Dr. Lawrence Angelo works for Virtual Space Industries, running experiments in increasing the intelligence of chimpanzees using drugs and virtual reality. One of the chimps escapes using the warfare tactics he was being trained for. Dr. Angelo is generally a pacifist, who would rather explore the intelligence-enhancing potential of his research without applying it for military purposes. His wife Caroline is unhappy with the way he is ignoring her to focus on this project.
Jobe Smith, a local greenskeeper with an intellectual disability, lives in the garden shed owned by the local priest, Father Francis McKeen. McKeen's brother, Terry, is a local landscape gardener and employs Jobe to help him with odd jobs. Father McKeen punishes the challenged Jobe with a belt whenever he fails to complete his chores.
Dr. Angelo realizes he needs a human subject to work with, and he spots Jobe mowing his lawn. Peter Parkette, Dr. Angelo's young neighbor, is friends with Jobe. Dr. Angelo invites both of them over to play some virtual reality games. Learning more about Jobe, Angelo persuades him to participate in his experiments, letting him know it will make him smarter. Jobe agrees and begins the program. Dr. Angelo makes it a point to redesign all the intelligence-boosting treatments without the "aggression factors" used in the chimpanzee experiments.
Jobe soon becomes smarter, for example, learning Latin in only two hours. Meanwhile, Jobe also begins a sexual relationship with a young rich widow, Marnie. However, Jobe begins to display telepathic abilities and has hallucinations. He continues training at the lab, until an accident makes Dr. Angelo shut the program down. The project director, Sebastian Timms, employed by a mysterious agency known as The Shop, keeps tabs on the progress of the experiment, and discreetly swaps Dr. Angelo's new medications with the old Project 5 supply (reintroducing the "aggression factors" into the treatment).
Jobe develops telekinetic and pyrokinetic powers and takes Marnie to the lab to make love to her while in virtual reality. Something goes wrong in the simulation when Jobe's virtual avatar becomes violent, attacking her mind directly; Marnie is driven insane, laughing endlessly at nothing.
Jobe's powers continue to grow, but the treatments are also affecting his mental stability, and he decides to exact revenge on those who abused him when he was "dumb": Father McKeen is engulfed in flames, a bully named Jake is put into a catatonic state by a mental "lawnmower man" continually mowing his brain, and a lawnmower invention of Jobe's runs down Harold, Peter's abusive father. Jobe uses his telepathic abilities to make the investigating police attribute it all to "bizarre accidents" in front of Dr. Angelo.
Jobe believes his final stage of evolution is to become "pure energy" in the VSI computer mainframe, and from there reach into all the systems of the world. He promises his "birth" will be signaled by every telephone on the planet ringing simultaneously. The Shop sends a team to capture Jobe, but they are ineffective against his abilities and he scatters their molecules. Jobe uses the lab equipment to enter the mainframe computer, abandoning his body to become a wholly virtual being, leaving his body behind like a husk.
Dr. Angelo remotely infects the VSI computer, encrypting all of the links to the outside world, trapping Jobe in the mainframe. As Jobe searches for an unencrypted network connection, Dr. Angelo primes bombs to destroy the building. Feeling responsible for what has happened to Jobe, Angelo then joins him in virtual reality to try to reason with him. Jobe overpowers and crucifies him, then continues to search for a network connection. Peter runs into the building; Jobe still cares for him and allows Dr. Angelo to go free in order to rescue Peter. Jobe forces a computer-connected security door to open, allowing Peter and Dr. Angelo to escape. Jobe escapes through a back door before the building is destroyed in multiple explosions.
Back at home with Peter, Dr. Angelo and Peter's mother Carla (who has become a romantic interest) are about to leave when their telephone rings, followed by the noise of a second, and then hundreds of telephones ring, all around the globe.Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Lawrence Angelo
Jeff Fahey as Jobe Smith
Jenny Wright as Marnie Burke
Geoffrey Lewis as Terry McKeen
Jeremy Slate as Father Francis McKeen
Dean Norris as The Director
Austin O'Brien as Peter Parkette
Troy Evans as Lt. Goodwin
Rosalee Mayeux as Carla Parkette
Mark Bringelson as Sebastian Timms
Ray Lykins as Harold Parkette
Colleen Coffey as Caroline Angelo
The plot of Stephen King's 1975 short story "The Lawnmower Man" concerns Harold Parkette, who hires "Pastoral Greenery and Outdoor Services Inc." to cut his lawn. The serviceman who arrives to do the job has a lawnmower that mows the lawn by itself while he crawls, naked, behind the mower, eating the grass. The serviceman himself is actually a satyr who worships the Greek god Pan. When Parkette tries to call the police, the mower and its owner ritually kill him as a sacrifice to Pan.
The film's original script, written by director Brett Leonard and producer Gimel Everett, was titled Cyber God and had nothing to do with King's short story. New Line Cinema held the film rights to King's story, and decided to combine Cyber God with some minor elements of King's "The Lawnmower Man". The resulting film, originally titled Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man, differed so much from the source material that King sued the filmmakers to remove his name from the title.
After two court rulings in King's favor, New Line still did not comply and initially released the home video version as Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man. On King's official website, the film is not listed among the films based on his work. The Lawnmower Man was released in Japan under the title Virtual Wars; Fuji Creative's Masao Takiyama is also credited as a co-producer.
References to the short story include the scene where Jobe kills Peter's father with the lawnmower "Big Red", the aftermath in which the police state that they found some of his remains in the birdbath, and the name of Terry McKeen's company, Pastoral Greenery.
The film has several elements in common with the 1959 Daniel Keyes novel Flowers for Algernon, which also deals with a mentally disabled man whose intelligence is technologically boosted to genius levels.
The computer-generated imagery (CGI) was created for the film by Angel Studios, which later became Rockstar San Diego and Xaos Inc. The supervising sound editor was Frank Serafine, who was hired as a result of his sound creation work in the 1982 film Tron.
Some of the computer-generated scenes were used in Beyond the Mind's Eye, a video in the Mind's Eye series.
The film garnered mostly mixed reviews from critics. It currently holds a 38% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 34 reviews with the consensus: "The Lawnmower Man suffers from a predictable, melodramatic script, and its once-groundbreaking visual effects look dated today".
The movie debuted at #2 at the box office with $7.7 million in its opening weekend behind Wayne's World. It went on to gross $32.1 million domestically, making it a moderate financial success against its $10 million budget.
A sequel Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace was released in 1996. It was retitled Lawnmower Man 2: Jobe's War for its video release. The film received negative reviews from critics and fans of the first movie.
This film had spawned two video games, The Lawnmower Man in 1993 and Cyberwar in 1994.
Comic book writer Grant Morrison said in an interview that he was contacted by the owners of the Lawnmower Man franchise in 1995 and asked to write treatments for Lawnmower Man 2. Morrison claims he was asked to "bend the Lawnmower Man series in an X-Men superhero-type direction." Neither of Morrison's script treatments were used and Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace was produced without his involvement.
Some of the CG footage of The Lawnmower Man were featured in Beyond the Mind's Eye.
Jaunt VR, a virtual reality studio, is adapting the feature into a virtual reality experience with the original rights holders.
The theatrical version of the film was initially released on VHS and Laserdisc on August 26, 1992. Alongside the 103 minute version, New Line Home Video also released an unrated director's cut running 141 minutes on VHS and Laserdisc. It was the success of the unrated version that alerted King to New Line's continued defiance of the order that his name be stricken from the film's credits and all marketing as the back covers stated "Based on a Story by Stephen King". It would take a third court order to force the studio's compliance. As before, the court upheld the two prior judgments, but it took the extra step of imposing a penalty of $10,000 directly payable to King for every day New Line remained in contempt by defying the order. Additionally, the studio would have to forfeit all profits earned on the film during that same period.
The DVD, released in December 1997, contains only the theatrical cut, with scenes from the unrated edition, being presented on the DVD as deleted scenes.
The director's cut was released on DVD with the inclusion of the sequel Lawnmower Man 2 on October 25, 2010 in the United Kingdom, however this release suffered from poor NTSC quality transfer with the aspect ratio of 4:3 pan and scan, the extended scenes spliced-in but in the aspect ratio of 16:9.
Prior to the US Shout! Factory release, Blu-ray versions of the film were only available in Italy through Minerva Pictures and in Germany under the Alive brand. The Italian release contains edited Italian credits at the beginning, which are taken from the DVD version as you can clearly see the difference in quality with the rest of the movie (interlaced framing notably).
Shout! Factory released The Lawnmower Man on Blu-ray for the first time in the United States in June 2017. The two-disc set includes new 4k digital restorations of the theatrical and director's cuts, audio commentary with director Brett Leonard and producer Gimel Everett, an all-new retrospective documentary featuring Leonard and star Jeff Fahey and all of the bonus features from the original New Line DVD.