Rollerball (1975)
Rollerball (1975)

Genre: Action and Sci-Fi Thriller Running Time: 2 hrs. 5 min.

Release Date: June 25th, 1975 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Norman Jewison Actors: James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck, Moses Gunn, Pamela Hensley, Barbara Trentham, Richard LeParmentier, Nancy Bleier

 


 

A

n absolutely resounding rendition of Bach’s “Toccata” introduces the Houston Rollerball arena, home of the world champions, where they’re about to challenge the visiting team from Madrid. Led by Captain Jonathan E. (James Caan), the season’s highest scorer, the Houston players kick things into gear by skating into formation on the exterior of the ring-shaped arena, where they soon snag a silver ball (not unlike a shot put) and attempt to hurl it into a goal. But they must fend off opponents with spiked gauntlets, shielded motorcycles, and officials who routinely ignore unsubtle physical assaults.

This futuristic sport is incredibly violent, yet it doesn’t seem too outrageous. In fact, it’s little more than a natural progression from current-day, antagonistic, physically demanding, foul-heavy contests. Here, injuries occur every few seconds; blood flows freely on the hardwood track; and punches and brawls are expected, applauded components of gameplay. Occasional penalties aren’t much of a deterrent.

Jonathan is having the best season of his career – and he’s been Houston’s star player for an unmatched ten years. Owner Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman) struggles to devise new incentives and rewards for Jonathan’s continued success – a problem that teammate Moonpie (John Beck) wishes he had for himself. At the palatial Houseman’s Energy Corporation high-rise (decorated in bright oranges and blues), where Jonathan is summoned, Bartholomew explains that, as corporations control all societal matters, they’ve decided it’s time for a change. Jonathan must retire. He’s consternated by the judgment, but Bartholomew insists that no one is allowed to object to a corporate decision. After all, they control the entire city, managing food, housing, utilities, employment (and climbing up the ladder, where luxury centers and personal secretaries are available upon acquiring a privilege card, and where becoming an executive is the ultimate accomplishment), and more (as a result of the end of the Corporate Wars). They’re also responsible for a substantial amount of information censorship.

While thinking it over at his ranch, Jonathan gets his longtime pal Cletus (Moses Gunn) to dig into the reasons behind the forced retirement. But a trip to the library turns up nothing; a switch in corporation-assigned female companionship (from Pamela Hensley as Mackie to Barbara Trentham as Daphne) doesn’t inspire him; and television programs and lavish parties can’t distract him from his pending ultimatum. The Energy Corporation may have given him everything, but it’s also taken away the one thing he can’t seem to shake: the girl he truly loved, his wife Ella (Maud Adams).

As the Rollerball sport provides a social purpose – one primarily for control through the guise of entertainment, like any gladiatorial game – this modestly futuristic extrapolation poses a mystery alongside its civil commentary (it’s actually stated explicitly toward the end: “The game’s created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort”). Why is Jonathan being pushed out? But the powers that be must not be challenged, and everyone is to blindly obey … or else. It’s meant to be satirical, but it’s not that far off the mark; in many ways, “Rollerball” merely highlights the painful realities of a capitalistic, corporate-dominated society. Through this subtle pasquinade, riddled with uncomfortable truths and the paranoia of continual quandaries, the film shares themes with “Soylent Green,” skewering socioeconomic issues alongside governmental corruption (as well as suggesting that at the top of the food chain, women become objects). It comparably makes superb use of classical music.

Of course, at its heart, it emphasizes the people’s (both commoners and elites) obsession with spectacle and violence, and the ways in which heavily publicized sporting events can be regulated and influenced by money and power and exploited for nationalistic enthusiasm. A pivotal Tokyo matchup for the third act builds suspense (and bloodshed), which was formerly elusive, making the most of stunts and action-based cinematography (adding excitement but delaying revelations). With the inexplicable removal of penalties and a decrease in allowed substitutions, the escalation in carnage spurs another motive: revenge. It’s never as hokey as “Death Race 2000,” but it certainly shares its penchant for mayhem. Life is cheap; players are expendable.

“There aren’t any rules at all.” Jonathan’s popularity challenges the idea that an individual can rise above a group effort (his last name isn’t even given – yet another way to suppress individuality), which is the downfall to total dependency on socialistic programs directed by an oligarchy. Comfort leads to the steady sacrifice of freedoms – unless defiant individuals begin to question the supreme rulers. Fascinatingly, “Rollerball” opts to relay its potent “1984”-like message aided substantially by brutality and furor – a striking notion that would inspire the subsequent sci-fi likes of “They Live,” “Brazil,” “Blade Runner,” “Robocop,” “V for Vendetta,” and more.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10