Max Headroom Comes Home
In 1975, the Stephen King short story “Lawnmower Man” was published. An exercise in surrealism, it concerned an enormously fat groundsman for hire, who would trim lawns by stripping naked, getting down on all fours, and devouring the grass, along with anything else in his path.
In 1992, following the questionable logic that any work bearing King’s name will make money, a motion picture adaptation of the story was released. Only loosely based on King’s story, it followed the fate of a mentally retarded man named Jobe (Jeff Fahey) who supports himself by mowing lawns. He has his intelligence improved drastically by a new process engineered by scientist Pierce Brosnan involving drugs and virtual reality therapy. He becomes a genius, but loses his kindly disposition and goes mad. What’s more, he learns to fully control the virtual reality environment, and uses it to cause all kinds of havoc in a quest for power. Critics drubbed the movie soundly, but praised the impressive computer f/x, and it went on to do reasonably well in theaters and on video. King sued to have his name removed from the title – not only objecting to how far the script had strayed from his story, but for how closely it followed that of Daniel Keyes’ play Flowers for Algernon.
In 1995, we were assaulted by a wave of Hollywood cyberthrillers featuring characters desperately click-clacking away at keyboards (what, no mouse?) while flashy three dimensional interfaces whiz around the screen. Critics panned all of them, citing a tendency towards unrealistic portrayals of humans as well as computers. None of these films became hits at the box office. It’s yet to be seen whether The Net, Johnny Mnemonic, Vituality, Hackers and the like will find an appreciative audience on home video (I predict mixed results – some possess a certain amount of camp appeal that may play better at home).
In 1996, a sequel to Lawnmower Man has been released. One wonders why this one didn’t go straight to video – no doubt it has something to do with the extensive nature and superior quality of its digital f/x, which show up better on a big screen. I’m happy to report that the story is better in the sequel, too, though not by a whole lot.
First we’re shown how Jobe has survived the conflagration that ended the original film, but only barely. He loses both legs, and has to have his face reconstructed, which handily explains why he looks like Matt Frewer in the sequel. Egghead scientists attempt to rehabilitate him through the virtual reality techniques developed in the previous film, and Jobe renews his second life in cyberspace.
In “the future”, a scheming scietist uses Jobe to help him build a virtual reality city that he intends to be a paradise available to the wealthy elite. Of course, Jobe is plotting to take over both the cyber-world and the real world. He tricks some cyber-urchins into helping him find the only one that can help him get around a programming problem, long-lost cyber-scientist Benjamin Trace (Patrick Bergin), who has been living like a hermit out in the desert. The cyber-kids and the good cyber-scientists team up to stop Jobe by stealing the big important cyber-chip, and – well, the rest is fairly muddled and predictable.
Since it’s set in the near future, the presentation of computer technology is actually quite believable – neither ridiculously far advanced nor ridiculously far behind what’s available now. Simple environments that can be accessed by more than one person exist today, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that cybercities, not to mention cyberforests and cyberseas, will be open for business in a few years. Users jack in with lighter, more adaptable versions of the helmets in use now, so clickety-clack is kept to a minimum.
Less believable is the assumption that kids will still be running around in the same styles of clothing, shouting the same “Cool!”s and “Awesome!”s as today’s kids – are we to believe that they’re taking to retro-’80s fashions, just as the adults in the film are shown sporting ’50s style suits and hats? I might accept that, but nothing else they do makes any sense either.
In fact, outside of the impressive virtual reality scenes nothing makes much sense at all. It all has a cheap, hackneyed look, with props and vehicles from other movies proudly parading before the camera. Director Farhad Mann displays little care or thought as to where he places the camera, making scenes a bit difficult to follow. The sequel’s plot is a lot more fun than the original’s, but Mann’s direction makes it difficult to get involved in the proceedings on anything other than a superficial level.
But how strange it is to see Matt Frewer in these surroundings. For those that don’t know, Frewer rose to fame in the Mid-’80s as Max Headroom, the original cyber-head-in-a-box. Max was created by BBC-TV producer Peter Wagg, who transmitted Frewer’s highly made-up and distorted image into video screens to star in a satirical science fiction TV movie in 1984. Max went on to star in his own TV talk show, which was also shown on cable in the USA, and was turned into a short-lived ABC series based on the original movie. The Headroom character, who existed solely within televisions and computers, was a huge hit on talk shows and captured the public’s imagination for a time, mainly due to Frewer’s skill as a comedian and the bizarre nature of the presentation. But Max soon burned out when the public tired of seeing him hawking Coca Cola in heavily rotated commercials. Frewer himself scored in his own brilliantly funny sitcom, Doctor Doctor, in which he played an eccentric M.D., and in the less-inspired Shaky Ground a few years later. But it’s nice to see him trodding the cyber-boards again, even if he isn’t allowed to play it to the Max again.