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Was the Lawnmower Man sequel really more boring than watching grass grow? (Yes, there was a sequel.)
The Frankenstein-esque tale of a kind-hearted simpleton inadvertently transformed into a megalomaniacal genius through the means of virtual reality, glorified B-movie The Lawnmower Man became a modest hit upon its 1992 release. Still, few were clamoring for a sequel. Least of all Stephen King, who was so horrified at how many liberties the original took with his same-named short story that he took studio New Line Cinema to court.
Yet four years later, the film world's second most malevolent gardener returned for another helping of technobabble, mystifying plans for global domination, and CGI that, admittedly, would date quicker than a gallon of milk. And despite the fact he appeared to have amalgamated with a worldwide telecommunications network last time 'round, accidental villain Jobe was once again at the heart of all the chaos in 1996's Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace, now celebrating its 25-year anniversary.
Yes, Jobe's physical incarnation miraculously managed to survive the blast that tore Virtual Space Industries apart in the predecessor's explosive finale. And after undergoing two leg amputations and some facial reconstruction surgery — cleverly explaining how Jeff Fahey now looks like Matt Frewer — at the expense of a shady VR company with nefarious intentions of their own, the man is free to engage in some more mind-based cyberterrorism from the comfort of his gyroscopic chair.
Just don't expect to comprehend exactly how or why the fresher-faced (but much balder) Jobe intends to double-cross his power-hungry boss Walker (Kevin Conway) and take control of the computer-dependent planet himself. There's something about a hidden program named Egypt and an elusive pyramid-shaped chip while absurd terms such as "nano-routine" and "trans-matrix" are thrown about without any explanation.
Bizarrely, it's a bunch of street urchins that look like they've stepped off the set of Oliver who are tasked with thwarting Jobe's dastardly plans. Led by one of the few allies he had as a human, Peter Parkette (Austin O'Brien, the only returning cast member), the group may all live in a decrepit subway car, but with more technology at their disposal than an Apple store, they somehow remain society's only hope.
It's almost impressive that a film that takes itself so seriously also ends up resembling a corny straight-to-VHS kids caper. The Lawnmower Man featured an abusive priest being set on fire, some good old-fashioned VR cybersex, and an alcoholic being chopped to bits by, well, a lawnmower. In Beyond Cyberspace (or Jobe's War as it's also known) a cute dog comes to the rescue by inserting a minidisc with his paw. Thus begins the admittedly odd charm.
This unlikely pivot into PG-13 territory is just one of many baffling creative decisions made by Farhad Mann, a director whose previous effort (erotic thriller Return to Two Moon Junction) was another sequel that nobody asked for. Although the cyberpunk setting inhabited by the munchkins is a passable attempt to replicate Blade Runner, it's never explained how civilization has changed beyond all recognition in just six years.
Nevertheless, Mann would have been better planting more of the action there, as, despite the advances in technology, the virtual reality action looks cheaper than the original's. In fact, you can practically see the wires dangling every time Peter and co. fly over the blatantly green-screened forests.
Then there's the overly-sentimental score, which makes each scene involving the kids and their more grown-up scientist ally Trace (Sleeping with the Enemy's Patrick Bergin sporting some dodgy dreadlocks) resemble an episode of Full House. Curiously, the music in the final credits simply cuts out halfway through, as if composer Robert Folk couldn't bear to be associated with such nonsense a minute longer. And the gang's strategy of stealing the computer chip that mankind's fate rests on? Well, it essentially relies on tricking a Fort Knox security system with an ice cube!
Take all this into account and it's little wonder, then, that Lawnmower Man 2 bombed with critics (USA Today wrote, "Mowing the lawn might be more involving than watching this subpar sci-fi sequel") and audiences (it grossed just $2.4 million on a budget of $15 million) alike. Even the first film's director, Brett Leonard, couldn't resist sticking the knife in during an appearance on The Production Meeting podcast last year ("it destroyed the franchise").
However, Beyond Cyberspace isn't without merit. Frewer leans into the ridiculousness of it all with an entertainingly rubber-faced performance that channels both his most famous character, '80s cyborg Max Headroom, and the era's biggest box office draw, Jim Carrey. And while Bergin could have been forgiven for sleepwalking his way through such a bland hero role, he delivers an admirably committed performance, too.
There's even a couple of decent set-pieces. Mann manages to ratchet up some tension as Jobe hacks into the subway system, sending a train hurtling directly toward the paupers' strangely high-tech shack before Trace saves the day with a bit of strategic button mashing. A later attempt to seek vengeance on the U.S. senator refusing to fund Walker's evildoings is far more successful, resulting in a plane crash that could deter younger viewers from ever setting foot on an aircraft ever again.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Lawnmower Man 2, though, is the seemingly unintentional Nostradamus moment when Walker asks a fellow conference-goer to "don your eyephones." Little about Lawnmower Man 2 stands up to the modern day, but it did randomly predict the name of Apple's finest 11 years before Steve Jobs changed the world.
Even so, you can understand Leonard's frustration at being passed over for the gig in favor of a novice film director who apparently ended up spending millions more than initially offered. Beyond Cyberspace's tone is all over the place, lurching from military violence and occasional F-words to cuddly canines and "let's hug it out" redemption arcs. And although virtual reality movies are always going to be of their time, the likes of Hackers, Strange Days, and Virtuosity — all of which were released just months before — haven't aged anywhere near as roughly. There's a good chance, depending on how entertained you find yourself by the madness, that the plans for a revival should be left buried.