US | 1975 | Directed by Norman Jewison
Logline: In a corporate-controlled future a popular veteran in a powerful, but violent sport sets out to challenge and defy those who want him out of the game.
Based on his own short story titled "Roller Ball Murder" William Harrison provided the screenplay to the Hollywood production, one of many utopian/dystopian-style futurist science fiction movies from the early-to-mid 70s, of which A Clockwork Orange, Soylent Green, and Logan’s Run are three others baring a similar wary, but very dated vibe. Curiously Rollerball is the only one that has been remade (more on that later).
It is 2018. There are no more wars, but instead a violent indoor arena sports game, a circus-like cross between roller derby, gridiron, ice hockey, and wrestling that has the monopoly on conflict, as the world has become a global corporate state. Jonathan E. (James Caan) is the popular star of the Houston Rollerball team. He’s a ten-year veteran. But it is his flagrant Alpha male arrogance that is threatening the secret corporate purpose of the game - to expose the futility of individualism - of which Jonathan is determined to undermine, at all costs.
The head of the Energy Corporation Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman in suitably ripe and mannered form) attempts to lure the star player away from the game with all manner of incentives and gifts, including a new trophy lover Daphne (Barbara Trentham) to replace Mackie (Pamela Hensley) who had been the replacement for his wife, Ella (Maud Adams), who had been inexplicably removed from his life by executive order. Jonathan only wants to know why he must retire … so, game on.
Like Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, and A Clockwork Orange, Rollerball sports (excuse the pun) a fascinating and compelling premise, but is let down by ill-conceived production design that fails to portray the kind of future that would likely exist in terms of technology, fashion, and industrial design (though you gotta love the movie poster design). These are movies irretrievably trapped in their own time warp, which in many ways only adds to their curious nature. They are all incredibly earnest in their thematic intent, even their subtext, but are also strangely devoid of a sense of humour. When they are humorous it is unintentional, more a result of silly, garish design.
Norman Jewison directs the Rollerball scenes with gusto, however, and much of the stunt work is solid. In fact, it was one of the very first Hollywood productions to properly credit the stunt performers. The use of classical music, in particular Bach’s brooding Toccata and Fugue in D minor, is notable, especially in the movie’s opening credit sequence, and in the movie’s nihilistic, final scene.
Rollerball, with all its silly roulette and pinball collisions, ends in precisely the way you expect it to, but the journey there, though too talky for its own good as an action flick - there are only two Rollerball games actually depicted in the two-hour running time - does have a decent sense of momentum, carried by Caan’s charisma, but also his support cast, the striking Hensley and Trentham offer as much as they can, despite their thankless roles, as does Jonathan’s buddy and teammate Moonpie (John Beck), one of many who, none-too-surprisingly, sport a mo’ (sorry, it slipped out again).
Rollerball, in its day, would have been very much the kind of science fiction movie for those that don’t usually watch sf movies, particular as it was sold on its cold-blooded, visceral nature. It’s a violent movie, but tame by today’s standards. Curiously, the 2002 remake, directed by John McTiernan, was originally written as a much more powerful movie, in terms of its intellectual, socio-political content, but McTiernan decided audiences would want a bloody, all-out action flick and delivered a hard-R movie, which bombed with test audiences, resulting in a heavily re-shot and re-edited PG-rated wipeout. Ahhh, the irony.
I’m still hanging out for a remake of Solent Green and Logan’s Run, perhaps another go at Rollerball could be made; a complete overhaul in terms of design, whilst keeping the sharp socio-political edge of the original, and pushing the ultra-violence and nihilism into the extreme. Let’s face it, 2018 is just around the corner, so let’s get real.