Updated version of the classic sci-fi thriller.
Dr. Lawrence Angelo works for Virtual Space Industries. His part in “Project 5” involves increasing the intelligence of chimpanzees using drugs and virtual reality. One of the experiment's chimps escapes using the warfare technology that he was being trained to use. Angelo is revealed as generally a pacifist, who would much rather explore the intelligence-enhancing potential of his research without having to apply it for military purposes.
Jobe Smith, the “lawnmower man” of the title, has an unspecified learning disability; he 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, who is apparently Jobe's guardian, takes to punishing the challenged Smith with a belt when Jobe apparently fails to complete his chores. Their interaction suggests that the abuse is habitual as Jobe requires little prompting from Mckeen to remove his shirt to receive lashings on his back.
While Dr. Angelo records audio notes about needing a human subject, Jobe is mowing his lawn. It turns out that Peter, the young son of Angelo's neighbors, is friends with Jobe. Angelo invites them to play some virtual reality games and persuades Jobe to participate in his experiments, telling him that it will make him smarter. Jobe agrees and begins a program of accelerated learning, using nootropic drugs, virtual reality input, and cortex stimulation. Dr. Angelo makes it a special point to redesign all the intelligence-boosting treatments without the “aggression factors” used in the chimpanzee experiments.
Jobe soon becomes smarter, and Dr. Angelo starts taking Jobe to his lab at work to use the technology there. Jobe begins having sex with a young rich widow, Marni, during his daytime job; he learns Latin in an hour-and-a-half at the lab at night.
Jobe starts to have telepathic and hallucinatory experiences, but continues with the experiments at the lab, until an accident makes Angelo call a halt. The project director, employed by a mysterious agency known as The Shop, keeps a secret watch on the progress of the experiment, and soon swaps Angelo's new medications for the old Project 5 “aggression factors”.
Jobe acquires telekinetic and pyrokinetic powers and takes Marnie to the lab to have sex with her in virtual reality; but something goes wrong in the simulation, and Marnie is so traumatized that she is driven insane, laughing endlessly at nothing.
Jobe's powers and abilities continue to grow, although the treatments also affect his mental stability, and soon he takes 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 Jobe directs a real lawnmower to run down Peter's abusive father. Jobe makes the investigating police officers attribute it all to “bizarre accidents”.
Jobe believes his final stage of evolution is be to become “pure energy” in the VSI computer mainframe. He plans to enter the VSI computer and from there reach into all the systems of the world, and 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 Jobe's abilities. Jobe returns to VSI, where he creates millions of virtual insects to attack the guards, and drives straight in. He tortures the director of the project before using the lab equipment to enter the mainframe computer. Inside the mainframe Jobe abandons his body to become a wholly virtual being, in the process his body becomes a wizened husk as Jobe becomes pure information.
While inside the computer, the network connections are disabled due to a virus that Angelo had planted earlier, and Jobe is trapped in the diseased mainframe, looking for an escape code. Angelo primes bombs to destroy the building and joins Jobe in virtual reality to argue with him. Jobe easily overpowers Angelo and proceeds to crucify him, then continues to search for a network connection. Peter runs into the building; Jobe still cares for him and allows Angelo to go free in order to rescue Peter. Jobe finally escapes through a Maintenance Line as the building is destroyed in multiple explosions.
Back at home with Peter, Angelo and Peter's mother, who has implicitly become a romantic interest, are about to leave when their telephone rings, followed by the noise of a second, and then hundreds, all around the globe.
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