Bubble Heads

Steven Soderbergh's feature film, Bubble, premiered last week in high definition on HDNet. It also opened simultaneously in several dozen theaters around the country, all of them either Landmark theaters (owned by HDNet owner Mark Cuban) or independent art houses. Theater chains boycotted the film because in its simultaneous release on cable television, in theaters, and (this past Tuesday) on DVD, it represented a perceived threat to their box office revenue.

As to the content of the film, the theater owners probably made the right choice. Some critics fawned over this supposedly revealing look at small town working class America, where the downtrodden go from paycheck to paycheck earned in numbing jobs, living in decrepit trailers and tiny, ancient tract houses. While this is most certainly true of a slice of the population, are all of them as depressingly dull and clinically depressed as the characters here?

Aiming for a naturalistic feel, Soderbergh used non-actors in all the major roles. The performances are surprisingly good, but not good enough to make me care much about what's going on in these boring lives. And when the "mystery" twist comes in the third act, it isn't much of a mystery and feels like it was tacked on to goose a little life into the film.

What was impressive, however, were the visuals. The "film" was shot with high definition video cameras and proves that an independent, low-budget movie doesn't have to look amateurish and grainy. While there's nothing in the thrift shop costumes or trailer trash sets to hold your eye for long, or to suggest that this is a slick, Hollywood production, everything looks crisp, clean, and detailed.

Will this sort of thing catch on? It will if HDNet's Cuban has his way. Several other films are scheduled for the same near-simultaneous cable, theatrical, and DVD release (Soderbergh is apparently on-board for six, including Bubble.

But it will be an uphill battle. Last September I reported on a CEDIA demonstration sponsored by Samsung. It showed a proposed way bring new feature films into the home, in HD, concurrent with their theatrical releases. Not just modest little indie films, but major Hollywood productions. The demo was held off-site, without fanfare.

Since that time, we're heard nothing more about it. No major announcements, and, more tellingly, no splash, big or small, at the more recent CES. I suspect that behind the scenes pressure from threatened interests simply pushed the whole thing off the table. Whether HDNet's less ambitious but more visible approach does anything to revive it, or is destined to remain an interesting experiment for small-scale, independent productions, remains to be seen.