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The premiere of Arch Oboler's Sci-Fi 3-D extravaganza The Bubble 3-D is listed as late 1966. But in Los Angeles it was still playing in March, the same week that Gordon Douglas' In Like Flint made its debut. I remember because I was visiting my Aunt in Torrance, saw the big ads side by side in the paper and tried to decide which movie to see. The Bubble's ad was unusual. It promised a Science-Fiction masterpiece beyond my imagination, but it also looked like some kind of stage show or magic act was involved -- Space-Vision process sounded like an exhibit at a World's Fair. Did I get to see it? No. If I wanted to see 3-D I'd go back to my View-Master stereovision viewer with the images from Batman and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
I've weathered the 1980s 3-D craze without seeing a single one of its releases, but in 1979 I did rush to two of the terrific 3-D revival shows at the Tiffany Theater on Sunset Blvd. Now that the 3-D craze shows signs of sticking around (digital projection makes it practical) and home 3-D is for the moment hanging on, we're seeing some interesting vintage 3-D releases, most notably from Warners but also from Universal, Twilight Time and Olive Films. Now from Kino, remastered by the 3-D Film Archive, comes the historically significant The Bubble. Its maker Arch Oboler had ignited the 1950s 3-D craze with his UA oddity Bwana Devil and it gave him some prestige and clout for a few months in a Hollywood frantic to nail down a new format to wrestle patrons away from their TV screens.
Thirteen years and not a lot of success later, Oboler took the next step forward by enabling the development of a new 3-D system designed to simplify the process. Instead of using two parallel films, Space-Vision recorded both 3-D eye-views on one filmstrip, eliminating alignment problems. I know if I described the process further I'd make mistakes, so let me instead guide you to Bob Furmanek's article on The Bubble and the development of Space-Vision.
Arch Oboler's 1951 Sci-Fi film Five is an unappreciated landmark that marked the first time an atomic aftermath was tackled on screen. His subsequent work was never as good. Bwana Devil is rather feeble for an adventure movie, and his Sci-Fi comedy The Twonky, even with the amusing Hans Conried, is so dire that its release was held up.
Thirteen years later The Bubble was chosen to debut the impressive Space-Vision 3-D process. Its synopsis sounds very much like an episode of The Twilight Zone. His small plane caught in a freak storm, pilot Tony (Johnny Desmond) must land as soon as possible, as his passenger Catherine (Deborah Walley) is pregnant and in advanced labor. Husband Mark (Top-billed Michael Cole of The Mod Squad) is relieved to get her down and her baby delivered, but the town they've found is crazy. Random buildings and objects from all over the world are jumbled together. The few people on the street bumble about, making repetitive motions and speaking repetitive phrases. Nobody will answer a question or even acknowledge their presence. Tony and Mark discover that it's impossible to leave -- not far out of town, a giant glass dome has enclosed the entire area like a fishbowl. The sun above is distorted in the glass. The men find a weird structure called a 'station', which on the outside looks like a termite colony. Inside Mark finds a machine that momentarily puts hallucinations in his mind. The zombie population doesn't eat and instead visits the strange machine to be "recharged" -- and renewed as passive automatons. Hugging her baby, Catherine spends some time in denial before joining Mark in an effort to escape. Perceiving that they're being observed from above, Mark decides that an escape tunnel under the dome is his next move. When 'the entity above' sees something he doesn't like, he reaches down and destroys it. And at regular intervals, he levitates somebody up out of the dome, never to be returned. Like, bummer.
The Bubble is a picture for 3-D historians, genre completists and fans of freakish film fare. In other words, as a Science Fiction spectacle, it's a good 3-D movie. The 3-D is surprisingly clear and effective; when Oboler has actors shove things at the camera -- as blatantly as a Three Stooges short subject -- it really comes out. The film negative area is smaller than Naturalvision so there is more granularity to the image, but the registration and 3-D effects are exemplary.
Oboler directed some interesting films but was more famous for his radio shows. The writing here is pretty terrible and the actors are left to their own devices in a story with little forward motion. Although it's instantly obvious that they've been shanghaied to some bizarre dimension beyond space and time, Tony and Mark take it all far too casually. They wander around for half an hour observing a dozen citizens acting like lobotomized wind-up toys, before they begin to see a pattern. That Mark is willing to leave Catherine alone under these conditions just seems wrong. If everybody they meet is so zonked-out and nonfunctional, how is the medical clinic functioning? The supposed master scenarist Oboler doesn't connect the incidents into a storyline, and we spend most of the movie impatient for the characters to do something.
The heroes decide that the unseen 'entity in charge' is collecting things and people -- a newsvendor, an old woman - and holding them to study. This explains the art direction that makes the dome town look like a studio back lot with minimal set dressing. One positive set detail is a building sitting atop a flattened tree trunk: the 'entity' has plunked the building down, like the house on top of the Wicked Old Witch in Munchkinland. Oboler missed a bet - he should have ended the film with a tilt up to reveal a giant kid with a magnifying glass, studying his little collection under a glass dome.
Some of the best 3-D is simply shots from their car moving slowly through the village. The 'alien hallucination' floats a number of brightly painted rubber Halloween masks at us -- I think I recognize the 'skeleton head' mask. As a 3-D sideshow The Bubble is a definite historical curiosity and its resurrection is an impressive technical feat.
The movie was originally twenty-one minutes longer. I have to imagine that Oboler cut it himself after realizing that he'd misjudged. Variety reviewed it on December 28, 1966 at the long 112-minute duration. Space-Vision is alternately called by the impressive name, "4-D (Tri-Optiscope)".
The Kino Classics Blu-ray of The Bubble is a phenomenal rescue job by the 3-D Film Archive, which had to figure out how to convert the film's unusual elements to our present Blu-ray 3-D format. In Space-Vision, each normal 35mm frame is divided in half laterally, stacking a left eye and right eye image one on top of the other. Besides remaining in alignment, the colors on each eye are more likely to match as well. Without qualifications, I'd call the Archive's effort a big success. The somewhat grainy image is in good shape, and the audio is strong. When Mark starts digging a tunnel under the dome, composers Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter slip in several cues from their impressive score for Kronos. I wonder if they were pulling a fast one on old Arch -- that music had already been heard in at least two additional Sci-fi pictures.
The 3-D Film Archive provides several worthwhile extras, including trailers and alternate openings for the film's re-titled reissue version, Fantastic Invasion of Planet Earth, the version that showed on TV pan-scanned and flat. We also get a restoration demonstration. Bob Furmanek provides a text article in a BD-Rom file, and also script pages from the excised scenes lost when The Bubble lost those eighteen minutes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Bubble Blu-ray rates:
Hi Glenn: Your review of The Bubble made me want to share with you some of what Deborah Walley told me about that movie. I interviewed her about her career. She actually liked The Bubble and liked Arch Oboler very much. She recalled that he lived in a really cool house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright up in Malibu and he often invited her up there for dinner with other members of the cast and crew. She had high hopes for The Bubble. At the time, she thought it was a very imaginative script (debatable) and hoped the 3-D would help make this a big hit. She liked her part and was really hoping it would steer her career away from the A.I.P. Beach movies she was doing at the time.
Deborah Walley was a very nice person, but she was probably the one actress who was the most unhappy about herself and her career. Regards, Shaun
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