Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Transcendence has us scanning our memory banks in search of the best technophobic thrillers.
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
All virtual reality and no restraint makes simple-minded Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey) a dangerously smart boy in The Lawnmower Man, a technophobic 1992 thriller that imagines VR as a gateway to another dimension. In Brett Leonard’s film—which, despite sharing a name, bares almost no relation to Stephen King’s 1975 short story— Virtual Space Industries scientist Dr. Lawrence Angelo (a suitably frazzled Pierce Brosnan) endeavors to expand consciousness and advance evolution via experiments that combine virtual reality games and drugs. While an initial formula drives a chimp to commit murder, Lawrence finds greater success with trials on grass-cutter Jobe, a shaggy-haired, overalls-wearing simpleton who lives in a shack behind the local church and suffers abuse at the hands of both a gas station bully and a priest. All that changes, however, once Lawrence’s trials turn Jobe into a hyper-intelligent monster—part Christ-like martyr, part vengeful techno-God.
While The Lawnmower Man was, upon its theatrical release, most notable for its then-cutting-edge CGI, the material’s computer-generated VR sequences now exhibit a quaint, stylized cheesiness that’s in keeping with the action’s cautionary-tale warnings about the dangers of using computers to improve mankind. More convincing as a wannabe digi-diety (in a Tron-like bodysuit) than a disabled rube, Fahey exudes deranged menace that helps sell the film’s sci-fi conceit, which ultimately argues that total technological immersion offers omnipotent power at the price of one’s humanity. The Lawnmower Man eventually devolves into a standard quasi-Frankenstein story in which Lawrence must attempt to destroy his mutant creation, lest Jobe bring about a terrifying new world order. Before that, however, the film amusingly functions as something of a nerd fantasy—one in which time spent playing cutting-edge computer games transforms a whipping-boy outcast into a figure of strength, intimidation, and sexual magnetism.
Availability: The Lawnmower Man is available on DVD—packaged with its forgotten sequel and obtainable through Netflix—and to rent or purchase from the major digital services.