Hollywood Computers Run Amok: Classic Memorabilia From Techno Thrillers

November 20, 2020

Computers, can’t live with them, can’t live without them. A modern-day variation on Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus’ famous take on the fairer sex rings true for both society and Hollywood.
The wayward, run amok computer movie has been a favorite theme of Hollywood for some time, delivering many outstanding, teeth-rattling thrillers through the years. Here are ten motion pictures which ably fit the bill, along with a discussion of the classic memorabilia they generated for today’s collectors.
“Fail Safe” (1964). Based on the 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, “Fail Safe” burst onto the movie scene a scant two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Directed in stark black and white by Sidney Lumet, “Fail Safe” stars Henry Fonda as the American president faced with a terrifying dilemma: a malfunctioning computer has mistakenly directed a group of Air Force Vindicator bombers to Moscow, where they are automatically ordered to drop their nuclear payload. Realizing the error, Fonda and his national security team desperately try to avert the attack before the errant Group Six reaches its fail safe point of no return. Joining Fonda in the cast are Walter Matthau, Dan O’Herlihy, Fritz Weaver, Frank Overton, Edward Binns and a young Larry Hagman as the president’s Russian translator.
For sheer visuals, one can’t go wrong with “Fail Safe’s” stunning eight-card lobby set, which pictures memorable scenes from the movie. The set’s title card says it all: “The shattering worldwide bestseller explodes with suspense on the screen!” One set in very fine condition sold at auction for $84.
“WarGames” (1983). Nothing grabs your attention like the horrifying possibility of thermonuclear war. In director John Badham’s “WarGames,” a young high school tech geek (Matthew Broderick) mans his IMSAI 8080 computer and hacks into what he believes is a Sunnyvale, Calif., computer gaming company, where he engages in a little cyber contest titled “Global Thermonuclear War.” The machine on the other end, however, is not from the gaming company but is in fact a Department of Defense automated supercomputer known as WOPR – War Operation Plan Response – triggering an all-too-real countdown to nuclear Armageddon. Along for the terrifying DEFCON 1 ride are Ally Sheedy, Dabney Coleman and John Wood.
“WarGames,” whose most memorable line may well come from WOPR’s menacing computer-generated voice (“Shall…we…play?”), produced an outstanding one sheet poster (27-by-41 inches). Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy are pictured at the computer against the backdrop of NORAD’s war room, along with the chilling tagline: “Is it a game, or is it real?” One example in fine+ condition brought a reasonable $12 at auction.
“Westworld” (1973). Two Chicagoans, Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, journey to a unique, high-tech amusement park called Delos. Here, for $1,000 a day, guests can fulfill their fantasies, whether it be battling gunslingers at Westworld, lounging in palatial splendor at Romanworld or dueling with the evil Black Knight at Medievalworld. Benjamin and Brolin opt for the former, where they have a high time pumping hot lead into a black-hatted robotic gunfighter (Yul Brynner), robbing the local bank and eyeing the pretty robotic saloon girls. But Delos’ corporate promise--“Where nothing can possibly go wrong”--quickly crashes as the computerized bots take on a life of their own and begin murderously pursing both guests and employees.
Written and directed by Michael Crichton, “Westworld” (which later debuted as an HBO television series in 2016) generated some superb memorabilia. For something different, try the Japanese B2 poster (20-by-28 inches), which features the Neal Adams artwork depicting Yul Brynner as the infected, malfunctioning android gunslinger. One example in rolled very fine/near mint condition hit a top bid of $65 at auction.
“Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970). Based on the 1966 novel of the same name by British author D.F. Jones, this early techno thriller stars Eric Braeden as Dr. Charles Forbin, the lead scientist on a team that creates a supercomputer known as Colossus. Housed in its Rocky Mountains fortress and powered by its own nuclear reactor, Colossus now controls all American and Allied nuclear weapons. Unbeknownst to the Americans, however, the Soviet Union has also created their own supercomputer called Guardian. Colossus and Guardian begin communicating via a new form of mathematics, eventually joining forces and dictating terms to their former masters. “This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied dead. The choice is yours. Obey me and live, or disobey and die,” the newly-improved Colossus declares. And, oh boy, does the Big C mean business, detonating two nuclear missiles in their silos in order to silence all doubters.
One of the more attractive “Colossus” movie posters is the Australian one sheet poster (27-by-40 inches) whose tagline reads: “They Created a Monster…and now must fight it for the safety of mankind.” One example in rolled very fine+ condition brought a top bid of $45 at auction.
“Alien” (1979). The starring, offending computer in this science fiction horror classic is MU-TH-R 182 – or "Mother” – who runs the show aboard the commercial starship Nostromo. When Mother detects an SOS transmission, it/she awakens the seven-person crew from their suspended slumber where several members investigate the signal on a nasty, foreboding hellhole called LV-426. Here a vicious alien life form attaches itself to the helmet visor of executive officer Kane (John Hurt), who is then brought on board, breaking ship’s quarantine procedures. Both Mother and science officer Ash (Ian Holm) prove to be in error – or perhaps in cahoots – when the transmission turns out to be a dire warning to space travelers to stay away. The stoic Ash also harbors a dark secret – he’s actually an android – who is determined to carry out his programmed agenda.
“Alien,” whose signature tagline is the killer, “In space no one can hear you scream,” chalked up a slew of highly collectible items. One of the best is the movie’s one sheet teaser poster (27-by-41 inches) which features four words at the top: “a word of warning…” One example in flat, folded, very fine condition sold at auction for $597.50.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). Directed by Stanley Kubrick, “2001: A Space Odyssey” remains one of Hollywood’s greatest science fiction achievements. Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, et al. embark on a fact-finding mission to Jupiter via Discovery One. On board is the ship’s supercomputer, HAL 9000, which begins to malfunction during the journey. When astronauts Dullea and Lockwood attempt to disengage the errant computer, HAL – that’s Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer – begs to differ, protecting itself from the outside intrusion and murderously continuing its programmed directives. “I know you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen,” the arrogant HAL tells Dullea.
Given its cult status, material from “2001: A Space Odyssey” can be very expensive. Case in point: the super rare Cinerama Hilton Hotel promotional poster (27-by-40 inches), which was created via an exclusive promotional arrangement with Hilton Hotels. One example in restored fine/very fine condition on protective paper brought a top bid of $20,912.50 at auction. That same poster was then resold for $32,500 in a private transaction. An image of the poster can be found on page 16 of the movie’s press book, which contains the film’s entire promotional material campaign.
“Tron” (1982). Directed by Steven Lisberger, the techno thriller classic “Tron” stars Jeff Bridges as a programmer who hacks his way into an ENCOM mainframe computer after he believes a colleague may have stolen his work. Bridges gets more than he bargained for, as he is transported into the Digital World where a supercomputer program called the Master Control Program reigns supreme. Bridges then joins forces with another computer programmer – a.k.a. “Tron” – played by Bruce Boxleitner, where they attempt to take down the omnipotent program.
“Tron” is a heavyweight in the science fiction movie realm, with collectible values reflecting that vaunted status. The film’s “Play the Game” border style one sheet poster (27-by-41 inches) is a real treat, featuring the blurb: “A world inside a computer where man has never been. Never before now.” One example in rolled, very fine+ condition sold at auction for $408.
“The Matrix” (1999). Keanu Reeves stars as Neo, a computer programmer/hacker who meets up with the legendary techno genius Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who clues him in on the “real world,” a vast wasteland where renegade machines feed off human body heat and infect their captives’ minds with an artificial reality program known as the Matrix. Neo soon gets caught up in the human rebellion, battling the Matrix’s agents and their powerful computer programs.
For those collectors with the display capacity, look to “The Matrix’s” big advance subway poster (46-by-60 inches), which touts the film’s March 31, 1999, American opening. One example in rolled, very fine+ condition soared to a top bid of $215.10 at auction.
“The Terminator” (1984). In this classic techno thriller director James Cameron offers up SkyNet, a Star Wars-like defense network that branches out on its own, acquiring its own artificial intelligence and making the world’s computers bow to its wishes. The omnipotent SkyNet wastes little time in wiping out its former masters via computer-controlled nuclear weapons. The Earth’s survivors form a resistance movement in an effort to defeat SkyNet, but the latter is one step ahead of them, sending a cyber assassin (Arnold “I’ll be back” Schwarzenegger) back in time to eliminate the mother of the movement’s leader, thus preventing his birth.
Foreign movie posters are always a treasure in this hobby, and items from “The Terminator” are no exception. The British quad poster (30-by-40 inches) featuring boffo artwork depicting Arnold as the robotic killer ably fits the bill in this genre. One example in very fine- condition kicked cyber you-know-what at auction, selling for $334.60.
“The Andromeda Strain” (1971). Based on the 1969 novel by Michael Crichton, “The Andromeda Strain” recounts the horror after an American satellite crashes outside the small town of Piedmont, New Mexico. The government suspects an alien organism hitched a ride on the vehicle and is responsible for killing off practically all of the good townsfolk. An elite scientific team headed by Arthur Hill and James Olson fast-track to Piedmont, where they eventually isolate the organism and bring it back to a secure, underground facility in Nevada, code named “Wildfire.” If the killer organism threatens to escape, the facility’s supercomputer will automatically kick into action, beginning the process to self-detonate a nuclear explosion designed to incinerate all infectious organisms and invaders. That does indeed happen, with Olson racing against time to disable the bomb while he battles the computer’s defense mechanisms.
“The Andromeda Strain” (adapted into a TV miniseries in 2008) is a killer sci-fi movie. Many collectors are fond of the film’s Down Under Australian daybill poster (13-by-30 inches), which features the blurb: “Suspense…to last a lifetime.” One example in folded, very fine condition sold at auction for $69. For something different, look for the 2003 Easton Press special collector’s edition leather bound book signed by author Michael Crichton (1942-2008). One edition in fine condition brought $131.25 at auction.
Auction results and images are courtesy of Heritage Auctions, Dallas, Texas.

William J. Felchner is a graduate of Illinois State University. His work has appeared in a number of periodicals, including True West, Hot Rod, Sports Collectors Digest, Movie Collector’s World and Pennsylvania Magazine.


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