Though it might sound hard to believe, The Lawnmower Man, Hollywood’s first and perhaps only virtual reality-led supernatural thriller, has just turned 25.
Famous for it’s ground-breaking use of computer graphics and plot concerning the modern notion of VR, the movie is also notable for the memorable performances of Pierce Brosnan and Jeff Fahey.
Brosnan, in his first major role, plays scientist Dr Larry Angelo, a scientist who has created a computer programme capable of boosting human intelligence. Fahey, as Jobe, is his not-too-bright test subject who goes from innocent gardener to computer-based psycho killer in a couple of short hours.
Yet to describe the plot of The Lawnmower Man doesn’t really do the film justice – here are a few things you probably didn’t know.
The Lawnmower Man was originally titled Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man and was supposed to be based on the writer’s short story of the same name. However, King successfully sued the film makers to have his name removed from the title.
New Line Cinema had purchased the rights to the King story but also had an unrelated script called Cyber God. They decided to put the name The Lawnmower Man on the script. King was, understandably furious, and won $10,000 plus profits from the film in damages.
The Short Story
King’s short story actually centred a man who hires a company to mow his lawn only to discover that the serviceman they send out uses a lawnmower that cuts the grass by itself while he crawls behind it, naked, eating the leftover grass cuttings.
In the story, it’s discovered that the serviceman is a satyr who worships Pan. When the central protagonist tries to call the police, the mower and serviceman kill him as a sacrifice to Pan.
The Real Influence
By contrast, the movie focused on the story of a simple man (Fahey) who gets turned into a genius through computer technology – until things go very wrong.
Even then, plenty of fans have pointed to the script’s noticeable similarities to the Daniel Keyes’ novel Flowers for Algernon which tells the story of a laboratory mouse that undergoes surgery that increases his intelligence by artificial means.
The film is famous for what was then considered state-of-the-art computer effects, used when Fahey’s Jobe immersed himself in the virtual reality online world that ends up making him super-intelligent.
Around eight minutes of virtual reality footage were used in the finished film. The scenes required seven people to work solidly for eight months on a budget of $500,000. A remote controlled lawnmower was also specially created for the movie.
Interestingly, much of the film’s computer-generated imagery was created by Angel Studios, which later became Rockstar San Diego, the company behind the Grand Theft Auto games.
The Technology Legacy
The virtual reality headsets at the heart of the film may not have stood the test of time, but they did inspire Palmer Luckey to invent the Oculus Rift, virtual reality gaming helmet.
“When Palmer lucky got billions from Mark Zuckerberg for Oculus, he revealed to the press that Lawnmower Man was an inspiration,” Lawnmower Man director Brett Leonard revealed to Tech Radar.
“The headsets in Lawnmower Man were created by Alex McDowell [who went on to do production design for Fight Club and Man of Steel]. We reconnected recently and we are in a similar place with VR. The design we came up with was us thinking about the ideal, what we would really want a VR headset to look like. And it turns out we were close!
“The HTC Vive and Oculus are great. And there I am unpacking them and thinking I made a movie about VR, I made this – they look like our designs, they look like what we created.”
The Breaking Bad
Long before he landed the part of Hank on Breaking Bad, Dean Norris was better known for a string of minor roles in well remembered films from the 1990s. The Lawnmower Man is no different, with Norris taking on the role of shadowy corporate type and chief financier behind the technology that ends up sending Jobe nuts.
Not only does the role require Norris to feature on a giant TV screen for much of the movie but he also adopts a strange posh accent that’s only the second weirdest thing in this film – besides the effect that sees Jobe turn some security guards into weird CGI bubbles.
A line of dialogue from the film ended up being sampled in the intro track for The Prodigy album Music For The Jilted Generation.
The dance group used a line, spoken by Brosnan’s Dr Angelo early in the film, when he announced “I’ve decided to take my work back underground…”
It’s not the only time a musician has sampled The Lawnmower Man either.
Drum and base producer Phace also took a sample from the scene where Dr Angelo first takes Jobe into the film’s virtual world and used it in the song Brainwave.
A grand total of three games based on The Lawnmower Man were created.
This included a scrolling action game for Game Boy, SNES and Sega Mega Drive, a PC game (which also came out on Sega Mega CD) using clips from the original movie and the sequel and an adventure game called Cyberwar which was created for PC and Playstation.
The last of the three titles came out two years after the original movie came out.
The film’s director, Leonard, actually went on to make another virtual reality-focused thriller in 1995.
Starring Denzel Washington, Kelly Lynch and a fresh-faced Russell Crowe, Virtuosity told the story of a cop tasked with bringing down a virtual reality simulation that has adopted the personalities of several serial killers and escaped into the real world.
Critically derided on release, the movie was also a box office bomb with Leonard moving into on to a series of 3D Imax movies.
Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.