The Lawnmower Man: Collector’s Edition

| July 2, 2017

It’s common knowledge by now that The Lawnmower Man’s (1992) claim to be a film based off the synonymous Stephen King short story was an utter fabrication. Anyone who’s read the 1975 King short knows that it’s about a satyr who mows a lawn and eats a man, not about a fix-it-man with an IQ of 45 who becomes some kind of “Cyber Christ.” This bit of misdirection by the studio along with the film’s now somewhat comical depictions of virtual reality using long-outdated CG have no doubt left a sour taste in audiences’ mouths, and any mention of the film is often met with derision.

Yet it’s a film that I’ve always found myself personally drawn to with its thematic emphasis on the potential of computers to expand human consciousness, to be a central defining factor in the future of humanity. We know now of course that computers have indeed redefined the way we live our lives in the years since Lawnmower Man. Sure, plenty of movies have explored the topic aside from Lawnmower Man, but really only those that combined horror and science fiction while doing so interested me much in my youth. And director Brett Leonard made two such futurist sci-fi/horror films over which I obsessed: The Lawnmower Man and later, the more action-oriented police procedural Virtuosity (1995), which I still find to be great fun all around.

Whereas Virtuosity succeeds in weaving a fairly straightforward narrative about a man hunting a serial killer (only the killer is an AI entity manifested in the real world), The Lawnmower Man is arguably a bit too ambitious to be totally successful. But that’s what I find fascinating about the endeavor. At its core, the story is simple: a man is granted incredible powers as the result of scientific experimentation in a tale reminiscent of Stephen King’s own Firestarter. Unlike the creation of mental powerhouses in Firestarter, which was purely chemical, Lawnmower Man adds to the mix an emphasis on virtual reality. In doing so, the film relies heavily on now severely-dated CG for its visuals to show the human guinea pig Jobe’s evolution from simple lawnmower man to Cybergod—the original title of the screenplay before King’s title was slapped on, as it happens.

Neither the theatrical nor the director’s cut of the film is entirely successful in conveying the incredible scope of this fascinating concept, but that’s in part because the filmmakers were ahead of their time in terms of what they expected from computer-animated special effects. Still, the ideas are undoubtedly there on screen and I respect the ambition immensely. Plus, if you watch the 141-minute director’s cut rather than the confusing theatrical cut that ruins some key plants/payoffs, you’ll find that Leonard and his co-writer Gimel Everett rather deftly infused a Stephen King-style revenge film about telekinetic powers with a dash of surprisingly prophetic futurism. Some would of course scoff at the notion that the film was prophetic in any way, but here we are living in a time when immediate recall of any information is indeed a reality—only with the tools to do so externalized as smart phones rather than internalized.

The Lawnmower Man has some additional, explicit ties to Firestarter as well, going beyond the similarities in content noted above. For their script, Leonard and Everett borrowed King’s shadowy government agency “The Shop,” whose agents had terrorized poor little Drew Barrymore once upon a time. The Shop provides Lawnmower Man with some much-needed additional antagonism as well as additional cannon fodder for Jobe’s newfound telekinetic abilities. The Shop also brings a splash of espionage into the film, which is all-too-appropriate in retrospect given that future James Bond, Pierce Brosnan, plays the scientist mad enough to turn a lawnmower man into a techno-god. That said, compelling though the connections between Lawnmower Man and Firestarter may be, the film is obviously far from Stephen King canon given that King sued New Line three times over the film to get his wrongly-used name rightly-removed!

There may still be a lot to giggle at in The Lawnmower Man, especially when you’ve got Jeff Fahey’s hammy, almost cartoonish performance as the lower-IQed Jobe early on, not to mention a Robocop-looking, video game-playing chimp running around with a revolver in the opening sequence (more so in the director’s cut though). However, there are enough cool ideas and a couple kills weird enough here to warrant rewatching the film. You just have to, you know, look past the extremely dated CG, which is even more dated in the director’s cut where Jobe uses his powers to make bring some low-res polygonal bugs to life and turn Shop agents into screensavers.

The Lawnmower Man may be a weird film with a storied history, but to my mind that makes it all the more deserving of revisitation and rerelease. Clearly I’m not alone in this thought process either though as the good people at Scream Factory have now released a two-disc, Blu-ray Collector’s Edition of The Lawnmower Man! The two major selling points of their Collector’s Edition release are 1) the fact that both cuts of the film are included, and 2) the brand new, hour-long documentary “Cybergod: Creating The Lawnmower Man” provides invaluable insight into the production of this wonderfully weird film that only adds to the rewatchability of the film. The Collector’s Edition also revives all previous special features from the 1997 DVD, including audio commentaries, vintage interviews, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, promotional materials, etc.

Apart from the new documentary though, the real stars of this particular release of Lawnmower Man are the 4K HD transfers of each cut, which breathe new life into The Lawnmower Man¸ previously relegated to now abysmal-looking, decades-old SD DVD transfers. The colors, especially in the stylized VR worlds are rich and vibrant, there’s some fine detail to the shadows, and the clarity of these 4K scans is precisely what you’d be looking for all around. The only noticeable dip in quality comes periodically throughout the director’s cut specifically, for which the material not used in the theatrical cut had to be pulled from an inferior film source, but Scream Factory have done an admirable job of making the transitions between the two sources’ material as seamless as possible.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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