By the end of the ’70s, TV movies in general were often derided as “disease of the week” fare, as the networks tried to top each other with a string of ratings-grabbing tearjerkers about cancer, or alcoholism, or some much more unusual way to die. A lot of the credit (or blame) for the wave of pathos belongs to The Boy In The Plastic Bubble, the ultra-kitschy 1976 ABC TV movie that starred John Travolta as a teenager with a faulty immune system, who’d spent his entire life in sterilized chambers. The movie follows Travolta as he makes his first cautious steps toward interacting with the world outside his house: He takes high-school classes via closed-circuit television, tries walking around in a custom space suit, and strikes up a courtship with the girl next door, played by Glynnis O’Connor. Meanwhile, Travolta’s parents, Robert Reed and Diana Hyland, wring their hands over each move toward independence that he makes. The story is based on the short life of David Vetter, who was only 5 when this movie was made and died at age 12. But don’t mistake The Boy In The Plastic Bubble for a docudrama. This is pure, thick hokum.
It’s also utterly absorbing, from start to finish. The pleasures of The Boy In The Plastic Bubble are partly nostalgic—watching Travolta disco-dance in his tiny gym shorts, digging the cameo by Buzz Aldrin as himself, listening to the climactic Paul Williams ballad, etc.—and partly the cheap thrills of shameless heart-tugging. But the reason The Boy In The Plastic Bubble stands out from the TV-movie pack today is the same reason it did in 1976: The premise is just so damned fascinating. What would it be like to live inside a giant Habitrail, and touch other people only through plastic and rubber? More to the point: What would it be like to be a teenager, cut off from the pot smoke and wanton sexuality of the mid-’70s?
The film deals only a little with the psychological aspects of a life spent being catered to around the clock, as director Randal Kleiser and screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart show how Travolta can be a little bossy to his parents and doctors. And it deals only a little with the practical aspects, such as how Travolta eats, shits, and wanks. (In a fairly daring scene for 1976, Travolta’s roommate at the hospital engages him a conversation about horniness that ends with the two of them admitting that they masturbate all the time.) But The Boy In The Plastic Bubble deals heavily—and movingly—with the way that all parents try and fail to shelter their kids from the hard knocks of growing up. Bubble or not, no one stays safe forever.
Key features: None.