TBS’ maiden entry into original filmmaking, “Fatal Error,” is a diverting enough cautionary technophobic thriller pointedly commenting on the ossifying effects of addiction to TV and computers, even if the filmmakers don’t exploit the satire particularly well. Taut pacing and largely impressive production values, including a couple of surprisingly grisly special effects, bolster its watchability, despite some hokey lapses in logic and an underwhelming climax.
Linking computer viruses with viruses that afflict humans, despite the dubious science that goes into such thinking, is just too tempting a metaphor for writers in our high-tech age (witness Universal’s rote thriller “Virus” from last year). Here, the virus is injected into a new 500-channel-and-Internet communications system created by the Digicron Corp., headed by Albert Teal (Robert Wagner). Those who resist its powerful lure are transformed, luridly, into calcified corpses.
Pic opens in a boardroom filled with attorneys in teleconference with Australian mogul Jack Doulan (Malcolm Stewart), whose company is threatened by Digicron’s impending monopoly on the multimedia industry. It’s not long before they’re tugging at their collars, writhing histrionically, turning to chalk and crumbling to pieces.
Enter maverick Dr. Nick Baldwin (Antonio Sabato Jr.), busted down to paramedic thanks to his hotheaded compassion (he’s constantly upbraided for simply trying to save lives), followed in rapid fashion by the military, headed by order-barking viral specialist Samantha Carter (Janine Turner). Carter recruits Baldwin’s assistance to investigate this malady — “like nothing we’ve seen before” is the line usually bandied about at this point — allowing for some furtive flirting while mankind’s fate hangs in the balance.
Baldwin quickly puts it together: All the victims were interfacing with Digicron’s latest technology before their faces became Dustbuster fodder (wouldn’t market research flag this as a potential problem?). Confronting Teal proves fruitless, however, as he intends to go with the product’s launch as planned, and is connected well enough politically to stanch Baldwin and Carter’s investigation and quell, improbably, public panic. “You’re attempting to walk on water — and I’ll drown you,” he warns the duo, one of a number of melodramatic lines that could have been scripted a little more compellingly.
The filmmakers choose — perhaps wisely, given who was signing the checks on this production — to ignore the delicious parallels of the dueling-media-moguls scenario they’ve created: One is a blustery, hyperbole-spouting American who brags about his charitable donations (think TBS owner Ted Turner, though Bill Gates is a more obvious character template); the other, a ruthless Aussie who throws money at any problem (think Rupert Murdoch).
In case such connections are made, however, Teal has a computer-whiz charge — Ned (David Lewis), a nerd still smarting from his father’s lack of approval — to deflect some of the culpability for the sinister plot.
Because this is a TV movie and not a feature, however, emphasis lands solely on the fatal aspects and not the equally insidious mind-control qualities the technology boasts.
After setting the stage for a showdown of Armageddon-sized caliber, the telepic’s finale dissolves into humdrum fisticuffs and gunplay. And the hardware that topples during the climactic confrontation in the puny control room depicted here might suffice for a midsized accounting firm, but it’s woefully inadequate for a mega-media computing conglomerate.
Performances are adequate: Sabato smolders earnestly, Turner accentuates her character’s stridency a bit too much, and Wagner well, R.J. simply oozes, which is wonderfully appropriate for his character. Bit performers biting the dust tend to overplay somewhat, perhaps in order to compete with the special effects accompanying their demise.
Save for that truncated showdown, production values — and, more artfully, artistic implication — give the film a decent sense of scale.