A sentimental favorite of many ’70s kids, this made-for-TV bummer fictionalizes the real-life experiences of two young men who were born without functioning immune systems, and were thus forced to spend their lives inside containment chambers. (The storyline features a single composite character.) Much of the picture’s appeal can be attributed to the participation of leading man John Travlota, who was already a small-screen heartthrob thanks to Welcome Back, Kotter; in fact, just a year after this movie was broadcast, Travolta made the leap to big-screen stardom with Saturday Night Fever. Seeing the virile Travolta reduced to emasculating captivity amplifies the movie’s themes of frustration and isolation, and it’s a safe bet millions of young ’70s girls wept during scenes of Travolta’s character suffering anguish because of his unique condition.
The movie begins with a middle-class couple, Johnny Lubitch (Robert Reed) and Mickey Lubitch (Diana Hyland), celebrating the birth of a son—only to be told by their kindhearted physician, Dr. Gunther (Ralph Bellamy), that young Tod can’t leave his “plastic bubble” until a cure for his ailment is found. After some maudlin scenes of the Lubitches learning to connect with their child, plus a choking incident in which the infant nearly dies, the film cuts to Tod’s adolescence, when Travolta takes over the role. Living in an elaborate enclosure that’s akin to a Habitrail, Tod longs to be with other kids, especially his pretty next-door neighbor, Gina (Glynis O’Connor). He gets his wish, sort of, when he’s supplied with an airtight spacesuit that allows Tod to attend high school. Alas, his desire to breathe free air remains unsatisfied, so the question of how long Tod can suppress life-threatening urges creates a blunt sort of dramatic tension.
Produced by prolific hacks Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, and directed by crowd-pleaser Randal Kleiser, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is absurdly manipulative, a low-budget weepie built around a character who demonstrates saintly personal character. Yes, Tod talks about masturbating and he’s a wiseass during homeroom, but he’s essentially a lonely soul desperate for human contact. As a result, only the anger in Travolta’s performance keeps the piece from being totally saccharine—yet once the movie reaches its fanciful ending, any pretense to dramatic credibility gives way to melodramatic excess. Beyond its iffy virtues as a narrative, however, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is beloved for its ’70s kitsch factor, from Travolta’s meticulously blowdried hairstyle to the casting of Brady Bunch dad Reed as Tod’s papa. Trivia buffs also note the significance of this project in Travolta’s life—Bubble helmer Kleiser subsequently directed Travolta in Grease (1978), and Travolta embarked on a love affair with costar Hyland, several years his senior, until her death from cancer in 1977.
The Boy in the Plastic Bubble: FUNKY