ZERO STARS/**** Image C+ Sound C
starring Antonio Sabato Jr., Janine Turner, Robert Wagner, Jason Schombing
teleplay by Rockne S. O'Bannon, based on the novel Reaper by Ben Mezrich
directed by Armand Mastroianni
by Walter Chaw A fatal virus transmitted by an evil computer program enters via the eyes and turns people into chalk (neatly combining two plots of "The X Files"). It's up to hunky Antonio Sabato Jr., as ex-Army virologist-cum-contract paramedic Nick, and the vacuous Janine Turner, as current Army virologist Dr. Samantha, to unravel the puzzle before millions die. That Robert Wagner plays the corporate villain without a hint of irony is just one of those sad lessons about wise investments that parents should tell their children.
There's always going to be a credibility problem when you cast two actors who have difficulty with doorknobs and light switches as PhDs and MDs--the combined wattages of Sabato Jr. and Turner could maybe slightly brown a thin piece of bread, and it's never believable that either character they play would have finished high-school, much less an advanced degree. An early scene in which Turner barks out orders and technical jargon is absurdity on a level with Arnold Schwarzenegger trying out Spanish in Collateral Damage (and English in all his other movies). Sabato Jr. is so painful that it almost makes Turner's hackneyed collection of eye-boggles and hair flips resemble a performance--but not quite.
Beyond the casting problems, Fatal Error suffers from a ludicrous premise hardly aided by a screenplay that plumbs the icy deeps of blazing incompetence. It isn't enough that the film is illogical (c'mon, a computer virus that infects through the eyes?) and humourlessly rips off "The X-Files" at every turn, Fatal Error compounds its sins by handling viral "hot spots" with a level of ignorance unacceptable since The Andromeda Strain. It's boring, it's stupid, it's horribly acted, and the special effects are also bad.
Screenwriter Rockne O'Bannon wrote my favourite episode of the short-lived 1985 CBS revival of "The Twilight Zone", based on a Harlan Ellison short; I still think of "The Shadow Man" on occasion. Later, Mr. O'Bannon wrote the underrated immigrant fiction Alien Nation and created the awful "Seaquest DSV" and the marginally better "Farscape". With Armand Mastroianni's excrescent Fatal Error (first broadcast on TBS), it appears as though Mr. O'Bannon has finally lost his mind and with it, the last lingering vestiges of the benefit of a doubt. Fatal Error is undone by a ludicrous premise, a simply horrendous cast, and unspeakably awful writing. I know you're wondering if there are any "Mystery Science Theater" chuckles to be had from Fatal Error. In my mind, for a film to be so dreadful that it's funny it needs first to avoid being so boring that it's unwatchable: The only thing unintentionally amusing about Fatal Error is the irony of its title.
Artisan's bare bones DVD presents Fatal Error in an adequate fullscreen transfer, underscoring the film's TV origins. Colours are crisp and black levels are fine. The Dolby Surround soundtrack is flat and uninteresting, but the dialogue is hellishly clear and easy to understand. There are no other features save for the interesting fact that the DVD cannot be played on a computer drive. Interesting for the assumption that anyone would want to bootleg this thing. Originally published: February 11, 2002.