No Jobe Too Big—The Lawnmower Man

A Brief Zeitgeist with Lingering Relevance

Welcome back to our in-depth look at the evolution of graphics and art in digital formats. Today we’ll be discussing the CGI-heavy cult-favorite film The Lawnmower Man.


Thus far our discussions have been relegated to video games, their visual styling, and how that affects their gameplay. While there is a lot to discuss about those visuals, it would be a bit of an oversight to not also talk about other contemporary media, such as movies and television. The technologies used to increase the graphic fidelity, frame rates, and overall minutiae of video games were developed right alongside the improvements of the television and film industry, in some cases using similar three-dimensional imaging tools to achieve similar graphic outcomes. There are also some similar themes in the storytelling, as the line between movie and video game starts to blur with games like Metal Gear Solid, telling a very complex political story set behind a stealth action game. There is also a good cross-section of issues that all of these forms of media have to wrestle with: pacing, timing, tone, visual design, sound design, and writing are all important whether we are talking about a video game, movie, or television series. All of these media also rely on established tropes to get their points across and use various forms of subtle storytelling to give the player or audience a hint towards a deeper meaning being expressed. And sometimes a movie or game is just an excuse to have fun with little to no subtle meaning behind it but is no less valid in that pursuit.  Having said all of that, the examination of some films and television, and how they use the various visual technologies of the time to achieve their goals, is a direct cross-section to how video games did the same thing. In fact, several movies and TV series have tie-in video games of their own, so even those industries recognize that there is cross-section of their audience that would enjoy both. But I’ve rambled enough about my reasons why, so let’s get into the movie itself.

Noteworthy for its visionary approach to virtual reality as well as how the technology envisioned in the film has aged like milk, The Lawnmower Man ranks up there with one of the most “remarkable” movies of its time.

The 1990s were an era of exceptional films, from the serious dramas of A Few Good Men and Reservoir Dogs to the great comedies of My Cousin Vinny and Wayne’s World. Horror also got its own star flicks in Alien 3, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Death Becomes Her. There is another horror film from this time that doesn’t quite make the top movies list, for many reasons, despite having big name actors Jeff Fahey and Pierce Brosnan in lead roles. I’m talking of course about The Lawnmower Man [ 1 ]. Borrowing a title from Stephen King (and not much else), this movie takes us into the vision of human advancement and cyberspace from the past. Spoilers ahead! (Yes it’s been 30+ years but still).

This is a horror film about a scientist, Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan), experimenting with intelligence-enhancing drugs and the use of virtual reality on monkeys to develop a working therapy that would make people smarter. This process is eventually tested on a person, Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey), with stunning and terrifying results. Jobe develops not only superhuman intelligence but powerful psychic abilities, such as the power to read minds and telekinesis. He also has some strange connection to technology and cyberspace, which leads him to try and upload his entire consciousness to the internet. Achieving this plot with the available technology in 1992 and relating it to the concepts of the tech world at the time… well, it dates the movie, hard. We’re going to explore the themes and ideas of the film that no longer hold up, and the few things that still do.

What we’ll be looking at in this film is its usage of computer-generated images or CGI, and how well those were blended into the live-action sequences of the film, and how well the standalone CGI sequences hold up when compared to both its timeline contemporaries, and current standards of production. We’ll also be looking at some of the themes of the film, particularly the problematic ones, and how they could be better handled. And, naturally, we’ll discuss whether or not this cult classic is an experience worth watching today.

The Elephant in the Room: Very Old VR

The computer technology of 1992 was, as one might expect, quite limited compared to modern-day. One of the best-known manufacturing brands of processors, Intel’s best CPU at the time had 8k memory and ran at speeds between 20 MHz to 33 MHz [ 2 ]. Yes, 8,000 kilobytes of memory cache and speeds in the megahertz, not gigahertz. If you tried to run a computer with that processor today, you might pull your hair out at how slow it is. When you take that kind of limit to processing power into consideration for this movie, you’d be nothing short of amazed at what they were able to pull off. In the modern eye, not so much. Technology has moved by leaps and bounds in the nearly 30 years since this movie came out, so popping it back in might induce some cringe when the VR scenes come up.

The above is an image from one of the VR scenes where one of the chimpanzees in the original experiment is playing a shooter-style game [ 3 ]. The in-movie effect is impossible to completely replicate in this article, of course, but these kinds of graphics in 1992 would have been astonishing. Home computers didn’t have any video games like this, the biggest ’92 titles being Wolfenstein 3D and Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, neither of which had graphic fidelity anywhere close to what you see here. And virtual reality? Practically unseen in the commercial market. There were attempts, of course, the capitalize on the slowly emerging VR capabilities for the home market, with products such as the VFX1 by Forte Technologies, or the ill-fated Virtual Boy by Nintendo (which I covered in the previous article), released only three years after this film’s debut. But even these cutting-edge pieces of hardware could not produce the kinds of visuals or experiences that are conveyed in Lawnmower Man.

Virtual Reality in the ’90s was mostly a gimmick, not a serious technology worth considering when it came to practical applications, but this film managed to take that gimmick and create a vision of future technologies not yet imagined. The gap between what the film portrays and what was possible, even years after its release, are a testament to the skills of the CGI crew for this film. Often ideas about what is possible outstrip current capabilities, and it is important think big and give people something to strive for, as this film might have done with the burgeoning adepts of computer technologies.

Images like this, with so much vivid color and seamless movement, must have been mind-blowing, even for computer enthusiasts of the time. Creating a believable advanced computer technology for a movie has always been a challenge for films that venture into science fiction territory, as they must strike a balance between believable advancement, the ingenuity of the human imagination, and what is possible within the budget constraints of the film. And it’s easy to see that the digital effects were very important to the film’s creators. Still, looking at this with today’s eye and knowledge of what has become of things like Virtual Reality can make this film kind of hard to watch. While virtual reality has been cast to the wayside for over a decade, we now live in an era where VR can be taken seriously, with systems and games that showcase the original high-handed promises of the older visions of VR. New VR technologies, like the Oculus Rift, make anything in The Lawnmower Man look beyond simplistic. Looking at the early and modern attempts of a home VR system, we can note the basic structures that they all share: head tracking, so that turning your head allows you to look around your virtual environment; dual-hand motion controls, so that you have another tether to your body in the virtual space, as well as some excellent range of motion options; and an easy-to-set-up apparatus, such as infrared sensors, to enable the motion tracking necessary. The Lawnmower Man does not have such a vision for its VR interface devices. Indeed, this movie takes an entirely different and unbelievably goofy track when it comes to how humans interface with a virtual space. Just look: 

The use of computer generated graphics certainly seems laughable when viewed through a modern lens at 4k resolution, but the use of user interfaces in virtual worlds depicted therein aren’t too far off from those we use today.

Virtual reality beds. Yes, beds. These are used to simulate the feeling of flying when Jobe and Peter play a VR flight simulator together. You see the beds twisting up and down, left and right, as the movie cuts between what’s happening in real life and what the two are seeing in the VR world. Honestly, if I was strapped into one of these, I’d probably get motion sickness, or at the very least soreness in my arms and abdomen as I tried to maintain the plank-like pose that seems to be required for these sophisticated beds. Another variation of the VR beds has the actors laying on their backs, suspended in air by wires, again to simulate the feeling of being in midair, although I would think that having a solid surface holding you up would break that immersion. Of course, this movie’s imagined VR technology never became a reality, with much more practical devices for the home being implemented when VR made its comeback. Looking at these things now, it seems quite silly to think that anyone would want something like this. 

Oh yes, one final device we should examine. 

The cyber suit and the hamster ball-like gyrosphere [ 4 ]. I’m sure somebody thought this thing looked like imposing future tech, but surely even the audience in the theater must have seen this thing and laughed. Jobe keeps this suit on throughout the latter half of the movie, where he has assumed his persona as “The Lawnmower Man,” and while he is supposed to be very intimidating with his super brain and new powers, the suit does not enhance that effect, and he ends up being a serial killer in a dorky Halloween costume. The gyrospheres spin both Jobe and Lawrence around so much I’m almost certain the actors threw up at some point in filming. Mind you, this device was intended to be used with the virtual reality learning program. Why is the spinning necessary for the learning process? Whose design was that? What sense does it make to have someone spinning around in random directions in order to learn? Not to mention that this system can’t possibly be more immersive than the suspended beds, since it locks your body into one position, stretched out and standing on your tip toes. I’m not sure how you could experience the feeling of your body in a virtual space when it’s so rigidly bound. It’s cheesy sci-fi, so we’re supposed to give it a pass, but even surface-level analysis shows problems here.

Thankfully, we don’t have to strap our bodies into a wild-looking apparatus to enjoy virtual reality games or programs. Modern devices, like the Meta Quest 2, feature advanced head and hand tracking via infrared scanning that you can easily set up in your home. We can only imagine if a virtual reality game needed something like the suspended beds from this movie, how many hours of set up it would require just to attempt to enjoy a flight simulator that would make you physically uncomfortable the entire time.

Before we move on, I should mention that the virtual reality scenes, particularly during the learning program, feature a lot of flashing lights that might trigger an epileptic seizure, so those who are prone should either look away or not watch.

The Plot: Themes that Make You Go Hmmm

In the movie, our villain Jobe, starts out as a simpleminded young man who mows lawns and takes care of the cleaning duties at a local parish. His exact learning disability is never named, and this is likely by design so that the audience can just imagine whatever they like. This does, of course, create problems with the depiction of the character. Fahey’s acting has a lot of blank stares and empty-eyed looks as things happen around Jobe that he doesn’t fully comprehend, and while he can sell that Jobe doesn’t know much, he can’t sell any real-world learning disabilities to the audience. It ends up being “generic dumb guy,” which doesn’t sit too well with modern sensibilities about neurodiverse people. I’m not a fan of the excuse of “this is a different movie from a different time,” since that tends to be very dismissive of millions of people from minority groups who end up being poorly represented in films.

The movie does, however, portray how folks like this are taken advantage of or treated as less-than-human by society at large. Jobe’s landscaping boss, Terry, is kind to him, acting like a surrogate father who wants to protect him. The gas station attendant, Jake, is a total asshole to Jobe, and has no patience for his lack of mental ability. In a similar vein, Father McKeen is shown beating Jobe with a belt for forgetting to do his chores inside the parish, despite knowing full well that Jobe has problems learning. Even our hero, Dr. Angelo, relies on Jobe’s lack of mental ability in order to get him to agree to the experimentation, which most neurotypical people might reject based on the possible dangers. While it is an accurate depiction of how someone with a learning disability might have been treated in ’92, it’s definitely not a positive depiction, and while one might feel bad for Jobe, one can’t help but also cringe at how the movie deals with the very real issues facing neurodiverse people [ 5 ]

Our next issue with the plot comes with Jobe’s final plan to upload his mind to cyberspace and, essentially, invade the burgeoning internet and take over every database worldwide, becoming a sort of “cyber Christ,” as he puts it. Dr. Angelo, knowing the plan, hacks into the VSI database and plants a virus in it to lock off all the external ports. Jobe does successfully put his whole being into the database at the secret VSI facility, and a race against the clock begins to destroy it all before Jobe can find an unlocked port out into the whole of cyberspace.

So, Angelo’s stalling tactic is fine, but why does he need to destroy the whole facility in an explosion? Wouldn’t it be simpler for him to just physically cut the outside lines? We’re talking about telephone-based internet here, after all; you’d think just knocking out the wires would do the trick. Or even cutting the wired connections to the mainframe once he was inside the building. Or cutting the power supply. You know, things that don’t require him blowing up the entire building, which means planting a timed bomb and leaving. Yes, it would be anti-climactic, so I suppose you couldn’t take the simple road to this solution for your finale, unless you wrote it better. We could surmise that Dr. Angelo wants to destroy everything related to the project, but he never says so out loud. It’s also not explained how he knows to assemble a timed explosive device, and while we know Angelo is a smart guy, you don’t just pick up that specific knowledge without some kind of training or experience. It’s also very convenient that he just finds explosives in a big barrel marked “explosives.” But I suppose I’m getting nit-picky now, movie logic has almost never followed traditional conventions.

Then we have our final scene in the film, where after thinking that Angelo might have succeeded in stopping Jobe before he found the one open port, we instead hear phones begin to ring around the world. Jobe mentioned earlier that he would signal his rebirth by calling every phone in the world simultaneously. Yes, calling every landline phone [ 6 ]. I’m sure this seemed like an interesting idea at the time but given how the world has completely moved on from both phone-based internet and from landline telephones, favoring smartphones and wireless technology, viewing this ending with our modern implementation of technology makes it quite laughable. Landlines and phone-based internet do still exist, of course, but in a more limited capacity than they used to. Future audiences who have never experienced phone-based internet will likely be confused as to the nature of this final plot device. In our modern age, we are so used to the idea of automatic machine calling, referred to as robocalls, that several phones ringing at once, while odd, might not be unexpected at all. That thought alone is perhaps more terrifying than Jobe’s worldwide signal, that we have accepted such attempts to invade our time and privacy as commonplace.

Cyber Horror, Does it Still Work?

While The Lawnmower Man has many issues in multiple facets, it can actually still work as a horror film, if the audience can buy into its premise and not have their immersion broken. The film has some callbacks to the classic of Frankenstein’s Monster, where a scientist pushes the boundaries of medicine to create a superior man. It also has conspiracy themes of secret government organizations funding secret projects that the public likely wouldn’t approve of, and it brings in several G-men as one-off threats that are quickly neutralized by Jobe’s powers.

It’s not exactly an ergonomic setup. The so-called “Hamster Ball” approach the film used for a human-machine interface is representative of a film that has more than one instance of unintentional comedy.

Speaking of, while the display of powers is sometimes quite cheesy, with his mind probing of Dr. Angelo simply depicted as Pierce Brosnan having a severe headache, or in another instance when Jobe literally sends a telekinetically powered lawnmower to kill Peter’s abusive father, they tend to be believably scary. Jobe even ends up destroying the mind of Jake, the gas station attendant who wronged him in the past. The scene is depicted as Jobe hacking into Jake’s mind and running a virtual lawnmower over his brain tissues, turning Jake into a catatonic mess. He kills Father McKeen by immolating him with his mind (though this scene’s CGI isn’t quite up to par with the rest of the movie) and eventually is able to use his powers to kill the G-men sent to capture him, breaking their bodies down into tiny spheres and scattering them into nothingness. It does seem like a rather horrifying way to die, witnessing your own body break apart while your consciousness is still intact. The film doesn’t rely on gore or jump scares, which I would say goes in its favor. The new, super-intelligent Jobe ends up being quite a terrifying force, despite some of the drawbacks of the film. His menace comes from his cold, calculating nature, alongside his displays of absolute, unstoppable power. Due to his eventual addiction to the mind-enhancing drugs, his humanity and morality is completely shed, transforming him into a true monster, who believes himself to be above humanity.

To appreciate this sort of subtle horror, however, one has to overlook the inherently cheesy nature of its presentation. As mentioned, Jobe wears the odd-looking cyber suit for the latter half of the movie, and while he intends this to be menacing, it’s anything but. Yes, traditional villain costumes have been sort of a mess across all mediums, but when you are adapting a horror story to film, there should be some more consideration taken for the appearance of the villain/monster. Even older horror movies with no CGI have demonstrated the ability to deliver serious scares with practical effects. In this way, the ambition of Lawnmower Man works against its own visual representation.

This Era of CGI, and What It Means for This Film

While the computer graphics of Lawnmower Man are probably its strongest asset when it comes to technical achievements, this film is also surrounded by movies that did some amazing things with comparable effects in their time. The year prior, Terminator 2: Judgment Day made quite liberal use of CGI with the T-1000 Terminator, a liquid-metal killing machine that could change shape at will, which was decidedly a much more terrifying villain than Jobe. Even in this film’s predecessor, where there was little CGI to speak of, the practical effects in place deliver when it comes to the terror aspect. The visage of the original Terminator machine when its skin suit is burned away is frightening to the core. In the same year as our subject film, Jurassic Park was released and showcased an amazing combination of traditional animated puppets and CGI to bring dinosaurs to life—and they were, again, more terrifying than Jobe. The dinosaurs benefited greatly from both the buildup of tension in the film’s plot, how their dramatic introductions were handled, and the believable practical effects. The shows Babylon 5 and Reboot, coming out in ’93 and ’94 respectively, brought a similar graphic quality as Lawnmower Man to the small screen. Seemingly, these shows made it work a little bit better, certainly a lot better in Reboot‘s case, as the entire show took place in a CGI world that, while not incredibly high fidelity, was nonetheless very entertaining and engaging.

One of the loosest adaptations of a Stephen King story to date, The Lawnmower Man elicited more than its fair share of incredulous rage from fans of the author’s work.

While it is easy enough to say that films like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park far exceeded what Lawnmower Man did in terms of combining live action with digital animation, this does not mean that our film has nothing to offer. Yes, it is dated, but so are those other two blockbuster films when compared to any sort of CGI movie of the modern era. Being dated is not, in and of itself, bad, it is whether that dated look takes something away from the experience, whether or not an avid movie watcher from today would be distracted by it. Unfortunately, this does seem to be the case with Lawnmower Man. It’s not that its CGI is not impressive for the time, nor is it that those scenes and effects aren’t interesting, but they do feel out of place. Rather than blending seamlessly into the live action, the CGI seems like something that was thrown on top of the film negative or doesn’t mesh well with what it’s trying to be a part of. The effects just don’t blend well with the regular scenes, and that can very easily take away from the viewing experience. The full CGI sequences, however, work quite well, despite the silly appearance of the apparatus the characters use to enter these virtual spaces. As the old adage goes, less is more, and Lawnmower Man might have benefited from using a few more practical effects in its live action scenes, instead of trying to inject CGI into as many scenes as possible.

Cybercrime, or dated but watchable?

On the whole, if you watched this movie today, you could still enjoy it for what it is. Keeping in mind the limitations of the technology of the time, the very out-of-touch stereotypes, and the dated technology themes, The Lawnmower Man’s story can still be interesting. A modern audience won’t be blown away by its graphics or special effects, and some of the acting leaves things to be desired, but it certainly isn’t worse than any other B-movie quality horror film, and in some ways it’s actually better. Particularly, if you are a fan of horror but not of gore, this movie has basically none (apart from a scene where two men are shot) and is pretty easy to swallow in that regard. It also asks interesting questions about the nature of experimentation on humans and animals, and the ethical implications of those things, and particularly addresses what could become of it if ethics are ignored. Granted, those themes are present in many other movies, so you don’t necessarily need to watch this one to get your dose of theoretical ethical implications regarding emerging therapies and technologies. Despite its problems, The Lawnmower Man has picked up a cult following, and has been heralded as a groundbreaking film for its age, thanks to its use of (at the time) stunning technology [ 7 ]. Should you watch it? I’d answer with a solid “maybe.” 

Images

  1. “Noteworthy for its visionary approach to virtual reality as well as how the technology envisioned in the film has aged like milk, The Lawnmower Man ranks up there with one of the most ‘remarkable’ movies of its time.” Lambie, Ryan. “10 Remarkable Things About the Lawnmower Man.” Den of Geek, 14 Jan. 2014, www.denofgeek.com/movies/10-remarkable-things-about-the-lawnmower-man.
  2. “The use of computer generated graphics certainly seems laughable when viewed through a modern lens at 4k resolution, but the use of user interfaces in virtual worlds depicted therein aren’t too far off from those we use today.” The-Lawnmower-Man-070. screenmusings.org/movie/blu-ray/The-Lawnmower-Man/pages/The-Lawnmower-Man-070.htm.
  3. “It’s not exactly an ergonomic setup. The so-called ‘Hamster Ball’ approach the film used for a human-machine interface is representative of a film that has more than one instance of unintentional comedy.” “The Lawnmower Man (1992).” IMDb, www.imdb.com/media/rm2660874752/tt0104692.
  4. “One of the loosest adaptations of a Stephen King story to date, ‘The Lawnmower Man’ elicited more than its fair share of incredulous rage from fans of the author’s work.” Rollison, David. “‘The Lawnmower Man’ Redefines the Term ‘Loosely Adapted.’” The Spool, 18 Sept. 2019, thespool.net/features/fotm/the-lawnmower-man-stephen-king.

A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.

Resources

  1. The Lawnmower Man. Directed by Brett Leonard, New Line Cinema, 6 Mar. 1992.
  2. “What Is 80486 (486)?” Computer Hope, Computer Hope, 21 May 2018, computerhope.com/jargon/num/80486.htm.
  3. “The Lawnmower Man (‘Shooter Game’ Screenshot).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0104692/mediaviewer/rm476791040. Accessed 27 January, 2020.
  4. “The Lawnmower Man (‘Cyber Suit’ Screenshot).” IMDb, IMDb.com. imdb.com/title/tt0104692/mediaviewer/rm2660874752. Accessed 27 January, 2020.
  5. Lamble, Ryan. “10 Remarkable Things about The Lawnmower Man.” Den of Geek, Dennis Publishing Limited, 14 Jan. 2014. denofgeek.com/movies/the-lawnmower-man/28844/10-remarkable-things-about-the-lawnmower-man.
  6. “Lawnmower Man (1992) Review.” Scary Bad Films, WordPress, 14 Nov. 2018, scarybadfilms.com/review-lawnmower-man-1992/.
  7. Failes, Ian. “THE LAWNMOWER MAN AT 25: THE GROUNDBREAKING VR FILM.” VFX Voice Magazine, Visual Effects Society, 27 Feb. 2019. vfxvoice.com/the-lawnmower-man-at-25-the-groundbreaking-vr-film/.