You need to watch Pierce Brosnan’s weirdest sci-fi thriller before it leaves HBO Max next week
Thirty years ago, one sci-fi movie pushed the boundaries of digital effects, but it wasn’t only a technological achievement.
Pierce Brosnan is obsessed with a chimp. If anything about that sentence is offputting, you might not be prepared for the bonkersness surrounding this cyberpunk sci-fi horror flick. Released in 1992, this cult film was not only ahead of its time but deserves a rewatch from a more generous audience — especially now that it’s leaving HBO Max on May 31.
What movie are we talking about? None other than The Lawnmower Man.
If you’re expecting any kind of realism in this Stephen King adaptation, you’ll be disappointed. The motivations of the characters in The Lawnmower Man come fully formed from a plethora of clichés. But this doesn’t mean the choices are accidental. The characters here are all one way: Someone is either frustrated, wicked, or uncomplicated. But you could see something Stephen King-esque here, insofar as the entire movie is predicated on intentional hyperbole.
King was so frustrated with the film’s connection to his short story that he sued to make sure his name wasn't on any marketing materials. Yet, he paid a compliment to the film’s director Brett Leonard), and there are several lines of dialogue in the film taken directly from the short story. If anything, the spirit of the film aligns with the short story in a similar way Blade Runner aligns with the novel it adapted, while also being wildly unfaithful.
At its most basic, The Lawnmower Man is a cyberpunk Frankenstein’s monster story fused with Of Mice and Men. Jobe (Jeff Fahey) is a good-hearted gardener who is often taken advantage of by others because of his disabilities. Enter Dr. Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) who, because his chimp escaped, needs a human test subject for his virtual reality experiments.
What happens next could be favorably compared to David Cronenberg's The Fly, although most serious horror fans would probably find that comparison offensive. Still, what The Lawnmower Man has in connection with The Fly is a specific style of gradual surrealism. Brosnan and Fahey each sell us on a kind of heightened naturalistic world, one in which their characters don’t behave like ordinary people at all.
This may sound like a bad thing. But the surreal nature of the real-world performance in The Lawnmower Man is essential because when things start to shift into a topsy-turvey virtual-reality kaleidoscope, the film earns that transition. And it is creepily affecting because of that groundwork. To pay The Lawnmower Man another backhanded compliment, imagine Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, swap out the magic for cyberpunk, and then film the whole thing like a low-budget straight-to-video ‘90s horror movie.
Because it was technically an indie movie with a tiny budget, The Lawnmower Man was a moderate box office success in 1992. Combined with a brief moment in which New Line Cinema marketed it as “from the mind of Stephen King,” this probably helped contribute to the fact that even casual fans of sci-fi and horror are vaguely aware of it.
A pre-James Bond Pierce Brosnan in the title role doesn’t hurt the film either, and it’s fun to imagine what Brosnan’s career might have been like had he not become 007 just three years later in GoldenEye. Is there an alternate universe out there where Pierce Brosnan played tortured mad scientists in a variety of cult sci-fi movies? In The Lawnmower Man, you almost feel like Brosnan has morphed into a sultrier version of Sam Neill, an angsty scientist, who hates the establishment. In fact, you could argue that Brosnan’s Dr. Angelo is a mash-up of both Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.
The Lawnmower Man is primarily remembered as a failed horror sci-fi film that also presciently made virtual reality mainstream. But focusing on those aesthetics is a disservice to the film. Though the cyberpunk-run-amok storyline is pretty much the whole movie, the themes and plot aren’t too far away from the pulp science fiction and horror of the 1930s and 1940s. The unhinged, yet run-of-the-mill vibe of The Lawnmower Man’s basic suburban setting still works, and the attempts it makes to ground the VR horror in reality also succeed.
I’d argue that at least half of Black Mirror owes something to The Lawnmower Man. This movie had to amble along, at the pace of a gas-powered lawnmower, so The Matrix and Black Mirror could take cyberpunk into overdrive.