Air Date: Nov. 23, 1971 (CBS Friday Night Movies)
Production Companies: 20th Century Fox Television
Running Time: 75 min./90 min. (theatrical version)
Available on: YouTube, Amazon Prime
Written by: James D. Buchanan & Ronald Austin (Anthony Wilson, story)
Directed by: Walter Grauman
Cast: Dean Stockwell, Stefanie Powers, James Stacy, Tina Chen, Elliott Street, James Olson
Although parts of Paper Man (1971) are dated, the overall premise is as relevant as ever. Simply substitute artificial intelligence for old-fashioned computer coding, and the resulting creation of a virtual human that doesn’t physically exist, is a compelling, sometimes frightening, concept for a movie.
What a 1971 TV-movie like this one mixes into the concept is a tried and true formula. Something bad is happening, nobody believes the truth, those who know the truth are eliminated one-by-one, and by the end, with the story’s twists and turns, nothing is really as it seems. The finer details are interchangeable.
When a college student accidentally receives a credit card for someone that doesn’t exist, he and his friends decide to build a virtual history for this person so they can buy beer and school supplies. At first, they actually pay the bill every month, but then get behind by the time it appears the bank has discovered the fraud.
The group of friends is interesting, because only two of them are really in a computer class together. Joel Fisher, played by Eliott Street, is the only one that looks age appropriate for a college student, although a stereotypical wardrobe emphasizes plays heavily into that. Lisa, played by Tina Chen, seems to do the most programming work, but becomes expendable.
A third, Karen McMillan, played by Stefanie Powers, has her Masters degree and works at an outpatient clinic, conveniently to access medical records that will play heavily into the plot. A fourth, Jerry, played by James Stacy, is a medical student recently returned from Vietnam with some emotional baggage.
The fifth, Avery Jensen, played by Dean Stockwell, is an advanced student that Jerry recruits to help in the programming department when the core group reaches its limit of ability. He becomes both the protagonist and the possible antagonist. He also creates a potential romantic triangle for Karen and Jerry, a little subplot that generates additional drama.
“Paper man” refers to the effigy Joel constructs out of dot matrix computer paper. It’s present for one jump scare, but the bigger threat (for a while) is something called, “Proto,” a human representation used for practice by the medical students. I had hopes that he would become the living incarnation of the fictional human, but that’s not the movie’s intention.
Its intention seems to be a mix of genres… a little horror, a little sci-fi, a little this, a little that… as long as it delivers the twist after the final commercial. At the very least, you should appreciate the fact that typing on a keyboard no longer sounds like a machine gun firing and that we don’t have to make room in our homes for a giant wall of computers.