I first saw (Arch Oboler’s) The Bubble (1966) in the late-1970s under its reissue title, The Fantastic Invasion of Planet Earth. The sci-fi/special effects boon instigated by Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977) was just getting underway, and here was a movie with a decidedly retro-looking one-sheet prominently feature a ‘50s-style flying saucer, one that, as is it turned out, wasn’t even in the movie. I could tell right away that I was looking at a strange movie at least ten years old, and its very existence baffled me. Nonetheless, its 3-D effects, filmed in “4-D” Space-Vision, were nonetheless impressive, sometimes even startling. Decades later Rhino released a very poor, unrepresentative DVD of the film, badly converted to anaglyphic (i.e., “red-green”) process. It only delivered about one-tenth of its full impact.
Conversely, the 3-D Film Archive’s Blu-ray presentation of The Bubble, here under its original title, far surpasses all expectations. As a movie, The Bubble is draggy and obviously fairly cheap, resembling as it does a protracted episode of ‘60s sci-fi shows like The Outer Limits and The Invaders. But it’s also so strange that, even though it borrows elements from those TV shows, written science fiction, and even E.C. comic books of the early ‘50s, as to be a unique synthesis all its own. Even without the 3-D, there’s no movie quite like it.
The primary reason to watch The Bubble, however, is for its 3-D photography and effects, and on that count the picture is quite remarkable. An early scene, which in terms of the plot has no reason to exist at all, features a tray holding two glasses and two bottles of beer. It floats about the room, gradually drifting out into the movie audience. The effect is almost perfectly realized (the wires suspending it become visible toward the end of the shot); it’s still one of the most impressive 3-D effects shots ever done.
The 3-D Film Archive, primarily Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz, have done another incredible job here, literally rescuing the nearly-lost film: the original negative was rotting away in a stiflingly hot public storage locker rather than an environmentally-controlled film vault, its reels kept in rusted film cans. A restoration demonstration makes clear how much work was done to remove visible negative splices and other viewing imperfections. The presentation now is probably better than when the film was new, and the 3-D is spot-on perfect throughout.
The 3-D craze of 1952-54 petered out quickly after 20th Century-Fox’s hugely successful dissemination of CinemaScope during late-1953 and early-1954. The only major 3-D release between Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Bubble had been a Fox film called September Storm (1960) shot in Stereo-Vision 3-D and converted to 3-D CinemaScope. However, it was not a success, and led to no additional 3-D productions.
Radio writer-producer-director Arch Oboler, a kind of Bush League Orson Welles, broke into films in the 1940s and almost all of those he wrote, produced, and directed are unusual. His first film as a director, Strange Holiday (1945) had Claude Rains returning home from a fishing trip only to find America had been taken over by fascists. Five (1951) was the first American feature to depict life after a nuclear war. The Twonky (1953) has Hans Conried at odds with a strange, walking television set that takes control over his life.
But Oboler’s greatest success came with Bwana Devil (1952), the first sound-era feature-length 3-D movie, an independent film that, along with This Is Cinerama, released that same fall, caused a firestorm within the Hollywood film industry, leading eventually to the widescreen revolution, the biggest sea change since the Dawn of Sound.
Oboler returned to 3-D moviemaking with The Bubble, which utilized Robert V. Bernier’s special 3-D cameras and lenses. Primarily, Space-Vision allowed for “polarized” 3-D movies to be photographed and exhibited on a single-strip of film, rather than the two interlocked cameras and projectors system used during the ’50s craze. This significantly reduced production and exhibition costs and allowed for color and ‘scope productions such as The Bubble.
The movie is a more a vehicle for this process rather than a film enhanced further by 3-D. After an unseen narrator instructs the audience to put their 3-D glasses on, the picture opens with young married couple Mark (Michael Cole) and Catherine (Deborah Walley) aboard a small plane piloted by care-free Tony (Johnny Desmond). Catherine has gone into premature labor while the couple was vacationing, and they’re frantically trying to reach the nearest hospital.
A big storm forces Tony to land on a runway that turns out to be an ordinary road leading to an anything-but-ordinary small town nearby. Catherine gives birth at a small hospital without incident, but Mark and Tony gradually – too gradually – begin to realize something is amiss. The town resembles a studio backlot (and so it was; The Bubble was filmed at the former Republic Studios, then called CBS Studio Center, in the San Fernando Valley north of Hollywood). A New York subway entrance leads nowhere. Several buildings are strangely fused. Old West buildings, including a saloon, are located further down one street, along with a partial carnival. A road leading out of town is dotted with gargoyles (possibly from 1963’s The Raven), statues and fake boulders. And, just out of town, is a partial representation of the Lincoln Memorial, the statue of Lincoln being the same one Eddie “Rochester” Anderson falls onto during the climax of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).
More disturbing, the residents of this strange place wander about with glazed-over eyes like zombies, saying the same few words over-and-over again. A bartender at the old saloon repeatedly asks, “What’ll it be, gents?” while a taxi driver (Vic Perrin) asks “Cab, mister?” ad infinitum. Unbelievably, Mark and Tony initially find this rather amusing if bemusing. They help themselves to drinks at the saloon, cars parked in the streets, etc., and initially aren’t terribly concerned by everyone’s strange state.
The real trouble begins with the threesome decide to leave town, only to find the entire area encased by an impenetrable bubble many miles in diameter and stretching across the sky, thus explaining the distorted sun and moon.
The Bubble premiered at 112 minutes but almost all reviews of that version complained that at that length the movie was interminably paced. It was subsequently cut to 91 minutes, its Blu-ray length, and even that is a bit overlong, the pacing partly dragged down by Mark and Tony being so slow on the uptake about the strangeness of the town and its potential dangers. The deleted scenes, offered in screenplay form as an extra feature, help to explain some matters obliquely referenced in the shorter cut, but overall the picture is probably better off with all the editing.
If you thought 2001: A Space Odyssey perplexing, The Bubble positively confounds. Mark, without any evidence, suggests some possible explanations for the bubble’s origins and particulars about why things are what they are, but the story pretty much ends without any real answer about what the audience has just witnessed. Just what the bubble is, who put it there, and why remains a baffling mystery. If one tries to make sense of The Bubble’s plot, they’ll probably be disappointed. But on a dream-like, Twin Peaks-type level, the movie and all its strangeness is moderately effective.
While many have pointed out the story’s resemblance to various Twilight Zone/Outer Limits/The Invaders episodes, the movie is peculiarly adult in other ways. Mark and Catherine’s baby was conceived while the couple “made love” and she forgot her contraception. (Later on is a scene where she breastfeeds her newborn.) He complains about her “bitching” in one scene, and it’s clear Tony is having a sexual relationship with the Old West saloon’s dancer (called “Talent” by him and on the credits), even though she’s basically a mindless zombie.
The cast is good, particularly Michael Cole (Mod Squad), whose second film this was. He’s so good, in fact, one is reminded of Steve McQueen’s similar “debut” in The Blob. Indeed, The Bubble almost plays like The Further Adventures of Steve and Jane, as if the young teenagers from that film had gotten married and were expecting a baby only to run afoul of The Bubble.
The rest of the cast consists of actors Oboler must have known from his radio days, many of whom coincidentally worked regularly with Jack Webb, notably Virginia Gregg, Vic Perrin, and Olan Soule. The credits and the IMDb list Gregg as playing the ticket cashier but this is incorrect. She plays the nurse, who in the short version at least has no lines. The actress playing the ticket cashier (“Tickets? Tickets?”) resembles Patricia Barry.
As a showcase for 3-D effects, the film is a delight. The Bubble bursts open with an exterior shot of the plane, one of its wings sticking way, WAY out toward the movie audience. There are startlingly good 3-D shots every few minutes: a baby in an incubator, Talent’s high-kicking saloon dance, numerous shots of Mark and Catherine in a mine shaft, he hoping to tunnel their way under the bubble. Even ordinary scenes are staged to maximize the process. Although a few ideas are more than a little silly (Tony having visions of floating rubber masks, for instance), visually speaking, The Bubble is quite spectacular, a real crowd-pleaser.
The picture allegedly cost around $500,000 to make. It looks inexpensive but not desperately cheap. Many Blu-ray fans that recently purchased Shout! Factory’s Vincent Price Collection II set will be amused. If, as I did, you watched Return of the Fly, The Last Man on Earth, and The Bubble over the last few weeks then you’ve heard the same Paul Sawtell/Bert Shefter music three times.
The 3-D Film Archive restored The Bubble from the inaptly stored, original camera negative and the results are extremely impressive. With its 2.50:1 aspect ratio, the image is sharp with accurate, corrected color, while many imperfections, including film damage and apparently a few misaligned shots, have all been fixed. It’s too bad Oboler didn’t release The Bubble is stereophonic sound as well (as many early 3-D titles were) but the mono audio here is more than adequate.
Supplements include a standard, 2-D version of the film, as well as original and highly deceptive reissue trailers, both in 2-D as well. A restoration demonstration is offered in both 2-D and 3-D. There’s also a nice still gallery, screenplay excerpts of the deleted scenes, and a BD-ROM essay about The Bubble by Bob Furmanek, which is also available on the 3-D Film Archive’s website.
As a movie, The Bubble is far from great but, perhaps having already experienced it several times before, this time I found myself rather liking its bizarre plot as well as its plentiful, eye-popping 3-D effects. For aficionados, The Bubble is a must.