The Film: Rollerball (1975)

The Principles: James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck, Moses Gunn. Screenplay by William Harrison. Directed by Norman Jewison.

The Premise: It is the future. There are no wars and corporations run the entire world. A brutally violent sport called Rollerball is used to keep the populace in line and entertained, but the popularity of one individual player, Jonathan E., causes the power elite to want him out of the game. But he doesn’t want out.

Is it good: A lot of the dystopian science fiction movies from the seventies can appear a tad dated today in terms of appearance, but the ideas and themes they are conveying are more thought provoking now then when they were originally released. Rollerball is one of the best from that era and it holds up beautifully in both story and design with an incredibly provocative socio-economic message at its core.

The film is set in a future with no date provided for us, but from the info we are given it appears that after many wars (including something referred to as the “corporate wars”) peace has been established and everyone lives in a controlled corporate society where everything is provided for. The corporate executive culture lives high on the hog and keeps the rest of the drones occupied with a gladiator-like spectacle of blood and carnage called Rollerball. It’s a barbaric combination of Football, Hockey and Motocross racing that was designed to serve the social purpose of demonstrating the futility of individual effort to the masses. The Rollerballers skate around a rink alongside other players on motorcycles while a heavy metallic ball is shot out of a cannon to be scooped up by a member of either team. Once someone has the ball they must make their way to the enemies heavily guarded goal line and score by pushing it through a magnetic hole. The other team uses their spiked gloves and elbow pads to bash players off their skates where the motorcycles riders run them down. In other words, it’s one vicious motherfucker of a game and the player turnover rate is pretty high.

But someone never told that to Jonathan E. (James Caan) because he’s the best Rollerballer ever and has been playing it longer than anyone else. The movie begins with an amazing game between Jonathan E. and his champion team Houston against the visiting team from Munich. The opening match is extremely exciting and you really get the feeling for how violent and insane a game it is. Jonathan is loved by all his teammates and has a special bond with another talented Rollerballer named Moonpie (John Beck). As Houston is ready to take on the finals, a powerful executive named Bartholomew (John Houseman) meets with Jonathan and tells him that upper management wants him to retire before the next game. Apparently in a corporate controlled future where everyone is easily replaceable, Jonathan E. has been giving the populace too much hope by providing a strong individual to root for. But being a Rollerballer is all Jonathan knows and he’s tired of doing everything the corporation tells him to do. They once took away the woman he loved because an executive wanted her and he’s had enough of doing things their way.

As a result, the game becomes more dangerous when the rules are changed allowing no penalties or substitutions. A horribly violent and crazy match between Houston and the Tokyo team results in many deaths including Moonpie, but Jonathan will not quit no matter who tries to convince him other wise. In the final game between Houston and New York there are no time limits set, meaning the game will finish when there are no players left alive except one. Jonathan plays the most savage game of his life and in the end he shows the corporate elite that one man can make a difference by standing alone as the sole victor. His symbol of strength charges the crowd as they shout his name in defiance of the system.

You will never find a more action-packed film with such deeply introspective commentaries on our society as this one. The Rollerball game was designed for the film to be played by the actual actors and stuntmen so you always feel like you’re watching a real game that could be played in the real world. Apparently the cast, extras and stunt guys played it between takes. Norman Jewison was enjoying a very successful string of films during the seventies and this one is, in my opinion, one of his strongest and most resonating. He and William Harrison’s brilliant script are filled with all kinds of little details about the future, including a rather open sexual environment and the socially accepted use of mind altering drugs for recreational purposes. There’s a very interesting scene in which we learn how all information regarding Earth’s history in the future has been placed in a giant computer bank in Geneva that is starting to forget everything it knows. We also get a very clear understanding of how replaceable everyone is in this society. Jonathan himself orders a new wife every six months, so he doesn’t become attached. The privledged corporate class are portrayed as nihilistic assholes that are desensitized to everything, which is captured beautifully in one very cool segment where a group of drugged up executives and their concubines leave a party to go out in the woods and blow up some trees with a futuristic handgun just for fun.

James Caan’s performance as our hero Jonathan E. is nothing short of perfect. You really admire his desire to find out why he’s being pushed out and his resistance to go along with the program. The three Rollerball games that we watch in this movie are incredibly exciting and extremely brutal. Overall, this is one smart and entertaining dystopian sci-fi film that has aged beautifully and packs some very powerful social commentary. John McTiernan remade it in 2002 into a shitty, stupid mess of a movie that barely resembled the original in any way, shape or form except in its use of the title. It also serves as a prime example that if you’re going to remake a movie and you decide to eliminate everything that’s great about the original film in terms of story and character, then why fucking bother?

Is it worth a look: Yes, it’s a great movie that has aged very well. Jewison shot the majority of it in Munich, Germany and the “modern” buildings that are used gives the feeling that we are in an age far from our own. Also, no year is ever mentioned, which adds a certain timelessness to it. This is one of those smart science fiction movies that people once made to give us a little warning as to where we might be headed as a society. In many ways, the sensuality vs. spirituality, violence equals entertainment, luxury is happiness world this film exists in is pretty much already here. We just don’t have the game yet.

Random anecdotes: Norman Jewison intended Rollerball to be an anti-violence statement against our culture. To his horror there were actual talks in the wake of the film to form real Rollerball leagues and turn it into a legitimate sport. No shit.

Cinematic soul mates: Death Race 2000, Solyent Green, Logan’s Run, The Running Man, Battle Royale, The Hunger Games.