Looking Back At The Virtual Reality of The Lawnmower Man
Last Thursday at The Los Angeles Film School we held a private screening of the film The Lawnmower Man, which is a 1992 science fiction film about an experiment in virtual reality gone wrong. One of our alumni knew the film’s director, Brett Leonard, and asked if he could host a screening of the director’s cut of the film followed by a question and answer session with Leonard. I had never seen the film before but seeing it was on my bucket list due to my interest in virtual reality, and I suggested that we screen it on the same day that we have our monthly Game Fair, where one of our student teams was demonstrating a virtual reality project of their own.
Based on a Stephen King film of the same name (although according to King himself, bearing “no meaningful resemblance” to it), the film stars Jeff Fahey as Jobe Smith, a simple-minded gardener (the titular “Lawmower Man”), and Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Lawrence Angelo, the scientist who decides to experiment on him. Dr. Lawrence Angelo has been running experiments in increasing the intelligence of chimpanzees using drugs and virtual reality, When of the chimps escapes using the warfare tactics he was being trained for, Dr. Angelo finds a human subject to work with when he spots Jobe mowing his lawn.
Dr. Angelo makes it a point to redesign all the intelligence-boosting treatments without the “aggression factors” used in the chimpanzee experiments, and like the protagonist in the story story Flowers for Algernon, Jobe soon becomes smarter, for example, learning Latin in only two hours. The story also has a resemblance to Altered States, where Jobe develops telepathic abilities and eventually becomes a being of pure energy. Jobe uses the lab equipment to enter the mainframe computer, to become a wholly virtual being, Angelo then joins Job in virtual reality to try to reason with him. but Jobe overpowers and crucifies Angelo, then continues to search for a network connection to escape. Each eventually escapes their entrapment in virtual reality, and the film ends with Jobe ringing hundreds of telephones all around the globe to signal his birth as a being that now resides in every networked computer system.
The story may be a bit derivative, but how prescient were its quarter-century old predictions about virtual reality? Much of the technology was dead-on to where we are today. Characters were connected to computers by wearing helmets with visual displays for seeing the virtual world, gloves allowing users to manipulate virtual objects, touchscreens for operating the computer controls, and hand-held controllers for additional input.
Unfortunately, time has not been kind to the film as the virtual reality graphics themselves are now primitive by today’s standards (although at the time they were state-of-the art, the eight minutes of computer generated special effects taking seven people eight months to complete on a budget of $500,000). Also, the film did not anticipate bluetooth, as there were wires everywhere, and characters were locked into giant gyroscopes, apparently so that they could tumble through the ether when other characters punched them in virtual reality.
As far as the application of virtual reality goes, the film explored its uses for therapy, education, and training, which are indeed three fields for which virtual reality is being developed today. Of course, for dramatic purposes this is all made menacing by the use of a not-properly-tested drug as well as an evil military overseer that introduces aggressiveness factors into the treatment with the inevitable disastrous outcomes.
So, is this a film worth seeing if you are into virtual reality and its depiction in cinema? Unless you are a diehard science fiction film buff, I suggest taking a pass now that we have the real thing to now available to play with. Brett Leonard told us after the screening that he was developing some virtual reality applications with his team. I trust that he’s learned from both this film and his 1995 similarly-themed film, Virtuosity, of the dangers of virtual reality, and it will be interesting to see what benefits filmmakers will bring to the medium.
After all, the film did inspire the scrolling action game The Lawnmower Man (1993) for Game Boy, Genesis and SNES as well as the full-motion video adventure game The Lawnmower Man (1993) for DOS, Macintosh and SEGA CD , which used clips from the movie and is a direct sequel to the movie, since Its plot begins. The adventure game Cyberwar (1994) for DOS and PlayStation is a non-FMV sequel to the FMV game. Now technology is at a point where I don’t expect to play the movie, I want to be in the movie.