June 26, 2013

Castle Rock Cash-In presents... Lawnmower Man 2: Jobe's War

This is a tie-in to Angelle Tusa's Castle Rock Companion series, which explores the cinematic adaptations of the works of Stephen King. Her review of Lawnmower Man (with a special guest) can be found here.

Benjamin Trace (Patrick Bergen), one of the founders of virtual reality technology, has invented the Chyron Chip, which allows for the universal connectivity of all digital information networks. But when he holds back on finishing it over fears of how technology is interacting with society, he's taken to court by his financier, Jonathan Walker (Kevin Conway), who manages to win control of the patent. The chip, though, is security locked and useless, and with Trace withdrawing from society at large, Walker pulls Jobe (now Matt Frewer) out of the wreckage of the last film and tasks him with rebuilding the chip.

So yeah, remember how Jobe found that last outlet in the end, and seemed to escape into the grid? Nope, he just managed to get back to his old body, just as the facility it was in exploded, leaving him both mentally and physically scarred and lacking both legs. So Walker, with the help of Dr. Cori Platt (Ely Pouget), has been using virtual reality to rehabilitate Jobe's mind, while he slowly regains his ability to interact with computer systems on a level beyond anyone else.

Six years pass, and Jobe is just a few keys away from cracking the chip. He reaches out to Pete (still Austin O'Brien), his young friend from the first film, who's now part of a pack of orphans living off the increasingly run-down streets of a near future dystopia, stealing what minutes they can from paycards used to gain internet access, so they can escape to the lure of virtual thrills. With the lie that he's dying, Jobe gets Pete to track down Benjamin Trace and his mystical dreadlocks, and the programmer is drawn back into the city by the Chyron Chip which was stolen from him.

It seems Walker is organizing a huge public event to celebrate the opening of his new virtual society, where everyone is invited thanks to the all-access abilities of the Chyron Chip. But his real plot is to access everyone's personal data, particularly those that he can manipulate for political and financial gain. But he doesn't realize it goes deeper, as Jobe is steadily attacking the infrastructure of civilization world-wide, pushing as many people as he can into the virtual lure of escape, so he can trap them all in a reality of his own design where he'll lord over them as their new god.

I like this movie. No, seriously, I do. I know it's an easy movie for people to dump on, and many have without even watching it just because it looks silly, but I think it holds up as one of the better cyberpunk films about social decay and virtual reality to come out of the 90s, to the point where we have an antagonist actively increasingly the social decay so as to drive people into the comfort of a false reality. The scenes of Jobe derailing trains, downing planes, messing with banks and city utility systems carry all the hallmarks of what people feared hackers would be capable of, but it goes even further to him using them as tools in a broader scheme to achieve his own form of immortality in the eyes of an entire society who once looked down on him as little more than a simpleton who cut grass.

To switch tracks, there's three major failing in this film, and I'm raking Peter as the third. I like the setup of the kid from the first film now being a homeless teenage thief, the lowest rung on this world's social ladder, but still living a happy life with close friends, a home they share, and even a girl his loves. Peter should be the main protagonist, the opposite to Jobe. One is happy, despite being pushed low by a system against him. The other is lonely, despite having risen above everyone through a system he's gamed. Also, there's the personal tie of them having once been close friends until Jobe lost his humanity. Peter does start out as our main hero, but once Trace comes back on the scene, he pushes the boy out of the spotlight, and thus the final confrontation with Jobe lacks weight because we just hear about how Jobe let Peter down instead of seeing it through them interacting face-to-face.

That said, I like Trace. Patrick Bergen is... weird, but that actually adds to the character as he's become this self-made trippy new age shaman who has to gradually step back into the technological society he fled after having helped to establish. While the final fight shouldn't have been his, I still like the character, and appreciate that he and Peter became more allies through the situation than forging the typical father/son bond one sees from Hollywood. And I think the typical romance between he and Dr. Platt works quite well, with the actors bringing a lot of chemistry to their sketchy history.

Rounding out the cast is Kevin Conroy as Jonathan Walker, who's almost a little too sneering a villain for my tastes, but I like how they just barely avoid playing it up as camp, and how he's so blinded by his own over-arching evil mastermind plot that he overlooks Jobe's over-arching evil mastermind plot. And Camille Cooper has the perfect icy look and persona as his even more memorable assistant. As a side note, the screenplay had a cut moment which revealed she's an android, but I think her odd look and delivery are much more interesting coming from a real person, as she is in the final cut.

Sidetracking on the scripts for a second, the earliest take on a sequel came through a pair of outlines submitted by Grant Morrison, which told a more Matrix style story of people coming to realize they're trapped in a virtual world and trying to fight their way back to reality. These were rejected by New Line, and while I wasn't able to find copies anywhere, I hear he recycled elements into his comics Marvel Boy and The Invisibles and... hang on a second. Morrison once argued that The Invisibles was plagiarized by The Matrix, a film produced by New Line. New Line is who he initially pitched the story outline that would partially become The Invisibles. Hmmm...

Anyways, I'm not personally a fan of Morrison's comics - no, not even All-Star Superman - so I'm perfectly happy with what we get from writer/directed Farhad Mann. He does a great job anchoring a rich world and ever unfolding plot on memorable, quirky characters, and mostly overcomes his budgetary limitations. He's also a very competent director, with steady skill shooting and editing each sequence. He's not an overlooked master of the craft, but he's definitely a solid filmmaker and this has me genuinely curious to check out more of his work. And with the presence of Matt Frewer as Jobe, I've been avoiding making an easy Max Headroom reference, but it turns out Farhad Mann is the dude who directed the original Max Headroom pilot, so it's actually fitting to mention.

I said earlier that there were three major failings of the film, and Matt Frewer is at the top of that list. I like Frewer, and he does have a few decent moments where he turns chilling, but he's a very specific type of actor who only works in very specific roles. In the first film, Jobe had ascended into being a twisted form of Buddah, a being capable of seeing the world beyond the level of most mortals. Here, Frewer camps him up as Jim Carey's Riddler from Batman Forever. And it's not just his spastic goofball delivery that's at fault, because Mann's script plays up that approach with cheesy theatrics and one-liners. Even if we were stuck with Frewer in the role, could they have at least reined him into the more simmering anarchist he is in the real world segments? He's still a wildly different character than in the first film, but at least it would have been more watchable.

And the second of the three major failings is the virtual world. Not that the CGI itself is bad - the polygon renderings are still visibly polygons, but are far less crude than the first time around, creating sprawling landscaps that wouldn't feel out of place even in modern PC gaming. The problem is that, instead of using CG avatars for the people jacking into the virtual world, they just stick the actors in front of blue screens. It works in a few bits, but is painfully obvious in others, especially during the flying sequences where they're just dangling from wires and pretending to "whoosh".

So it's a film that has flaws, I'll admit. And it had a low budget, which sometimes shows. That I'll also admit. And one of the main characters is both badly scripted and wildly miscast. But I still like the movie. I like the world of the movie, and the story it tells, and the way it looks and moves and feels, and the characters we join on their adventure.

Hello. My name is Noel. And I'm a fan of Lawnmower Man 2.

Castle Rock series index.


Angie Tusa said...

My copy of Lawnmower Man was a combo DVD with the second film, so I had a chance to check this one out. I have to admit, I ended up turning it off before it was done. I think we established well in our first review that I have a hard time swallowing the cyberpunk version of reality, and when you add Matt Frewer's over the top performance into the mix, it became too much for me.

Whenever I get to his appearances in official Stephen King adaptations, I will talk about PMFP - Proper Matt Frewer Placement, and how sometimes he works and sometimes he just doesn't.

However while I was watching it, I thought to myself "this is a Noel movie" and so it was no surprise to me that you like it despite it's flaws. I can see gleams of potential scattered throughout, but the flaws are just too numerous for my own tastes.

Bryant Burnette said...

The movie has some interesting ideas in it, but the execution is so scattershot that it keeps it from being anything other than schlock. In my opinion, of course.

I will admit to enjoying how incredibly out of place the score is. It's a big, John Williams-style orchestral score -- or synthesized orchestra, maybe; I'm not sure which -- that sounds as if the composer thought he was scoring the biggest, grandest superhero movie ever made. It is awful; just stunningly awful. Not because the music is bad -- it isn't, it's just sort of mediocre and inappropriate -- but because it is trying SO incredibly hard to impress.

As for Matt Frewer...

Well, for the most part, I just hate that guy. And he's pretty bad here. Too bad they couldn't at least have gotten Fahey back. I mean, seriously, what could he possibly have had better to do?

Deep Ghoul said...

Another thing I would like to mention is that Dr. Benjamin Trace seems to be a obvious stand-in for Dr. Lawrence Angelo (played by Pierce Brosnan, before he went off to play James Bond), who was last seen at the end of Lawnmower Man 1 saying that he was going back underground, never to be seen again after his V.R. experiments turned Jobe into a monster.

NoelCT said...

Definitely is, yeah. Which still surprises me, that they went so far as to create a new character who's essentially the same instead of merely recasting. Angelo is even more in line with Trace from the first film than this Job is with his namesake.

Deep Ghoul said...

I know. If New Line Cinema decided to recast Jobe as someone completely different, then what exactly stopped them from doing the same thing for Dr. Angelo?