lawnmower Man is the founding work in a contemporary twist on genre that continues to work itself through.
In The Lawnmower Man, Pierce Brosnan stars as a computer scientist, a pioneering researcher into what is known as Virtual Reality. He has been injecting smart drugs into monkeys and training them for mysterious purposes (as dictated by his shadowy employers, known as “the shop”). After one monkey goes berserk, Brosnan is forced to readdress his research. Soon however, he wants to experiment on a human subject and chooses a local dim-witted comic-book obsessed lawnmower man (Jeff Fahey) who is being abused by his priest and mistreated by others. Brosnan injects Fahey with the drugs and begins to use his Virtual Reality apparatus as a gaming and educational tool. As Fahey begins to get smarter, he changes, dressing differently and developing sexual interests in a slatternly neighbor whose lawn he mows. When “the shop” gets wind of Brosnan’s progress they seek to modify the experiment. Soon Fahey’s intellect is accelerating to the point where he develops telekinetic abilities although he begins to perceive reality as if it were a computer simulation. He becomes so obsessed with the transforming power of this technology that he seeks to enter into it and transcend his limited physical humanity and become a kind of “cyber-Christ”. But first he must apparently avenge himself on those people who have mistreated him, in a perversion of comic-book super-hero justice. Slowly Brosnan realizes that his experiment has gone far beyond his ability to control it, and that Fahey must be stopped.
The Lawnmower Man succeeds as much as it does in that it tackles the ultimate theme in studies of human aspiration – the desire of man (as representing humanity) to be God. It presents a grown man in a case of arrested development, a man with the soul of a child. Through technology he gains intelligence and reason but the desire for knowledge extends only to a kind of techno-religious psychosis. In that, the film disappointingly resorts to the standard technophobia of much science fiction and is not helped by the inclusion of its weapons research subplot. Nevertheless, before it falls back on convention the film is surprisingly provocative, and with a measured performance by Jeff Fahey. Fahey’s character is the key here; for he plays such a sympathetic figure that one hopes that the gift of intelligence will not spoil his seeming natural innocence. However, intelligence proves only a tragic precursor to his delusions of religious grandeur. However, like the later science fiction tinged Dark City, The Lawnmower Man goes on to explore the role of technology in realizing such delusional aspirations, allowing a form of death and resurrection into another realm, an arguably artificial universe. Perhaps the miracle of such technology is that it liberates the mind and the psyche from what is commonly labeled as “psychosis” and can enable a true metamorphosis into a higher state of being – what Fahey sees as a new “Cyber-Christ” – the fusion of the computer landscape and the unlimited human mind.
Yet there is a personal pettiness to Fahey’s aspirations. Mistreated much of his life by a priest it is as if in his newfound intelligence he would not only seek to avenge himself but to attack that which his abuser stood for. His psychosis thus leads him to want to usurp God, to enter into the computer cyberspace and become a rival all-powerful deity. It is a monstrous kind of petty overcompensation. Likewise his initial childish fascination with comic books surfaces in his later delusions, where he in effect wills himself to be his own superhero for the computer age – of course, the development of such powers only reinforces the sense of his own potential divinity in the making. It is as if the dormant harmony with a natural God that exists in Innocence is irrevocably perverted by the taint of Experience. In its equation of intelligence with monstrousness however, the film emerges more a fearful cautionary tale about human aspiration in the computer age. But the ambition is familiar: the obsessive Brosnan is also plagued by the God complex in that his character is clearly a variation of Dr. Frankenstein, with Fahey as the monster. What is additionally intriguing for film historians is the update it makes of Charly, something of a sentimental favorite and a film far more adept at the emotional complexities of “loss”, without ever having the need to develop an equation between higher intelligence and psychosis.