Viking Night: Rollerball
By Bruce Hall
April 12, 2018
Because I’ve always had an interest in history, I find myself fascinated by the window a dystopian vision can give us into the times of its creator. It’s often the dawn of new age or way of thinking that fuels the creation of such stories, and writing about what you fear tends to lay your logic bare, for better or for worse. Whether the changes being chronicled are scientific or social, and whether they’re perceived to be a benefit or a threat it’s fun for those of us who live in the future to try and put it all into modern context.
With Rollerball, the result is startlingly prophetic and unexpectedly captivating. And that’s pretty amazing, given this is a film where armor clad men in candy colored uniforms and roller skates serve as an extension of global power.
The game of Rollerball itself resembles Roller Derby, except the players are always men. And, it’s played on a banked track with a steel ball about the size of a grapefruit. The players wear football helmets and spiked gloves, there are motorcycles involved for some reason, and physical safety does not appear to a significant concern. The object is to deposit the ball into your opponent’s goal and if necessary, also his stupid face.
Rollerball has (obviously) replaced all other sports as the primary form of spectator entertainment around the globe, and its biggest draw is a handsome, soft-spoken superstar named Jonathan E. (James Caan) who plays for the Houston team. Jonathan and teammates Moonpie (John Beck) and Blue (Tony Brubaker) form the core of Rollerball’s reining championship squad.
All is not well though because it if were, there’d be no story.
An unspecified series of events have resulted in the collapse of all global nation-states, and the world is now run by six megacorporations. The largest of these is called Energy Corp, and is based in Houston. They, like their five counterparts, own their respective Rollerball team and is represented by a color code. Both Energy Corp. and their Rollerball team are represented by the color orange, which the film wastes no time in associating with all things Ominous.
The world population is divided into a large working class, and a comparatively small group of wealthy elite. These lucky few live lives of perpetual comfort and ease. This includes a stipend of mood enhancing drugs I’m just going to go ahead and call “Benzos”. With guaranteed employment and the spectacle of Rollerball keeping the Blue Collar types happy, plus a constant supply of drugs and booze keeping the wealthy occupied, war and famine have been completely eliminated.
All the corporations ask in return is total obedience. Books no longer exist, and all education and public information management is provided by the Corporations. Everyone knows as much as they need to know an in return, they have as much as they need to have. There’s hardly any need to participate in life; people seem content to exchange their individual freedom for the ability to feel like a cat lying in a beam of sunlight nearly all the time.
Bread and Circuses, and all that. Ooh - “Bread and Benzos”! I’m getting that on a t-shirt!
Of course not everyone is happy with this, which brings us back to Jonathan. Houston is in the middle of another championship run when the team owner (John Houseman) abruptly approaches Jonathan, asking him to retire. Great emphasis is put on the fact that Jonathan is never given a specific reason for the request, and the plot of the film revolves around his attempts to find out, as he puts up resistance. But you don’t have to step very far back from the plot to see what’s going on. His crime is being so good at what he does that he’s become a Brand.
And in a world where there’s no such thing as individualism, that’s a non-starter.
Caan plays Jonathan with a stoic apprehension that up to this point, has probably looked like the bewildered obedience of a dumb jock. What’s more likely is that in another place and time, Jonathan would be the Face of the Sport, speaking at fundraisers, selling pizza on television and hosting Saturday Night Live once every couple of years. But there’s just no place for that kind of savvy in this world. So when Jonathan resists, the Company begins taking drastic steps to secure his compliance.
By the way, while the movie you’re imagining probably lands like a campy joke, Rollerball itself is nothing of the sort. This is a futuristic thriller that takes itself perhaps a little too seriously, but does manage to present some starkly prescient themes that I found to be particularly resonant in today’s world. Over forty years on, this is a film that imagines the world of 2018 in a way that should give you pause while watching.
Now obviously, a film made in 1975 is going to have an unavoidably archaic aesthetic. Rollerball is rocking more than its share of molester moustaches, shag carpet and polyester suits. But when a film this old describes a society where the population is too busy eating, gaping at television and medicating itself with prescription drugs to care which way the political winds are blowing, it’s time to start watching for Terminators. Someone has invented a time machine.
Rollerball is weirdly absorbing. Genre films of this time almost always skimp on one or two areas of production, much the way Logan’s Run did with that damn robot or Zardoz did with all of Sean Connery’s clothes. But the actual Rollerball matches are really well filmed and legitimately fun to watch. The world itself is very well designed and despite the era still looks sufficiently futuristic so as not to distract from the narrative.
Norman Jewison (The Thomas Crown Affair, Moonstruck) and his cast take the material seriously, making the stakes feel realistic even when the story does wander into the DMZ between “stylized” and “campy”. Yes it’s a bit too long, with many expository scenes padded with the sort of navel-gazing and arbitrary camera-zooming you’d expect from a genre film of this period. And although this is hardly the only film in history to explore these themes, that shouldn’t make them any less compelling. Near the end of the film, as Jonathan continues to press his agenda of individual freedom, an exasperated companion retorts:
“Comfort IS freedom!”
Wow. The society depicted in Rollerball are a bunch of lazy, unambitious sellouts. I’d hate living in a world like that.