Technology is never to be trusted; as evolved as it has become, the thought of sentience and ill will striking back at our computer dependent life will never go away – and kids, just because you use Incognito, nothing is ever really gone. (Trust me.) Enter Paper Man (1971), an early entry into the A.I. Paranoia Sweepstakes that is pretty prescient and a damn entertaining thriller to boot.
Originally broadcast as part of The New CBS Friday Night Movies, Paper Man fought it out against ABC’s lineup of Room 222/The Odd Couple/Love, American Style and NBC’s World Premiere Movie, surely losing to the former’s solid roster. The world was just not ready for computer hijinks if it didn’t involve Stanley Kubrick or Kurt Russell.
Let’s open up the old fusty TV GUIDE and scour the data:
PAPER MAN (Friday, 9pm, CBS)
Five college kids find themselves in danger after tampering with the campus’ powerful computer. Dean Stockwell, Stefanie Powers star.
Well, I shouldn’t call them kids; they’re either in their late 20’s to mid 30’s, but that’s showbiz for ya. Anyway, four of them (Stefanie Powers, James Stacy, Tina Chen, and Elliott Street) pick up a pre-approved credit card belonging to a Henry Norman at the university post office, and after finding no one by that name in the super duper computer’s records, decide to create him so they can use the card. To throw the bank further off their scent, they enlist the school’s reigning introvert and computer genius (played by Stockwell) to flesh out Henry’s profile.
But the computer doesn’t appreciate being used, and swiftly begins meting out revenge since the entire security system, records, and electronics are all controlled by it. When the students start dropping like flies, all fingers point to Stockwell – but is he pulling the strings, or is someone else, or is it the Paper Man itself?
Paper Man sets itself up as a techno thriller; after all, “Henry” controls everything, and the majority of deaths (okay, there’s six total, two having nothing to do with the main plot) are supposedly due to technology striking back. However, it does end up taking a turn towards the conventional by the end, before finishing back in the “what if?” category.
It’s a shame they couldn’t have settled completely on the weird then, as it plays very well in the hands of director Walter Grauman (Crowhaven Farm) and writers James D. Buchanan & Ronald Austin (The Horror at 37,000 Feet), who ratchet up the technophobic tension effectively. One gets the feeling they were hedging their bets a bit for the small screen crowd though, and offer up a logical solution before pulling the carpet at the end.
But along the way, amongst all the babble, you’ll notice some familiar boogens from our current timestream: identity theft and putting all of our electronic eggs in one basket plays a big part in Paper Man, and you’ll realize that we haven’t moved the technological needle as far ahead in terms of privacy as we thought we have.
The house-sized mainframe will give those younger folks unfamiliar with olden time’s tech a good chuckle, but for those of us of a particular vintage, we thought the goal of a computer was to be monolithic; the bigger it was, the smarter, yes? Anyway, it’s all jibber jabber to me; the closest I got to programming in school was inputting about 6,000 lines of code on a Commodore 64 to have my name bounce across the screen.
What I’m saying is it’s all a binary McGuffin to me anyhow; it’s what is done with it that’s impressive. So much of the info in ’71 was speculative to the viewer, just nifty sci-fi filled with ones and zeroes. Yet we ate it up in any form, and the filmmakers wisely lean on our interests in the plausibly unknown to hide the fact that the story ends up being closer to Barnaby Jones than 2001. (And yes, I would have killed to see Buddy Ebsen ride a rocket. You have to ask?)
No matter, it plays; and the strong cast works well together even if they are out of the acceptable age range. (Perhaps they’re on the Bluto Blutarsky program.) Powers is beautiful and strong, even though they make her the computer dummy for exposition purposes. (Haha girlz r dum.) I won’t mention the convicted child molester in the cast (you can look him up for yourselves), but everyone is solid especially Stockwell as the introverted genius who may or may not have something to hide. This isn’t kooky Stockwell and it’s a nice change of pace.
By coincidence or foresight (I believe the former), Paper Man gives us a fun glimpse at our future cyber-headaches while hitting the usual but effective thriller beats. And don’t forget to clear those tabs, kids.Next: Read Earlier Installments of This Series!