No one could have foreseen the cola wars evolving into the corporate wars, and the advent of Rollerball.
Rollerball is a gritty and violent film about the pursuit of individualism at all costs, and a future where big brother is also the same company that sells you your toiletries and food.
The trailer for Rollerball appears to be another one of those trailers that shows everything about the movie. It starts with the eerie musical sting from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, showing numerous shots of what appears to be the game of Rollerball. It’s a future where wars, poverty and famine are abolished and man has achieved its highest goals: a corporate society and a good life. A woman threatens James Caan, the main character, that he’s not coming back and John Houseman tells him that the game is not something he should excel at. He seeks answers, and a friend of his tells him they’re afraid of him, all the while showing more violent imagery of Rollerball games. It wasn’t meant to be a game, screams one man, as Houseman continues to explain Rollerball is about the futility of individuals. All the while mayhem, explosions, and crowds chanting for Caan’s character–like a sports star.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Rollerball takes place in a near future where there is no war, no poverty, and no sickness. Where individual cities are run by corporations, which promote the violent game of Rollerball as an international pastime. It focuses on Jonathan E. (James Caan) who is the biggest name in the sport, having played and survived for many years. He is an exceptional player that helps Houston beat Madrid in a 3-1 match. The game consists of 12 players, three on motorcycles and the remainder on skates, riding around a circular track with a steel ball, and trying to put it into a small goal. Almost everything is fair in the game, but there are referees to make sure that things don’t get too out of hand. There are often injuries, and sometime they are fatal.
The next day Jonathan is asked to visit the Energy Corporation and their corporate boss, Mr. Batholomew (John Houseman). He gently asks Jonathan to retire during a special retrospective multivision broadcast he’s set up. He reminds Jonathan of everything that the corporation does for society. They “take care of everything,” and now it’s his turn to step down. Jonathan requires some time to think on this, he’s still upset by a corporate executive “taking away Ella.” He returns to his ranch by corporate helicopter to think on this.
At his ranch he sees his current corporate supplied girlfriend, Mackie (Pamela Hensley), who is bitter that she’s been given a note to leave him. He has dinner with his trainer and good friend Cletus (Moses Gunn) who reminisces about the times before the Corporate Wars. Jonathan decides to visit the library with his teammate Moonpie (John Beck) to find out some answers about the corporate decisions, but all the books he wants are no longer available. They have all been transcribed and summarized into the computer, i.e. edited and propagandized to suit the corporations. Jonathan falls into a funk and begins watching old videos of Ella, when his newly assigned corporate girl Daphne shows up. He is immediately brusque with her.
Jonathan is asked to visit a studio to record his retirement speech, but decides to leave when he sees that the entire speech is already on a teleprompter. Decisions are being made for him without his involvement, and that makes him upset. At the viewing party for Jonathan’s show, which is now just a retrospective and not a retirement, Cletus has found out that the executive directors are afraid of Jonathan, and warns him. Later Bartholomew meets with Jonathan to remind him that no player is greater than the game, and that he is succeeding where he is not supposed to. Jonathan wants concessions, like getting Ella back.
The next game that Houston plays is in Tokyo for the semifinals. In order to force Jonathan to rethink his stance, the executive decision has been made to change the rules for this match to have no penalties, and limited substitutions. Of course, that amps up the attacks by both sides which lead to a Houston cyclist being burned alive by an exploding bike, and Moonpie getting concussed to the point that he is braindead. A doctor wants Jonathan to sign a release for them to euthanize Moonpie, as it’s the rules, but Jonathan shouts back that there are no rules! Meanwhile Bartholomew meets with the other five Executives who all vote unanimously for the rule change for the final match in New York.
Ella (Maude Adams) appears at Jonathan’s home when he returns from Tokyo. They take a walk, and make love, but she talks about how she’s still married with two kids. Jonathan sees through the ruse and accuses her of being a corporate prize if he’ll walk away from the game. He decides to erase her videos and leave her. At the finals the rules have been updated to no substitutions and no time limits. Bartholomew and the directors hope this will eliminate Jonathan once and for all. While the violence of the match is greater than any other, Jonathan’s exceptional sportsmanship allows him to survive. As the only Houston team member left alive, he kills the remaining two New York players directly in front of Bartholomew and then puts the ball into the goal, winning the game! He skates off on a victory lap as the crowd chants his name over and over again.
“The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort. And the game must do its work.” – Bartholomew
History in the Making
Two months after the release of Death Race 2000, Rollerball hit theaters. As the story goes, Roger Corman, the producer of Death Race saw previews (or perhaps news) of Rollerball, and put his similar production on the fast track to get released first. By the mid 70s, genre films began getting released in pairs, sometimes called a movie twin. One studio would get a whiff of what another was working on, and suddenly competing clones were being released near each other at the box office. Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. Leviathan and The Abyss. Dreamscape and A Nightmare on Elm Street. And while Rollerball was the film that was backed by arguably bigger stars, and a larger budget, it seems more constrained.
Rollerball takes a dark tone in a dystopian future, where freedom and individuality is limited. It has a complicated plot that the main character, Jonathan E., must navigate. But in the end, it lays all the metaphor and plot elements neatly at the feet of the audience, not allowing for any ambiguity or interpretation. Whereas Death Race 2000, using a satirical voice, and presents many avenues of exploration for the audience to ponder. Plus Death Race is a much more vibrant, and energetic film than the plodding, slow-burn of Rollerball.
Regardless of which film audiences prefer both Rollerball and Death Race 2000 are responsible for a more violent and gritty sub-genre of sci-fi sports styled films. As mentioned last week, the popularity of sci-fi films like The Running Man, and Escape from New York stem from these films, but also other dystopian future survival films like The Hunger Games series, Futuresport, and the recent The Belko Experiment, and Guns Akimbo. There are of course non-genre examples of similar survival films (sport-based or not) that usually derive from The Most Dangerous Game, a 1924 short-story by Richard Connell.
The thing that Rollerball does better than any other film of the time, including Silent Running and Soylent Green, is its diatribe and absolute loathing of corporations. The future of the film is one where the major corporate players in the world, including transport, food, communication, housing, luxury, & energy have grown big enough that they are monopolies. Each “brand” oversees a particular city (RCI Energy owning Houston, Texas) and sponsors a Rollerball team in the world games. At some point these mega-giant corporations decided that, for the betterment of their world, they needed to create a society of complacent consumers in order to maximize their profits. Born of this was the Rollerball league and a world where a few companies control all the information. Rollerball’s corporations build on those from Soylent Green, Silent Running, and the Ingsoc government from George Orwell’s “1984,” while creating a wholly new parallel world. The point of these imaginings is one of warning. The sci-fi genre, in print or in film, is one that imagines possible “what if” scenarios. Some of them are positive, but many, as seen here in the 70s, are a series of dire futures based on the extrapolation of current social or political actions.
Rollerball’s main theme is one of individuality and individual achievement. While initially hinted at in conversations between Jonathan and Cletus as they try to figure out why retirement is being proposed, the character of Bartholomew lays it out plainly later. The quote above makes it pretty clear what the film is about. Unfortunately it doesn’t necessarily say why individuality is an issue. Everyone in the film seems to work for the corporation, whether involved in the Rollerball league, or an agent of RCI Energy. Ella, Mackie, and Daphne are all women who work as corporate concubines of some type (much like Shirl in Soylent Green), while the local “library” is nothing more than a corporate propaganda arm, and its “librarian” nothing more than a clerk. There’s no point where the film looks at the “regular people” of the society, other than as screaming fans at the various sporting matches. Rollerball wants the audience to feel sorry for Jonathan, a well paid, and well taken care of sports star, when he realizes that he’s being forced to retire when he’s not ready. Suddenly, in a Spartacus-like revolt, he rises to fight off the corporate powers-that-be, proving that individuals can change the world!
Unfortunately this comes off as a little hollow. Imagine a world in which Tom Brady was unable to continue playing football because the mega-corporations that own his team feel like he’s bringing too much hope to the masses about his individuality. Would fans really feel sorry that a multi-millionaire like Brady was unable to play a few more years? Rollerball doesn’t give the reason why the corporations need to keep the masses subdued. It’s just playing on the trope that corporations are evil, and like governments, out to create and hold onto power, regardless of the consequences for the “little people,” like Jonathan–arguably a 1-percenter. It’s not that the theme is bad. It just seems to be mishandled. Similar themes work well for stories like The Hunger Games, or Brazil, where the story is about the individual rising against the larger forces, to better the world and potentially break the bonds of oppression.
One unintended consequence of showing Jonathan’s struggle is it turns his character, not into a martyr, but a willing pawn of the corporations. The film is divided into three Rollerball matches, working their way toward the finals. The first match shows the brutality of the system, but has some rules associated with it. The second match against Tokyo removes a number of these rules, and the final with New York abolishes all pretense that this is a game, and removes all rules–turning the “game” into a death match. Jonathan refuses to retire, so the corporation removes rules in order to raise the risk towards him, in hopes he will be injured or killed, thus forcing his retirement and reinforcing their will. But instead of succumbing to the pressures, Jonathan rises to the challenges and excels! But, at what cost? In Jonathan’s efforts to prove to the corporation that he matters, he sacrifices numerous other lives of individuals like himself. Two of his teammates and friends die in the second match. Moonpie is kept on life support, but brain dead, as Jonathan doesn’t have the heart to terminate his life. Supposedly keeping him alive because he sees that life is precious, and also because it’s another big middle-finger to the establishment. But is he really concerned about saving lives? If he had chosen to retire and not play the third match, he would have saved 23 other lives; two of which he takes directly in front of Bartholomew as an eff-you to the big boss man! And the crowds love it!!
The Science in The Fiction
As with other early sci-fi films, the productions tended to use real-world locations that provided a futuristic look rather than rely on the sometimes lackluster effects of the time. Some really interesting locations in Germany serve as the future world of Houston. Continuing a trend that Sci-Fi Saturdays first noticed with Fahrenheit 451, the future world makes ample use of large screen televisions in Jonathan’s house. Technology of that type did not exist in the mid-70s and was probably created using a film projector system. Another interesting use of unknown technology is Bartholomew’s video conferencing system. Here the character sits in a control chair with a camera pointed at him, and is able to communicate instantly with five other members of his corporation. Also included in the setup is a texting system allowing these users to send simple on-screen messages (“Affirmative”) to each other in a simple voting procedure.
The biggest futuristic idea at the time is the central repository of knowledge in the computer “Zero” located in Geneva. A rudimentary internet, that citizens access from local libraries around the world, the information is readily at their fingertips. Unfortunately much of that information appears to be sanitized and edited by the corporations that sponsor its inclusion into the system. And unlike the current internet, which is made up of thousands of individual machines hosting the data, a single computer called “Zero,” which also appears to have some sort of artificial intelligence attached to it, is the lone host. Unfortunately the data has created a glitch in the machine, who often can’t answer a simple question. Whether that’s due to the edits in the data creating contradictory information in its memory (like HAL from 2001) or some other reason, it allows the machine to “crash” and lose information, such as all the data from the 13th Century as indicated by the head librarian. Actually, it’s hard to tell in the film if the librarian is honest with Jonathan in this aspect. It could be seen as blame centered on the machine, when in fact a corporation has asked the data center to “lose’ that Century.
The Final Frontier
Please don’t take away that this film is bad. It’s a quality film made by Norman Jewison, who is responsible for some amazing movies including Al Pacino’s stellar And Justice For All, In The Heat of the Night, and Moonstruck. But maybe sci-fi is not really his vehicle. Rollerball did win a Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film for 1974/75 from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, which considering many of the contenders during the time speaks volumes for this film. And while most of the actors in the film continued working in non-genre films, Pamela Hensley would become Princess Ardala, the nemesis/romanic interest, for Buck Rogers in the revamped television series from the end of the 70s.
Rollerball is an important stepping stone in 70s sci-fi that continues to elevate the genre to new heights. It was deemed an important enough film to remake in 2002. That version did not do well financially or critically, but that may be because it was trying to tell a story that was too different from this one. The lessons and warnings given in the original film are still beneficial and could still be heeded. Let’s just not start a bloody sports league that puts violent entertainment over the lives of the athletes.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.