Editor’s note: With our own Junkfood addict Brian Salisbury busy writing through the typhoon that is SXSW, we’ve farmed out his column to similarly-minded Rejects. This time at bat – Kevin Carr!
Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema, where our best exercise is lifting food into our mouths and working those jaw muscles. This week, we’re looking ahead to the future by looking into the past. Remember when reasonable people saw virtual reality for its true dangerous potential: to control people’s minds?
You don’t? Well, try telling that to the filmmakers from 1992 because apparently it was a real threat. Today, we’re examining the gloriously convoluted dangers of virtual reality in a world of ooey gooey polygons and cybersex.
The film that warned us of these dangers: The Lawnmower Man.
What Makes It Bad?
No discussion of The Lawnmower Man can be made without first acknowledging that the movie doesn’t have a diddly damn to do with Stephen King’s short story of the same name. Well, there’s a lawnmower involved, but that’s about it. King originally published the story “The Lawnmower Man” in the May 1975 issue of his skin mag benefactor “Cavelier.”
The original story was about conservative suburbanite Harold Parkette, who hires a company to mow his grass. However, he soon discovers the guy they sent is a satyr who worships Pan. The Lawnmower Man proceeds to strip completely naked and gobble up anything that a remote-operated lawnmower chops up, including grass clippings and a butchered mole that didn’t get out of the way. When Harold calls the cops, the Lawnmower Man turns the magical mower on him for a human sacrifice.
To be fair, there’s a character named Harold Parkette in this film (though he’s a professional wrestling-watching, drunk, abusive father to young Peter Parkette, played by Austin O’Brien). He does get chased by and slaughtered by a self-propelled lawnmower. There’s also a snippet of dialogue preserved from the short story, which is delivered when the cops find his remains. (These entirety of the preserved lines include: “Hell of a thing,” “Where’s the rest of him?”/”The birdbath.” and “The world is full of nuts. Never forget that, Cooley. Schizos.”)
That’s about it. The story didn’t mention virtual reality. Hell, it didn’t even have a goddamned computer in it. No wonder Stephen King successfully sued to remove his name from the film and all associated marketing material.
The movie itself was originally a script entitled Cyber God and only retrofitted to include elements of “The Lawnmower Man” because New Line owned the rights. What we’re left with is a bizarre early 90s cautionary tale about virtual reality and mind control, as evidenced by the following quote at the head of the film:
Take off your VR glasses that are obviously now in widespread use and take a deep breath. Not only does the film not believe in hyphenating words, it also never shows us any real scientists who fear virtual reality as a form of mind control. Instead, it tells the story of Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan in his acting doldrums between Remington Steele and the James Bond franchise),who is developing drugs that will enhance the mental performance of chimpanzees. He’s being overseen by The Shop (which is a Stephen King invention, incidentally, though again totally unrelated to his original story), a dastardly research organization with ties to the government.
Angelo uses virtual reality to train the chimps, and The Shop has changed their drugs to make them more aggressive. When a chimp goes on a gun-toting rampage, they kill the project and don’t let Angelo move to human subjects.
Not ready to see his research undone, Angelo begins private treatments on a mentally challenged man named Jobe (Jeff Fahey), who cuts his lawn. (See, I told you a lawnmower would show up at some point.) When Jobe shows remarkable advancement in his mental abilities, The Shop uses an inside man to replace Angelo’s mind-enhancing drugs with those that made the chimp go postal in the first scene. The result is even further expansion of Jobe’s mind, but also further expansion of Jobe’s aggression. We also see Jobe get greater powers, like the ability to read thoughts and move things with telekinesis.
Now what does this have to do with virtual reality? Why does Dr. Angelo need VR to perform treatments on Jobe? I have no freaking idea. But trust me, it’s related somehow. Otherwise, you’d never be able to have Jobe physically project his essence into the computer network, leaving a withered, dried-up corpse in a VR suit.
The movie begins as a high-tech yet dumbed-down version of Daniel Keyes’ story “Flowers for Algernon,” but by the third act, it goes completely off the rails with Jobe going on a murderous rampage in his VR suit, complete with not-so-subtle anti-religion overtones. He accidentally wipes the mind of his cougar-esque girlfriend, literally mows the town bully’s brain with a CGI version of his face and sets the local priest aflame with digital fire. He also sends his self-powered lawnmower after Peter’s abusive dad, but we already talked about that.
Angelo tries to make things right at the end, and he even plans to blow up the lab with C-3 bombs. (Yes, you read that right… for some reason, The Shop’s explosive of choice of this movie is C-3, which was put out of use by the military in favor of the superior C-4 during the 1950s. Why? Again, I have no idea.) Inexplicably, Angelo lets Peter and his mother tag along, ostensibly because his car was demolished by Jobe. But when Peter slips away to head into the lab, his mother decides to run – not drive – after him.
Eventually everything gets blowed up by a huge frakking C-3 explosion, but not before Jobe makes a virtual version of himself and finds a backdoor out of the network. The movie ends with him Jobe making good on his promise to announce his infiltration of all computer networks by making every phone in the world ring at the same time. Imaging the long distance bill from that.
Why I Love It!
First of all, I’m a sucker for any movie that features a scientist who is trying to develop a technology to better humankind only to have it goes horribly awry. Whether it’s an older film like The Fly or a modern movie like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, these are a guilty pleasure of mine. While The Lawnmower Man left out a lot of the graphic violence seen in these films, it made up for it in bizarre 90s-era visionary elements.
Trust me, in 1992, this was a cool-ass movie. It was a big-screen movie. Digital environments on the big screen had been around since the days of Tron and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, but as a filmgoer back then, I couldn’t resist a movie like this. Forget the fact that computer-generated dinosaurs were only a year away withJurassic Park. The idea of frolicking around cyberspace was damn intriguing.
The Lawnmower Man reeks of the 90s in terms of fashion, technology and aesthetic sensibilities. But it also has remnants of the 80s technology cautionary tales and religious ramblings. Virtual reality hasn’t quite emerged into full-blown chimpanzee-rage mind-control as predicted in the film, but honestly, who knew back in 1992? I’m also still waiting for all that cybersex from the widespread use of VR promised in this movie. Le sigh.
This movie is the quintessential junkfood film. It’s all flash and unnatural flavor with very little substance. It’s the kind of cinematic comfort food that’s fun to watch on a rainy Saturday but leaves you hungry for more in a few hours. And there’s even some boobies in the mix as well.
Junk Food Pairing: Laffy Taffy and Orange Crush
Back in 1992, it was cool to avoid photorealism in favor of wildly colorful and completely unnatural environments. The cybersex sequence in The Lawnmower Man in particular features Jobe and his girlfriend literally becoming a gooey paste and morphing together.
Laffy Taffy offers a high dose of sugar, impossible pliability and colors that have never existed in a natural environment, much like the VR world that Jobe inhabits. Wash this down with Orange Crush, which comes in the color of blaze orange that hunters use to stand out in the forest. No paleo diet for this movie. Consume the junkfood that is born completely in a lab, like Jobe’s cyber god.
Posted: 16 Mar 2012 01:55 PM PDT
Could the endless weeks of rampant speculation be over? Is it possible that we finally know what Brett Ratner’s next directing project after Hercules is going to be? Not necessarily, but Variety has some news on a new film that he’s definitely involved in as a producer, and that he might end up directing if things work out. His Rat Entertainment is in talks to adapt “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution,” a chronicle of the early days of MTV written by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum.
Ratner has earned a lot of criticism over the years due to his ADD directing style, but what better project for him to take on than a historical look back at the people who invented vapid, quick-cut nonsense? Factor in that the man’s last film, Tower Heist, was actually mostly unoffensive, and we may be at the beginnings of a Brett Ratner revolution. Especially now that he has all of that Oscar controversy behind him. Sure, we’re not yet certain that he’s going to end up directing this one, but it’s probably an easy bet that he’ll at least be in the room when they’re auditioning young actresses to play Nina Blackwood and Martha Quinn; so both this movie and the girls should end up with his fingerprints all over them.
All joking about what a sleaze Ratner comes off as aside, the guerrilla beginnings of the MTV network could actually be fascinating fodder for a film. That was a crazy time in early cable television production that we’re not likely to see the likes of ever again, now that the all-powerful corporate hand is so fully in charge of everything. Has anybody taken a look at what this book they’re adapting is like? Is there a whole chapter aboutRemote Control? Now I’m getting excited.
Posted: 16 Mar 2012 01:49 PM PDT
21 Jump Street ain’t no Hot Fuzz, Airplane, or Phil Lord and Chris Miller‘s Cloudy with a Chance of Meetballs. This TV adaptation is no satire or parody. 21 Jump Street is a straight-faced comedy, with only a few pokes at the action genre. Miller and Lord never go further than pointing out the TV adaptation/remake craze and how awesome it is to have doves in your action movie.
But like Cloudy with a Chance of Meetballs, 21 Jump Street is a late coming-of-age story. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are both nerds. When they join the police force, they want their lives to become Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys II, or Red Heat. As Flint Lockwood did in Cloudy, the duo have to grow up.
Here’s what directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller had to say about not making a parody, pro-nerd messages, and invoking the cop genre style:
To start off, whose idea was the S.W.A.T. poster [in Schmidt’s room]?
Lord: [Laughs] We were looking for posters and the Sony people were like, “It has to be a Sony movie.” Luckily enough, we were like, “Oh, no way!” Neil [Moritz] produced that movie and we thought it was a little wink to Neil. He didn’t even see it till near the end of our shooting. He was like, “Oh, you guys!” We were trying to think of movies that Jonah’s character would have in his bedroom. We were like, “Oh yeah, of course he lovesS.W.A.T.!”
Did Neil just respond, “Oh, that’s a great movie!”
Lord: [Laughs] That’s what I love about him. He’s a real champion of the movies that he makes and some of the crews that he worked with. One of my favorite surprises of the film is how I’ve gone from being completely terrified of Neil to being really excited every time I see him, and then, subsequently, also terrified.
Like Moritz, you also have a cinematographer who’s worked in the cop genre, Barry Peterson, who didDark Blue.
Lord: Yeah, exactly. I love how Dark Blue looked. That’s one of the reasons we picked him. We were trying to make the movie not look like a studio comedy. We were trying to make it also look pretty naturalistic. And we talked to him about a couple of movies. We talked about 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop, and this movieRunning Scared with…
The Wayne Kramer movie? That’s great.
Lord: Oh no, not the Wayne Kramer movie, although I like that one, too. The Billy Crystal, Gregory Hinesfilm.
Ah, I haven’t seen it.
Lord: Oh my God, you’ve got to check it out. First of all, it is beautifully, beautifully shot by the director Peter Hyams. And it’s a funny comedy about friends. And it’s not like, “Oh, he can’t get along with him and now they’re supposed to be together! What will they ever do?”
They like each other and they support each other, and it was really nice. But the way, it’s shot is gorgeous. It’s this awesome Chicago cop movie. But it’s still funny. It’s like, “Look, you don’t have to light it crazy to make it funny.” So Barry knew exactly what to do. You know, “We’ll make it look like a cop movie but make sure you can see people’s faces so they can be funny when they are acting.”
And he had made Starsky and Hutch which I thought was a very faithful recreation of that shooting style, where everything is really flat and feels like a cop movie. He also has started doing commercials and has shot all over the world, and with every possible rig. He has such experience and knowledge of everything that he gave us a lot of security being first time live-action guys. We had somebody who really had our back.
Miller: And unlike Starsky and Hutch, we didn’t want it to be a spoof, but we knew it was going to be set in the ‘80s and have everybody have big hair and big shoulder pads or something. So it had a different feel. The great thing about Barry is that he’s done every type of movie you can imagine and every type of style you can imagine. He was really great to work with. Nothing’s really rimmed or anything. There’s not a lot of, like, classic studio stuff in the movie, which I like.
Would you guys be on set even referencing Dark Blue or other films to him? Like, “Make Jonah Hill look like Kurt Russell in this shot?”
Lord: [Laughs] Well, we weren’t that specific. We definitely pulled a lot of frames from his movies and said…you know, we did like screen grabs—those are illegal, but we did them—and we put together a little playlist and kind of just stepped through stuff and said, “I loved what you did here, and here’s why,” and just tried to have him pay attention to the parts about his work that we responded to the most.
And Chris, you mentioned a good point, how you didn’t really want to do a parody. The film pokes fun at certain conventions, but that’s about as far as it goes. Where was the line of parody or satire for you guys?
Miller: That’s the trick, right? There’s been a lot of these TV shows turned into movies. We felt like we needed to say to the audience, “We know it. You know it. We all know it, OK? It’s OK. We’re aware. Don’t worry about it.” We don’t want to keep doing that too much so that it would just become to self aware the whole time. At the same time, what we really wanted to do was sort of take more classic cop movie conventions and turn them on their ears, as well as cop TV show convention. More of a satire of the whole genre than a spoof the specific show.
Lord: We thought a lot about these guys and how badly they wanted to be police officers, and that they wanted to be in a cool car chase. So the movie starts out with the lamest chase in the whole universe, which it’s like they’re on bikes and they’re chasing these guys, and we keep switching points of view during the camera work, where Channing’s stuff is kinda handheld, and we’re pointing into the sun, and he looks cool. And Jonah looks like a dummy, and everything’s really flat, and the camera’s not moving.
We felt like the whole movie was kind of a dialectic between the movie the guys wanted to be in and the movie that they really were in. And so, as the movie progresses, it gets more action-y and they actually get to be in a real car chase and a shootout. The reality gets more heightened and bad-boys-y as the movie goes on because they are starting to live their fantasy version of what the cops would be. And there’s more slow motion as the movie gets going.
We just really are big believers that you could do both; that you could do crazy, weird jokes that subvert the genre, and you could also tell a fairly engrossing character story about real people, and that those two things can actually compliment each other in a way, because you don’t see the other one coming. You think it’s like a silly comedy, but then you kinda start to care about those guys. The minute you start to care about the guys, we do like a silly joke or a weird cameo or something, and it winds up, to me, to be more surprising.
Miller: When you ground the relationships of the characters and the way that they react to events and the stakes of the world, in reality, then you get license to do some of the crazier stuff that we end up doing in the movie.
Lord: It’s a perfect platform to shoot somebody’s penis off.
[Laughs] That’s very true. You guys mentioned how good-hearted the movie, and in that way, there’s one big connection to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, with how both movies are so much about adolescent 20 year olds growing up. Is that just a coincidence?
Lord: No. That’s just like who we are, probably. [Laughs]
Miller: There’s definitely a lesson that we learned on Cloudy. When we did an early animatic of that movie, it was just jokes; jokes, jokes, jokes. Kind of like Airplane, which was a great movie. But people were kind of getting bored and stretching in their seats during the animatic, and we realized it was because we didn’t have enough heart to the movie and there wasn’t enough for you to care about. So then we had to go back in and really work on the emotional through line of the movie. It was hard for us. Once we got it to work, the movie was a lot better.
So we came in on this really strongly believing that you have to care about these guys and what they’re going through. The relationship is the core of this movie. If you don’t care about it, it’s just a bunch of jokes. And it’s really, really funny, but it can also be really…You know, you can really feel something, hopefully.
Lord: Cloudy was kind of about the one gifted child in a town with no gifted program and a guy who was, as you say, an overgrown adolescent. This was, we thought of it like a couple that got married really, really quickly and really, really young and still had a lot of growing up to do. Like, they got married right out of high school or something. And then they go have this experience and question the marriage. That’s something that Chris and I related to a lot. Not because we…
Miller: Just got married?
Lord: Ha, yeah. Chris is happily married. But because we have a partnership that’s a lot like that. And the twist on that is when you have two men in a relationship like that, you wind up not talking about the important stuff, sometimes for years. And you have to ultimately address those things or break up. I always thought that was an interesting about cop partners, or these two guys, is they have all this real emotional baggage, but they are Republicans and they own guns, and they like to shoot things, and they probably don’t talk about that stuff. That seemed like a really rich, comedic relationship.
And like Cloudy, 21 Jump Street is very pro-nerd.
Miller: [Laughs] I don’t know because we were super popular in high school and we’re definitely not nerds at all! We’re just self-loathing jocks, probably. The funny that happens to me is I feel like that nerds, like guys that have been underdogs for so long that it doesn’t seem interesting to me. It seems like what is happening now is all of the black-rimmed glasses and nerdy sweaters that are all the rage, that like the jocks are the one who are now left out in the cold. And now I feel really sympathetic towards them. I feel like those guys that I want to be protagonists of movies are more like Channing, because I feel like that guy now has something to prove; that kind of person has something to prove or might feel left out from the culture a little bit. I really sympathize with those guys.