In Lawnmower Man (1992) Dr. Lawrence Angelo, a scientist at Virtual Space Industries, uses his research to increase Jobe Smith’s intelligence. Jobe, a simpleton who mows lawns, experiences behaviour changes as his intelligence grows, and Angelo conducts further research on him using virtual reality. A mysterious organisation (assumed to be the military), switches Jobe’s medication to a previous formulae that boosts aggressive behaviour. Suffering from side effects, Jobe loses control and goes on the rampage. He then decides that his destiny is to transcend humanity and to merge his mind with the research lab’s computer mainframe — and become an omnipresent force.
Visually Lawnmower Man is a product of its time, but it explores a number of interesting areas; virtual worlds, and the role technology plays in human development, and consciousness. In the opening scenario, a chimpanzee, with enhanced intelligence, escapes from the research laboratory. The idea of apes with scientifically enhanced intelligence became the basis for Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), where the apes gain human-like intelligence and speech following laboratory experimentation. But Lawnmower Man is interested in the consequences this has on the human mind. The plot is loosely based on Flowers for Algernon (1959), and follows a long line of fantasy and science fiction storytelling that incorporates scenarios where an ordinary person is given special powers that come with a catch. In The Outer Limits episode, ‘The Sixth Finger’ (1963) a scientist artificially increases the intelligence of a coal worker evolving him into the human being ‘from the future’, whose over-developed logic is so extreme he has become an intellectualised sociopath.
In Lawnmower Man Jobe goes through a kind of rebirth, turning from the town loser, who everyone looks down on and takes advantage of, into a superhuman genius. Through virtual reality Jobe merges himself with a mainframe computer, jettisoning his human body to become a purely energy-based life-force: existing only as a form of ‘digital-consciousness’. This transformation from human into ‘software’ is often handled as a kind of magical transubstantiation, a form of alchemy, man becoming deity: the next stage in human evolution.
The climactic battleground in Lawnmower Man occurs within the plastic, virtual world, where anything can be anything because everything is only an avatar that simulates the real thing — the laws of reality do not exist in this realm. In this early 1990s realisation, the aesthetic is one of low-fidelity, heavily simplified; unable to precisely replicate the real world (as we might expect ‘virtual reality’ to accomplish with relative ease today). This results not just in a cartoon-like, wire-framed version of the real world, but its own aesthetic. Johnny Mnemonic (1995) also presents a virtual world, which again is visualised as a kind of low-fidelity video game, unable to convincingly replicate the real world — a facsimile with its own surreal look.
There was considerable interest in the 1990s in virtual reality as the internet became mainstream, and fiction incorporated technology — mobile phones, computers, and internet communication — into plots, with films like Sneakers (1992), The Net (1995), Hackers (1995), and even the romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail (1998), but virtual reality had been around in Hollywood for a much longer time, Tron (1982) presented a virtual reality, computer generated world that could ‘scan’ a real person into its software ‘landscape’, to transfer a person from this dimension into the virtual one, turning a person into code. This idea was integral to the Matrix (1999), which is a play on virtual reality, turning the concept on its head. This time human experience has become ‘the code’, as it were, and ‘the world’ is policed by software programs.
Lawnmower Man ends with Jobe successfully transcending his own limitations, and then the ‘limitations’ of the human body, merging himself into the world of software, becoming ‘pure energy’. He signals his success by ringing every phone in the world, but the implication of his metamorphosis is deliberately vague. Dr Lawrence Angelo goes on the run with his new love interest, and her son. He appears to have gained a sense of deeper perspective from the experience, but still retains a belief in technology as a force for good.