Review: Kill Switch

By Tom Carissimi.

". . . no explanation, for it leaves the case of the coadaptations of organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life, untouched and unexplained."
-- Charles Darwin , "The Origin of the Species"

"Kill Switch" is the second consecutive episode of The X-Files written by a novelist(s) as opposed to professional screen writers. Whereas Stephen King's "Chinga" fell flat, William Gibson and Tom Maddox's "Kill Switch" resonates with all the elements of a stylish and memorable X-File.

The opening sequence sets the theme for the hour. Numerous street-level drug dealers and two U.S. Marshals are anonymously summoned to a run-down diner in Washington, D.C., in the early morning hours. This dark setting provides a glimpse of what is to follow. The actual target is a refugee from Silicon Valley who is trying to upload a computer virus. In a cacophony of gunfire, all are left dead on the red and black checkerboard floor. Looking beyond the raw violence, I found this to be an assertion that in "Kill Switch" human beings were going to be used like pawns in a game of chess. It was a statement on the degree of dependency that humans have developed on their computers. The hunted had become the hunter. The slave had become the master.

Mulder and Scully, looking and acting very much like their old selves, are drawn into this web of cyber-intrigue and eventually discover that a true Artificial Intelligence is in the Internet. Details provided by Esther Nairn, a.k.a. Invisigoth, help to fill in the missing pieces. In a parallel to Darwin's theory of evolution, a virus was created and let loose in the present-day equivalent of primordial soup, the World Wide Web, where it grew to be sentient. An interesting if somewhat familiar premise is then followed to its logical conclusion, complete with an X-File twist. What else would you expect from a story about computers?

Gibson and Maddox take the viewer on a breathtaking ride through the world they know best. There were a couple of times when I wished my couch had seat belts. The script was a masterful blend of building suspense which was relieved by moments of humor and pathos. And they created one of the most memorable supporting characters in X-Files history in Esther Nairn. Idolized by The Lone Gunmen, reviled by Scully, and admired by Mulder, Kristen Lehman gives an inspired performance as the multidimensional Esther. She displayed terror as the AI zeroed in on her location. She displayed icy-cold logic and unyielding determination when she was trying to infect the AI. Her sarcastic wit surfaced several times, and she emoted genuine sorrow when she thought her lover had been killed. Gibson and Maddox created a very diverse and well-drawn character on a word processor, and Ms. Lehman brought her to life on the screen. Lehman's performance was pure magic.

David Duchovny portrayed the suddenly rejuvenated Mulder with style and panache. A couple of choice Mulderisms rolled off his tongue like the Mulder of seasons past. The inquisitive nature that was so much a part of the Fox Mulder character was back, too. Mulder's insistence on removing the slain AI guru's CD from the crime scene was straight from Seasons One and Two. Playing the CD in the car and listening to The Platters' "Twilight Time" with Scully was another one of those subtle comments from Gibson and Maddox. Rather than being an allusion to Rod Serling's classic series, the song could be interpreted as meaning that mankind is in the twilight of its existence. Given the nature and severity of the Year 2000 computer problem that faces nearly every individual on this planet, this could very well be a prophetic vision of our uncertain future as a species.

But Duchovny embodied more than just a return to basics for his character. He had that Mulder twinkle in his eye, and he was convincing as he penetrated the AI's lair and then suffered through some wonderful Virtual Reality torment. It was easily Duchovny's best performance of the season. He actually looked like he was enjoying throwing himself into his role again.

Gillian Anderson had far less screen time than Duchovny, but she made good use of the time she did have. Playing off DD's Mulder, she voiced a skepticism that actually made sense. She got in her licks playing opposite Lehman; and the bonding scene, where she commiserates with Esther over the loss of Esther's lover, was touching and realistic. Scully knows what it's like to lose someone to violence, and Anderson conveyed that sentiment accurately. She may have been guilty of one too many of Scully's raised eyebrows, but, all in all, Anderson was back in top form.

Credit for moving the story along so smoothly must go to Director Rob Bowman. I make no secret of the fact that Bowman is my favorite director on the series; but my own prejudices aside, Bowman proved once again why he is one of the best in the business. There were numerous directorial shots that caught my eye, not the least of which was that splendid shot of the overhead lights in the virtual hospital as Mulder was being wheeled in to "surgery." We got a taste of Mulder's perspective, the helplessness that he must have felt while strapped to the gurney as the lights rolled by. Bowman also directed the two spectacular explosion scenes, which were the best such scenes in recent memory. Bowman also pays attention to the little details. When Esther cried on Scully's shoulder at the place where David's house used to be, mascara was running down her cheeks. That touch made the scene work for me.

Chris Carter made the right decision in letting Bowman direct the movie. In my opinion, that decision has had a negative impact on the series this season until "Kill Switch," but the return of Rob Bowman behind the cameras of an X-Files episode was worth the wait.

Bowman was fortuitously teamed with my favorite editor, Heather MacDougall. Her work is so good as to almost be unappreciated. Scene change after scene change was seamlessly melded into a cohesive narrative. The great ones make it look easy.

Mark Snow managed to come up with some new background music that added to the artistry of the episode. There were some nice segues with a synthesizer that seemed to be in right in keeping with the technological theme of the show and Lehman's character. Snow's new melodies were overused to some extent; sometimes the music walked all over the dialog. His music is at its best when no one is speaking, when it's used to set the mood and help move the story along. When I can feel the music instead of being annoyed by its presence, Snow has done his job well. When Snow's in peak form, you have to watch an episode and specifically listen for the music. His score for "Kill Switch" was better, but he still needs to tone down the volume.

The lighting in "Kill Switch" was superb, particularly the shot of the interior of the AI's trailer. The blue lighting against the black background lent the proper aura to the scenes. There was a nice use of shadows and light at The Lone Gunmen's building and in the virtual hospital, where Mulder lay immobilized. Special mention goes to the FX people for the spectacular explosions and the ending of Mulder's hospital scene when he kicks Scully and the Virtual Reality short-circuits. The entire episode was visually stunning from start to finish.

"Kill Switch" proved that novelists can write a good X-File. Gibson and Maddox took a basic plot that had even been done before on the series and breathed new life into it. "Kill Switch" was suspenseful, intriguing, and great entertainment. If we have more episodes like this one, my faith in the future of series just might be restored. "Kill Switch" was easily the best episode of Season Five. If only the words on the screen in the penultimate scene had read:


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The Cyberpunk Project