Reality Bites

by Chase Whale


“The Lawnmower Man,” (1992). 107 Minutes. 35 mm. Courtesy Mad Dimension.

Reality Bites

The Future Is Weird, Terrifying, but Strangely Awesome

Here’s something new—Brett Leonard’s once-shitty, now cult-classic

The Lawnmower Man

may have accidentally been way ahead of its time. Read carefully.

CGI was created in the late ’60s with Charles Csuri and James Shaffer’s Hummingbird (a 10-minute computer-animated film), but really started to take flight in the early ’90s. The reason it boomed in this era was, well, the Internet. The World Wide Web had become part of everyday life and had opened the floodgates for ideas involving movies, video games, and Michael Jackson music videos. Virtual reality is the immersive extension of these graphics and their experimentation in the excitable ’90s.

As a cinematic experience, almost every movie based on virtual reality is worse than a thousand Battlefield Earth’s. Films like TheLawnmower Man (1992), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), David Cronenberg’s Existenz (1999), and a few other cyberpunk movies were made during a time when computer generated imagery (CGI) was shifting—it started looking more believable. Some of these films made a large impact and are still mimicked in the film industry today, most notably The Matrix (1999) and the excellent Strange Days (1995); some are deemed cult classics because of their accidental campiness (The Lawnmower Man), and the rest got stuck in the “pure shit” pile.

To give you an idea of the timeframe The Lawnmower Man was released: Smack in the middle of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993), two ethereal masterpieces that still hold up perfectly today. Not until James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) did CGI mesmerize when taking place outside of reality (it should be noted motion capture technology helped this, heavily). Johnny Mnemonic and The Lawnmower Man didn’t truly hold up because the majority of each film’s plot takes place in the virtual CGI world, which was very ugly, but the idea behind both of them is pretty slick and inevitably hit years later. Add Kung Fu, side-burns for Keanu Reeves (they were shorn in Mnemonic, remember, and anybody who thought that was a good idea should be punched in the face one million times), and you have The Matrix.

In The Lawnmower Man—released seven years before The Matrix—Dr. Lawrence Angelo (played by the delicious Pierce Brosnan) makes an illiterate man (Jeff Fahey) genius by making him watch a bunch of atrocious CGI through a VR headset. He had minor side effects: headaches, seizures, and the appetite to kill using telekinesis and a lawnmower.

But, like Fahey’s dummy in The Lawnmower Man, can Virtual Reality programs really make someone smarter? Probably not, but the next best solution is coming: the Oculus Rift. It’s a fancier, upgraded Nintendo Virtual Boy (the 32-bit red menace headgear released back in ’95 and then subsequently discontinued for a number of reasons, lofty price among them) that gives you the opportunity to look around a 3-D environment in the most immersive way yet. Aside from this being the coolest gaming device ever, it’s perhaps the most ambitious piece of technology created in the 21st century. Word on the street is that once this thing gets going, customers will be able to fill all life activities—school, work, doctor, etc.—all with the convenience of sitting on their couch in sweatpants (So long, Human Interaction!). There are also talks that eventually viewers will be able to watch a movie with the Oculus Rift and look around while the movie carries along. Maybe this happens in our lifetime, but how cool would that be to experience? (“Pretty fucking cool” is the correct answer.)

This is where the joke is on us and The Lawnmower Man was ahead of its time (and why it’s worth mentioning). There’s a silly scene in the film where two people are strapped into their respective VR headsets and have sex in Virtual Reality. It’s one of the most ludicrous scenes in VR cinema history. That was in 1992. According to reports, when the Oculus Rift is made available in 2015, you’ll be able to have sex with anyone of your own creation—in the virtual space, of course. If this sounds ridiculous, kind of appalling and implausible, we’re on the same page, but perhaps this puppy will be strong enough to stimulate the sense of touch via the brain à la The Matrix.

This article can really go on and on about awesome dangers of the Oculus Rift, but shit, life is short and it’s more fun to roll with the punches. Thank you, Lawnmower Man, for showing us 22 years ago that sex in the virtual world will be weird, terrifying, but strangely awesome.