Created in 1992 during the height of the first great public VR hype, Lawnmower Man is a little on the hammy side, but is that rarest of rare things: A sci-fi film that has done its homework. Every VR sequence, all the VR hardware is directly based on actual capabilities of the time, and nothing is done that could not be done from a VR and interfacing standpoint.
The film opens out on a wall of text:
How wrong they were. A decade after the turn of the millennium, we are still little closer to that dream, and even the mind control aspect is still in its infancy.
After the message fades, we have a close up of the logo of "Virtual Sphere Industries", the company producing much of the VR to be used in this production. Typically, we open out on a military laboratory run by them, where chimpanzees have their brains wired up to a VR system, in order to control an avatar in it like they would their own body. If that seems far fetched, just remember that only nine years later in our world, the first chimpanzees were controlling robot arms solely with their minds.
This being a military project however, the monkeys are taught something else. Their intelligence and aggression are directly stimulated, making them smarter, more ruthless killing machines. These killing machines are what are put into the simulations, and taught how to penetrate enemy defences and kill any and all opposition.
An argument between a scientist and the supervisor sets up the intro. There's a chimp in a cage next door wearing a VR 'battle helmet' consisting of EEG electrodes, visual and audio feedback. The scientist is arguing that his new formula has increased the chimp's intelligence 10-fold. Screw the politicians, he is the best chimp he's ever had. What the government is asking for may destroy his mind.
His supervisor is sympathetic, but in order for their funding to be maintained, every chimp must prove they are a warrior, trained to kill humans via VR. The military don't care how smart they are, just that they are able to follow orders and complete their objectives.
Sadly, it seems that the chimp was indeed too intelligent. The conversation was probably not one they should have had in front of the chimp, as that night when all the researchers were out of the lab, he used a piece of wire to pick the lock on his cage, and escaped. As he made his way through the corridors of the base, it became clear that the helmet he wore was actually part of his head. Clearly a neuroprosthetic was involved, similar to ones that have been developed since - the prosthetic is deep inside the brain and communicates with the outside world via a wire passed through a hole in the skull. In fact it is only this year that we have developed the very first wireless versions.
With the prosthetic in place and the helmet connecting to it, it made perfect sense that the chimp was able to call up the combat functions of the helmet to use to make its escape. Night vision, human body detection and targeting programs played out across the visor. He passed the main VR rigs, and remembered being put on them. In order to recreate full six degrees of freedom, they used gyroscope systems, common to public VR installations throughout the 90s. You cannot walk in them, but you can turn to any angle.
Using those same combat functions, the chimp was able to commandeer a gun from a distracted guard. Then , when the guard turned in anger, combat reflexes kicked in. The visual display overlay guided the best place to fire from, and the gun - in the chimp's right hand, naturally - ended him. This alerted other guards, and after a brief chase, the chimp was shot in the back of the head by the one guard he had not managed to avoid - and the one place the helmet did not warn him of any threats.
Dr. Lawrence 'Larry' Angelo woke up in bed with a start, after a strange nightmare. He was at home with his wife, and identified immediately as the scientist talking with his supervisor right at the start. He's worried about the lab, and feels something has happened. Before he can check, they call him.
Larry's had enough. The chimp cannot be replaced just like that. Five years of work went into him, and he was the last stop-over before a human subject. With his chimp dead, he'll have to start all over again with another chimp before they will allow him to proceed. He starts talking about working in the public sector, where the stringency is lower. He's almost ready to work on a human and knows they will not let him. On top of that, he is tired of making weapons, and wants his work to be used for more than that.
His boss suggests that he take a few months off, cool down, put things into perspective. The company will still be there when he gets back. Larry agrees, a bit too readily, and a vacation with full pay begins.
Elsewhere, landscape gardener Terry is checking in on his simple-minded ward, Jobe. Jobe is not all there in the head, but he's sweet and earnest, plus a real whizz with machines, and just loves lawnmowers. As a result, Terry plies him out to mow the lawns of customers.
Unfortunately, Terry is one of the few people to see Jobe in a kindly light. Most of the other locals, including the gas station attendant, pick on Jobe for his simple mind and simple ways.
Meanwhile, at home, Larry is relaxing in a flogiston chair, a full body, reclining VR interface. It actually exists, and in fact the film used both prototypes in the filming. He is running a relaxing program called 'flying, falling, floating' in which his avatar self floats with bubbles falls through them and eventually lands in the water, floating through it. A long-haul program designed to relax the senses as much as possible.
The system in this case was tied in with a pair of datagloves, so that the user - Larry - could see his hands, and the system obey his fingers' commands - gesture recognition and multi-touch interfaces. Again, this is something that is only just beginning to work reliably outside the lab, now. It is only in the last few years that this has been perfected, and it works pretty much exactly as the film described, back in 1992.
His wife storms in and unplugs him mid-session, ruining the effect. He had meant to take her to the city that week, but as usual, the VR rig took preference. A very apt reminder of what VR is so very good at - sucking a person in until all outside cares are forgotten. In part because it is so much better, so much more seductive than the outside world.
Caroline and he fight, as she wants more than an artificial reality, and he keeps neglecting her over his work. In the end, she gives up and leaves, leaving him to it. All alone in the house, his mind turns back to his work. That's when he notices Jobe, the gardener, mowing the lawn. He is with the neighbour's kid, out front, and the child's dad calls him away as Larry approaches, with the kind words "You want to catch Stupid? Come here."
This horrible remark serves of course to clue Larry in as to Jobe's mental state, and sets him thinking, thinking about human test subjects. Without Caroline in the house, there is no-one to talk him out of it, of course. He does not speak with Jobe that day, but muses on it.
Later on, we meet Terry's brother, the priest at the local church, who uses Jobe for all the chores he doesn't want to do himself - and whips him with a hard belt for motivation.
Days later, Larry, trying not to sink too far into depression, realises that he just has to continue work on his own, somehow. He must find a way to use human subjects, without the office's knowledge - or that of the Shop, their military backers. It is at that moment he looks up from his basement office, and sees Jobe walk past, mowing the lawn. That is when he decides. He goes out to speak to Jobe, and lures him inside with the promise of playing a game - or in other words, activating his research tests, immediately.
He starts out showing Jobe how to use a touchpad, and a computer in order to do an IQ test, to see where Jobe starts out from, exactly. This continues for a while, with Larry's gentle encouragement, tests disguised as games. It continues in fact for several days. Eventually the neighbourhood kid is roped in and the Flogiston chairs come back into play.
Jobe loses, smacking inverted into metal teeth just as they close, and basically going splat. This is when Larry broaches that he has other games, different games, even one that could make him smarter - you would like to be smart, wouldn't you? Not get picked on any more?
Unethical, yes, but what comes next is even more so. Larry can make Jobe smarter, but Jobe must never tell anyone. Just their little secret.
Jobe agrees. He can keep a secret.
And so it Begins
It begins by giving Jobe a complete physical in his basement, and then, when satisfied, the doctor produces an injection gun - of the same type used today, to fire drugs through the skin when a needle is not to be used. They hurt much more than any needle, but they are effective. This one is laced with the doctor's intelligence amplification formula, the same one he used on the chimps - minus its aggression enhancer counterpart.
By the end of the week, changes have started to manifest in Jobe's brain structure, and his learning is accelerating, picking up little things around him. His libido, never really functional, begins to engage, and he notices women for the first time.
Within a month, Larry is flabbergasted. Synaptic activity is up 400%, Jobe is doing far better on the IQ scores than he ever thought possible, and the brain, now awakened, is soaking up new information like a sponge, continually building new circuits.
Second try at the two player flying simulation, and Jobe is flying rings round Peter - the kid from next door. He is flying them literally ,and aces what panicked him before. Larry tells him, "Congratulations, you just graduated to the next level, Jobe." Jobe believes he meant in the game, but of course he meant in brain development.
Terry's brother the priest with the whip barges in to Jobe's home - well two sheds put together - and berates him for standing around half naked, and calls it indecent. For the first time ever, Jobe looks him in the eye and speaks back to him, berating him for entering Jobe's house without knocking. The good father is stunned by this, not knowing what to do. He grabs the belt from the wall, swings his arm back and.. Jobe's hand grabs his before he can swing it forward, looking at the priest with a presence of mind unlike anything of the old Jobe. Jobe forces the Father's hand down, and says "You know, you shouldn't hit people." He pulls the belt out of the father's grip and stands there holding it. The priest makes his escape, as it sinks in on Jobe, what has just happened.
We don't know of course if VR and a drug regime could ever cause such a drastic improvement in a mind. This point is open for debate as things stand, as whilst we know it causes some improvement, we do not know enough to judge the plausibility of this part of the film, compared to the accuracy we have seen so far.
Elsewhere, at the petrol station, one Miss Burke is having her fluids changed, and she notices a cute ass in her rear view mirror, and gets out to take a closer look. The well groomed stud she sees bears no resemblance to the Jobe she knows. After a flirting session, she drives off, and Jake, the attendant berates Jobe. Jobe stands up for himself and Jake sucker punches him. The look Jobe gives as he gerts up makes Jake step back, its not the look of the simple minded, but that of someone who is about to kick Jake's ass.
Shortly after, Larry takes Jobe to the lab, some distance out of town. He gives Jobe the standard technobabble speech whilst showing him around, only in this film, its not technobabble. Everything Larry speaks of, is again based on real research, much of it done after the film's release, but all accurate.
Some time later, suited up in a cybersuit, and on one of the gyroscopes, the procedure begins again, with the far greater resources of a professional VR lab at play. His boss watches the work quietly, unnoticed, then retires to converse with the Shop representative. He has a plan of his own. A plan to create a super soldier.
Later, Jobe is mowing Miss Burke's lawn, half naked, and she invites him up? Jobe shows yet again how far from being the person he was, he has come.
Meanwhile, Larry's boss is trying to urge him to tell the Shop what he has discovered. He knows that if Larry does that, they will give the firm unlimited funding to proceed. Shortly after, Jobe begins to develop psychic powers - telekinesis at first. Then telepathy. He begins to read Larry's mind. This is where the film, from our point of view, dives into utter speculation. Unfortunately, shortly after this, Larry's boss reinstates the aggression formula, at the Shop's urging.
Jobe nearly dies at the next session, as his brain swells to near fatal levels then diminishes back to normal, but at the new activity level. Larry stops treatments until he can figure out what went wrong. For Jobe, it is too late. His aggression begins to climb, and he thinks of all the people who have done wrong by him. The transhuman treatments are still growing his brain, but hate is beginning to take over.
He sneaks Miss Burke into the lab, thinking about the possibilities, and using his new intellect and his increased base desires, designs an all new VR. The new one, is designed to provide a degree of SimStim. In the VR, they have sex, with as much sensory stimulation as possible - their brains are linked. A step far further than the far more recent work of Kevin Warwick and other direct brain to brain stimulation transfer, in Jobe's simulation, their bodies and minds literally merge to become one, both brains in perfect sync. During this process, he revs up the stimulation for her, to untenable levels, and assaulted by too much sensory overload all at once, her mind shatters, regressing her to a near vegetative state. With their minds linked, all that is left of her flows into Jobe.
It is truly shocking, but nothing that is shown in this sequence is technically impossible to the best of our knowledge. This level of shared brain stimulation is way beyond us, but the shattering of a mind under such intense pressure is very well known. It is just not within our capability to do that with VR, yet. One day in the not too distant future we will be capable, and perhaps this lesson is best worth learning now, before we do it for real.
The next day, Jobe is standing on Miss Burke's balcony, mowing the lawn via telekinesis. He's not doing a great job, worried about her. Behind him, on the bed, Sally Burke is lying back, laughing up at the ceiling. She never stopped laughing last night, and will be laughing for the rest of her life. Her mind, is just gone. He did this, and the guilt is eating him alive, fuelling his anger.
Jobe uses his telepathic skills to try and force Larry into continuing the treatments, after a display of his telekinetic skills don't work. Sent to Washington by the firm, he is left wondering for Jobe's sanity. Jobe's insides seem twisted with unimaginable malice, and he has far surpassed his doctor in intelligence.
It comes out in the Washington meeting that the Shop authorised the use of batch 5 - the aggression enhancer - in Jobe. This is the source of the twisting, the evil that radiates from him. Meanwhile, moving without his mentor's supervision, Jobe accelerates his own treatment, injecting batch 5 by the bottle full, and manipulating his own mind in the same manner as the simulation. He needs power, and he needs it fast. The neuroses triggered by his increased intelligence and aggression pushing him further into madness by the hour.
Two agents from the Shop are dispatched to pick up Jobe, to demonstrate to the Shop director, his progress thus far. Larry is back to the drinking, wanting the project to stop, feeling like it has all gone out of control. Little does he know of how far and fast Jobe is moving now. Three Shop agents stop by to pick Larry up, but thanks to a bottle of champagne used as a baseball bat on one of them, Larry gets away, and heads back in a stolen Shop car, to warn Jobe. By this point, Jobe has gone as far as the limits of his body will allow him, and is already planning the next step. However, that will take time, and he has a few people to seek revenge on, first.
The reverend was not expecting a visitor this late at the church. He hustles to the door in his dressing gown, anxious at who it might be. He certainly was not expecting a demon. Jobe Smith has come, and it's the time of judgement. Jobe strains his mind to the limit, and discovers the power of pyrokinesis. He lights the priest on fire with his mind.
Jake is next. He's at the garage, lighting a cigarette by striking a pump, as usual. Then he looks up, to see Jobe standing there, night fog surrounding him. Next to Jobe is Big Red, Jobe's lawnmower. Both are still and silent. Jake stands there berating him, calling him a 'lawnmower man', and generally enjoying himself. Meanwhile Jobe's anger rises, and his mind flares. A pump hoses picks itself off the pump and socks Jake in the jaw, sending him sprawling. It corrals him, and when Jake tries to get away, the second one whips out, to block his escape. Both extend across one another and flatten him against the wall by his neck.
Jobe stands impassively in front of Jake, not saying a word. As Jake looks up to plead for his life, Jobe conjures up a thought and sends itinto Jake's deepest mind. A psychosis. A face with lawnmower blades for teeth that is forever chomping on Jake's brain. Jake can feel it inside, damaging his mind, eating it away, so very slowly. "The lawnmower man is in YOUR head now, Jake" are the only words Jobe says before he turns away, done with him.
Next stop, Peter's house. He has issues with Peter's dad. Big issues. The dad's at home, he's just finished beating on his wife and son, with his fists. Peter's mother is trying to patch her little boy up, who is in tears from the blows he has just received. Bad timing, dad. Jobe, outside, reads mother and son's surface thoughts, and kindly implants a sleep suggestion telepathically. Both drift off. It's better if they don't witness what comes next.
Dad, laying back in his recliner, enjoying a beer, frowns. He can hear a lawn mower, but at night that's impossible. Its louder than the TV and sounds like its in the hallway. That makes no sense. He scrunches up his face but does not get up. Now it sounds like it is right outside the lounge door. He decides it is nothing and ignores it, sipping his beer. That is when the lounge door shatters and Big Red ploughs into the room, chewing up the carpet as it goes. Horrified, Dad climbs up on the back of the chair as the mower eviscerates the chair where his feet were just seconds before. No-one is driving it, yet it moves as though possessed.
He tries to climb over to the coffee table, but the mower shifts and demolishes that, grinding it up and spitting out the pieces. Then it turns back to him. Dad climbs behind the chair and pushes it at the mower, as a shield. Then he dives over the settee whilst it is distracted. The mower follows, as dad runs out into the kitchen. Out the back door and down the steps he goes. The mower goes out the back door and up at the steps, flying through the air. As dad turns to look behind him, the blades reach his face. All goes black.
Morning. After driving all night, Larry is back home. He turns into the road containing his house to see the paramedics and police outside. He stops to enquire and gets the low down on everything that happened last night from a senior cop. He's about to accompany the cop and the family down to the station, when Jobe steps up at the Burke balcony. He looks straight at the police officers for several seconds and they look back. Suddenly they are all convinced it was just a bizarre accident, nothing to report, and go off smiling.
Jobe disappears into Larry's house and Larry follows. He finds Jobe hooked into his machines, well what used to be his machines. They've been reconfigured somehow. Jobe is out of it, so Larry looks in at what simulation Jobe was running, and sees Jobe, in the VR, well, part of him anyway. Jobe was running an attempt at mind upload, a long theorised copying of the human mind into a computer, embodied within a simulation, able to treat VR as truly a new dimension, shedding the physical body for good. The equipment in Larry's lab was nowhere near powerful enough, and so only a partial copy was made. A proof of concept if you will.
Again, mind uploading is coming back to known well theorised-known technology. It is seen by many actual transhumanists as one of the holy grails. Some models put us 80 years from being able to do it, others 40. Copying the self of a person into a compatible neural network on a computer, or maybe even moving the self there, if the computerised network and brain are linked, and feeding back to one another in a continuous loop, as the organic brain is slowly shut down. Again, pure theory, but scientific theory, without hoopla.
Jobe talks of using virtual reality as a new state of being, that it will grow liker the telegraph did to the telephone or radio to the TV. He will be the conduit for that growth. Larry quite correctly points out that Jobe is delusional that he's had a psychotic break. Jobe turns to him and looks into his mind. Unable to block, Larry lets slip in his thoughts that the Shop is coming to pick him up. Jobe smiles as he ties Larry up with telekinesis. It's time to prepare for them.
It's dark by the time the Shop agents arrive, pulling up in their van. Jobe has had many hours to prepare for them, to prepare to upload his mind, and to rig things up so that Larry can watch. His next actions bring Nick Bostrom's theories on the nature of reality to the fore.
Reality shifts for a moment, then shifts again, and a large golden head looking like Jobe but utterly incorporeal, appears in the air in front of both agents. Terrified, they open fire with automatic spray, which does no good.
Jobe literally dismantles the two agents into tiny pieces, scattering them to the winds like dust. The head of the Shop saw all this remotely, and is very, very worried. He contacts the local lab, and informs them of this new weapon, Larry has apparently created, how they want it, whatever it takes. Jobe meanwhile telepathically summons Terry and his van, for a ride to the facility.
Peter and his mother return home just as Jobe is leaving Larry's driveway, and Peter, exploring Larry's house to see if anyone is home, hears funny noises and finds Larry tied up in the basement. Larry, once untied, starts making preparations to hit the lab himself - he needs a few programs first.
Sadly Larry's car is a wreck - someone has somehow melted the engine. So, he appeals to Peter's mother to borrow her car, to help Jobe. She agrees, if she gets to drive. Elsewhere, Jobe has arrived at the facility, and the whole security force is there to greet him, armed to the teeth. Unfortunately for them, Jobe's powers are still growing, and he has brought along a few friends - mental bees and wasps. They don't exist physically, but they do exist in the mind, and that is all that matters. They swarm the guards, and leave no survivors.
Jobe moves through the facility wiping it clean of life. Nothing left to oppose him, he modifies the simulators in the lab, the same way he did Larry's and prepares to use their power to upload his consciousness, his sense of self, into the mainframe.
Larry arrives at the facility and finding it deserted - aside from his boss, permanently in a loop a second from death - helps himself to a few things. Namely an assault rifle, and a bag of explosives from the armoury. He begins planting charges on key systems, with a 15 minute countdown. The gun he uses to open 'secure' doors.
Jobe's preparations are almost complete, and burning his own body up to help fuel his neurons, he merges with the computer, in a similar way to the process with Miss Burke, only this time, he migrates into a neural network he has built for himself. His body sacrificed completely. Forming as an oversized avatar in the local VR, he roars, and decides to leave. Calling up an I/O port, he tries to access it, and gets a combination lock followed by 'access denied' when he breaks the combination. Larry slipped a CD into the security station on the way in, all the I/O ports are locked down.
Peter slips out of the car, unseen by his mother who has fallen asleep, and makes his way into the facility, as Larry plants the final charges. Not willing to leave without giving Jobe a final chance, Larry slips into a vacant VR rig, and signs onto the system. His avatar immediately appears next to Jobe in the cavernous dome of external data ports. Jobe has tried over half of them already, with no success. He is less than pleased to see Larry.
Jobe tries to shatter the good doctor, but Larry's not using full sensory immersion, and only his avatar shatters, not his mind. As Jobe turns back to the I/O ports, Larry reforms, and tries to alter what is now Jobe's code, to stop him that way. This doesn't work, as Jobe becomes more angry, and summons a virtual crucifix to bind Larry's avatar to. He might not be able to harm Larry but he can keep him out of the way.
Jobe senses that Larry is holding back, and probes Larry's mind again, through the VR interface - which was designed to alter a brain after all. He finds out about the bombs, and deploys his powers to stop them. Unfortunately as Larry points out "You can't can you? You lost all your power over the physical world when you transferred in here."
Jobe is no longer anchored to his world he is the god of a simulation one level down, so he has complete power over his own level, but no power to affect physical objects not connected to the network, in the reality one level above.
Just then, Jobe hears his name called. An internal surveillance system, connected to the network, has picked up Peter's voice. Jobe focuses his attention and confirms it. Peter's here. The one person who was always good to him, always his friend. He is not prepared to sacrifice Peter and frees Larry to get Peter out. Jobe goes back to working on the I/O ports as Larry collects Peter and hustles him out of the building. The explosives begin to blow, starting with the first ones Larry set. Critical systems begin to die, but the ones round the mainframe Larry set last. As Jobe frantically searches, he loses more and more systems. Whole blocks of ports go dark as the systems they represent, go offline in the bang of C4.
Just when all hope seems lost, he finds a back door. A port goes green, he has access. Jobe pours himself into the port, sending his critical base code first, then his higher functions. He keeps pouring, shifting his huge data to a cloud on the net. As he pulls the last of him into the port, the mainframe charges blow, winking it out. Too close to tell if he made it or not. Larry and Peter escape as the building collapses in on itself, part of the superstructure caving in.
Larry and Peter collect their thoughts the following morning. Larry is definitely attracted to Peter's mother, and the beginnings of a relationship are forming. Suddenly the telephone rings, and next door's telephone, and the one across the street. Everyone's phone. All around the world, a billion telephones ring out at once. The birth cry maybe, of a cyber-Jobe?
References & Further Reading
The monkeys wired in to VR training:
Battle Space - VBS2 Aircrewman VR Simulator
VR Interfaces Shown
glove - Wikipedia
Interfaces: Binocular Omni Orientation Monitor (BOOM)
Learning Via VR
the Curtains with your Mind
Is Reality Virtual?