Science fiction is the art of asking "What if?" In the case of the small-screen gem Fatal Error, the question is "What if a computer virus evolved to the point that it could transmit itself to human beings and kill them?" One might respond to this question "Of course not. How stupid is that? That's downright retarded. No. No way." Not director Armand Mastroianni, though, who instead weaves that question into a taut thriller that forces us to reexamine the role of digital cable in our lives.
We open on a corporate teleconference in the city of Seattle, as played by Vancouver. As the long late night meeting is getting underway, everyone is killed in a freak case of spontaneous human calcification. Now everyone has been in a meeting or two during which you prayed for the sweet release of death, but human calcification is not the way to go. First, it seems quite painful by the way the executives were writhing and screaming. Second, it must be very confusing, since your final thoughts on this earth are, "Hey, where is all this calcium coming from?"
The janitor on duty sees the room full of writhing executives slowly and painfully turning to chalk, and is understandably driven bat-shit insane. He wanders, disoriented, out onto the street in the early Canadian dawn. Here he is met by our hero, Nick Baldwin (played by Melrose Place veteran Antonio Sabato Jr.), a brilliant paramedic who doesn't play by the rules. Formerly a brilliant doctor, he lost his license because he didn't play by the rules. Now he operates an ambulance and proves his dedication to saving lives by illegally practicing medicine without a license at the drop of a hat.
He meets and is quickly ushered off the scene by Dr. Samantha Carter, played by Janine Turner (Maggie O'Connell of Northern Exposure Fame, here with longer, redder hair and 30% more spunk). She leads a crack Army team that is expert in biological outbreaks but very bad at crowd control, as Nick is able to just follow them into their base of operations. After refusing to leave O'Connell's side for nearly an hour, she is worn down by his rebellious charms and drafts him on her team.
Despite being outfitted with all the state-of-the-art biohazard lab equipment, including a computer that can take any known virus and simulate a billion years of evolution to try and match it to the known samples (it appears to be a Pentium), the crack Army team has nothing. The virus strikes, turns the entire body to chalk, and then vanishes. The only upside is that Nick and O'Connell can walk around the lab without bunny suits.
It's not until the computer operator mysteriously dies of the deadly chalk disease within a sealed room and Nick has had a few drinks in the hotel bar that the pieces come together. All of the cases involved people watching a beta release of a cable/internet/telecom package. No one believes Nick's theory that computers can give people viral diseases by flashing complicated subliminal graphics, FOX News notwithstanding, until they notice the large and gratuitous HAL 9000 red eye atop each cable unit. The director even suggests through red-filtered fish-eye shots that the cable unit can actually see its victims through the lens, although we're not sure how accounting let them slip a camera and evil artificial intelligence into the budget for a digital cable box.
Further proof that the technology is behind the deaths comes in the form of Robert Wagner playing the Digicron CEO, Albert Teal. It is refreshing to see that the successes as Number Two in the Austin Powers franchise didn't make him too big for a small art house project like Fatal Error. Robert delivers the role with a cutthroat menace, like Bill Gates with a handsome sleaze. He is pushing for a timely release of the telecom package and isn't going to hold up the billion-dollar project just because it will unleash a plague that will destroy every human being who wants 500 channels, no matter what an unlicensed doctor has theorized in a hotel bar.
At this point the director reveals a series of cunning plot twists using the time-honored technique of having the villain explain how and why he did everything. Ace computer programmer and new VP Ned Henderson (played by David Lewis, who despite all indications is not the illegitimate son of Ed Begley, Jr.) has a conversation with a former executive and explains that he was charged with writing a virus that would destroy all of this former executive's code. Ned went one step further and designed the virus so it could mutate and kill the user by violating the laws of physics and/or biology. A series of flashbacks shows us that Ned was able to code the deadly virus in safety by wearing welding goggles. The protective lenses were able to filter out the virus using science.
Ned's dream of turning a digital cable system into a tool of wholesale slaughter makes sense thanks to some just-in-the-nick-of-time character development where we discover that a combination of paternal disapproval and a Stanford education has led to a desire to destroy all of mankind through the medium of combined cable television/internet services. Having thus clarified the horror of the picture to the former executive, Ned kills him by strapping him down in front of his computer.
Once the team determines that Ned is the evil genius and Robert Wagner merely a fetching red herring, O'Connell decides to charge solo into Ned's basement, much like in Silence of the Lambs except Jodie Foster had a gun. O'Connell is promptly caught from behind. Ned duct tapes her into a chair in front of the computer, thus ensuring her death the moment she opens her eyes. Secure in the knowledge that she has to open her eyes sooner or later, Ned wanders off. Luckily, Nick rescues her just in time before the computer notices that her eyes are closed and starts beating her to death with the mouse.
At the grand unveiling of the technology that would eat Seattle/Vancouver, Nick chases down Ned deep into the cable internet headquarters. Meanwhile, O'Connell is able to convince Robert that his technology is flawed after the teleprompter tries to kill him. Nick finds the control center, which apparently was built on the site of a 1950s physics lab. Using nothing more than an oscilloscope and a handy puddle of water, Nick is able to knock out the digital cable system and kill Ned, thus closing the circle of life and saving the world from consolidated telecommunications packages.
I would have to say that Fatal Error is the greatest movie I have ever seen.