Rollerball is one of those special films that needs no introduction. The music. The violence. The macabre and miserable atmosphere. Unlike Death Race 2000, Rollerball contains an ethereality that permeates every second of the viewers’ film watching experience; but akin to Death Race 2000 and SF of the seventies, Rollerball continues this theme of American disillusionment. Unsurprisingly, of course.
Having adapted his short story, Roller Ball Murder, William Harrison’s plot is as follows:
‘In a corporate-controlled future, an ultra-violent sport known as Rollerball represents the world, and one of its powerful athletes is out to defy those who want him out of the game.’
The tone of the film is clear as it opens with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. There is a darkness that envelops the cast as they, including protagonist and star player, Jonathan E. (James Caan), enter the “rollerdome”. From the onset, the audience member understands that this isn’t merely a sport that one plays. It is culture. It is battle. It is a challenge between barbarians shackled by corporate entities. The combatants rise to listen to the corporate anthem of the United States, the camera slowly panning over their sunken and hollow faces whilst the audience remains somber until the battle commences.
Something that initially concerned me about reviewing this film is that I’m generally not a massive sports fan. But then again, Rollerball is not much of a sports film. The sport itself is a vehicle for director Norman Jewison to explore the concept of corporate tyranny and the loss of the individual with the bloodsport itself. As the rights and freedoms of Jonathan E. are constricted by the corporate overlord Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), the game becomes more vile, unrestricted and unruly. For as I mentioned above, the sport is not merely a game, but an idea to instill a sense of inferiority upon the combatants. To remove the individuality. To strip the decency of the human being. This is Rollerball, and I was blown away with what I witnessed.
Visually, the film is outdated. The technology appears to be mostly silver cardboard, whereas the computers and monitors even appear to be outmoded for the seventies. For me, there is a quaint charm to technology in an elderly SF film, and this is especially true when one of the librarians speaks to a tall computerized plinth of water. But for most normal people, this might be too distracting.
Another problem that borders on distracting is the strange and unusual way the actors depict their characters. Some are overly boisterous, others comically corporate, and Caan (mostly) despondent. It didn’t bother me too much for I felt as if it was Jewison commenting the on social issues of his time. But there is an unusual scene that I cannot help but think of; a party of executives running into a rainy field blowing pine trees asunder with a futuristic rocket-gun-laser. The practical effects are lovely, but I was left with my mouth agape. For me, the symbolism is obvious and even refreshing, but for viewers expecting a sporty bloodbath, this might be a bit dull, or even boring.
As I list all the would-be issues, I find myself thinking about Jewison’s vision. His lovely use of shady lighting. The beautiful use of André Previn’s symphonic score. The awesome “battle” scenes.
While not overtly a film about rebellion like more recent dystopias, there is a resounding power of the protagonist that erupts towards the end. The slow trudge as the scarred Caan scores his final point. The crowd cheering. The executives lost for words. No gathering of the resistance. No romance. No banding of brothers. Nothing, but the individual overcoming the shackles of bondage. This is how rebellion should be. Take note.
Rollerball is a film that should have more of a following. It is a haunting film about a startling future that feels all too similar. Remember, Rollerball isn’t about the sport itself, but the individual against the corporate entity. It is perhaps one of the darkest and most frightening SF films I’ve watched in a while. Although not cyberpunk itself, Rollerball inspired sports in a number of cyberpunk titles such as Venus Wars, but most notably Battle Angel Alita (aka Gunnm) which will be coming to the big screen under the guidance of James Cameron. A definite recommendation.
If you’d love to watch or rewatch this masterpiece, you can purchase a copy here.