Trapped Inside Arch Oboler's The Bubble

It is at once one of the most nonsensical and yet metaphorically dizzying of meta-sci-fi set-ups: the appearance of impassable transparent walls creating a confining bubble around an otherwise normal Earth-space. It is the premise of Stephen King's ongoing network soap opera Under the Dome, and, before that, his 2009 novel, and between them Julian Pölsler’s utterly odd German import The Wall (2012), which is based on an acclaimed 1963 novel by Austrian Marlen Haushofer. In literature, the idea's other manifestations include James Follett's Temple of the Winds (2000), microbiologist and sci-fi scribe Joan Slonczewski's The Wall Around Eden (1989), a Clifford D. Simak novel published in 1965, All Flesh Is Grass, and before all that a Nietzschean 1953 work by the multi-pseudonymous French pulp machine Rene Bonnefoy, The Appearance of the Supermen. Used as a factor in a larger plot, the giant fish tank trope appeared as well in John Wyndham's 1957 The Midwich Cuckoos (and its film adaptations, both titled Village of the Damned), several Twilight Zone episodes, and John Stith's Manhattan Transfer (1993). There are probably scores of others. Nobody would ever accuse King of originality (his Dome was also trumped, famously by now, by 2007’s The Simpsons Movie), but it's still surprising how often this hare-brained and rather bare-bones concept has been revisited, especially since the only real-life paradigm it syncs up with is the effect commonly but only relatively recently experienced in first-person or third-person shooter video gaming when the player or his avatar bumps up against the invisible limits of their virtual world.

Does it crop up so regularly because we are imagining what it's like to be a fish or a lizard in a bowl, looking out and never comprehending the transparent barrier in front of us? It is a ripe old-fashioned existentialist metaphor—Sartrean No Exit hell-is-people scenarios, oppressive bureaucracy, human loneliness without God, Kafkaesque mystery of struggle against unknowability, confinement within society or marriage or conformist conventions…you name it. There's one particularly modern angle explored by a little-known American indie most everyone's forgotten about: Arch Oboler's The Bubble (1966), which has just been released on Blu-ray from Kino. In this Serlingish hothouse, a dippy young couple on the verge of childbirth (Deborah Walley and The Mod Squad's Michael Cole) are being flown in a prop-plane by a rakish pilot (Johnny Desmond), and are forced down by a storm in the night. But what the pilot thought was a runway was just an empty street lit by streetlights. They find the nearby town, where Walley's sugary blond gives birth, but because of the couple's starry-eyed happiness and the pilot's drunkard hedonism, nobody notices what's wrong: the somnambulist denizens perform rote, meaninglessly repeated actions and the whole place seems lost in time. Eventually, the three newcomers begin to smell trouble: the newspapers being hawked on the street are old and from Baltimore; the New York subway entrance leads nowhere. Doctors and bartenders and shopkeepers don't respond to simple questions. Eventually, they try to get out, and confront the wall, stretching infinitely in every direction and impervious to assault.

Oboler was a furiously prolific pulp master, starting with radio in the ‘30s and experimenting with every medium over the next decades. His pioneering Bwana Devil (1952) was the first feature-length 3-D film; it used a dual-strip process, a technique he improved upon with The Bubble, which is the first feature shot with the single-strip process that's been used ever since. (The comin'-at-ya shots in The Bubble are hilarious and always unnatural; with a 3-D player and TV, they'll work for you at home.) If Oboler is still a marginal figure, it's because genre pulp in the mid-century was itself marginal, and usually considered to be fodder only for kids, teens and immature adults. But of course there was often a body hidden under the floorboards, and the particularities of The Bubble sneak up on you: the town in which our luckless ciphers are imprisoned is clearly a mishmash amalgamation of other towns—bits of an Old West hamlet, more modern establishments, fragments of urban iconography—all of it eerily empty, half-built and vaguely unreal. That is to say, a studio backlot. Ever thrifty, Oboler clearly used the leftover constructions and props found on some minor company's lot, piling them incongruously together, but the upshot resonates like a gong: the existential plight of irrational entrapment unrolls completely inside a fake movie-movie world—within the 20th century's most elaborate yet transparently deceptive dreamworld terrarium, the movies. "That's it—a movie lot!" one of them eventually proclaims, making the three of them characters who, like the disaffected blatherers in a Godard film, know very well they're in a movie. But they hunting for an exit, and so The Bubble becomes a very strange thing, a surreal drama about people who find themselves marooned inside a film and may kill themselves trying to get out.

Thus, we have an idea of cinema—all cinema—as a virtual universe built for voyeurs, in which a film's inhabitants are powerless and unwilling victims, oppressed for our satisfaction in the dark. It's clear in Oboler's film that the characters are maddened by their efforts to escape us. There are precedents for this philosophical meta-dilemma, from Chuck Jones's Duck Amuck (1953) to Samuel Beckett's Film (1964), but there are few in low-budget sci-fi indies from the ‘60s. Under the Dome and The Wall don't have this subtextual fire power, though Gary Ross's remarkable Pleasantville (1998), with its fascinating exploration of a virtual cinematic ecosystem and how its utterly unreal uniformity is corrupted by the invasion of its "real" audience members, does. The twilight zone between "movies" and "reality" is far slipperier than we still would like; at the very least, if we empathize with the characters we are watching as they struggle or love or cry or die, and meanwhile cannot see or know about us, doesn't that make our omniscient intimacy with them somehow culpable? Or can we just write the acceptance of this dynamic off as part of some mass perversity? Will we ever take responsibility for our watching?