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‘The Lawnmower Man’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 07, 1992

So loosely based on a Stephen King short story as to constitute fraud, "The Lawnmower Man" goes right to the bottom of a growing list of failed King adaptations. The first film to capitalize on interest in "virtual reality" technology, it does boast some dazzling computer animation sequences, including a sex fantasy/nightmare. Unfortunately, the VR special effects are few and far between in a film short on plot and long on derivation.

The somewhat obsessive Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) is treading where others fear to go: intelligence enhancement. At Cybertech, he's been experimenting on chimps, using a mixture of secret drugs and VR computer environments that seem little more than next-tech arcade games but allegedly "hold the key to the evolution of the human mind." All this makes the chimps smarter; unfortunately, they also get aggressive and go crazy, though it's not clear whether this is from the drugs or too many video games.

When the last chimp turns into Rambo, the frustrated scientist starts experimenting at home with a human guinea pig who happens to mow his lawn -- the sweetly retarded Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey), who first appears sporting a blond dye job and mussy hair that makes him look just like Daryl Hannah in "Blade Runner." Abused by the local priest, ragged on by the town bully, but befriended by a young boy whose mother is abused by his father (this is your basic dysfunctional small town), Jobe is an idiot savant when it come to lawn mowers.

Soon, Jobe's IQ and libido both have improved thanks to Dr. Angelo's treatment. As we already know from "Charly," mind-elevators can produce good movie plots; how VR improves anything but hand-eye coordination is never explained, but before you can spell preposterous, Jobe has developed extrasensory powers, including telepathy, kinetics and the ability to conjure a sex fantasy without dialing a 900 number.

Did we mention the subplot, the one involving "The Shop," an evil government agency that sees VR potential on the battlefield rather than in the arcade? Woe to them and all the townies who have tormented Jobe, because as he gets stronger, he turns angry and then evil. Jobe's voice changes too, and you can tell he's reaching a boiling point when his data suit starts to glow blue.

Actually, this all sounds like an over-budgeted rehash of an old "Outer Limits" episode, though the producers didn't exactly splurge on klieg lights: The film has a dark, musty look that seems even darker compared with the VR sequences that break no new ground but look stunning in a big-screen format. The finale in which Dr. Angelo and Jobe, now the all-powerful Cyber-Being, face off "Scanners"-style in a computer mainframe, is kinda fun, as is the molecular restructuring that befalls several bad guys.

While Brosnan is earnest in his slightly mad scientist routine, Fahey is far less accomplished in his unanimated sequences and it's hard not to laugh at lines like "my battle cry will be the sound of every telephone in the universe ringing in unison." In the end, you'll wish the writers had either turned to King (who was not involved beyond selling his name for the title) or had signed up for some drug-and-VR sessions before submitting their script. Ultimately, it's the difference between cyber-being and nothingness.

"The Lawnmower Man" is rated R for profanity, violence and sexual situations.

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