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Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Continuing with the gloomy pessimism of the 70s, AND trope of dystopias with deadly super-games, Rollerball came out shortly after Death Race 2000. Where DR2K was a dark comedy with undertones of social commentary, director Norman Jewison gives Rollerball a very serious approach to the same topic — an oppressive future tyranny that used a brutal sport to distract the populace from their oppression. James Caan stars as the awakening sports hero, Jonathan E. John Houseman stars as the sinister corporate board chairman. The game of Rollerball is a convoluted mix of roller derby, football, basketball and cage fighting. The game is only a tool, however, of the supra-national corporations who control every aspect of citizens’ lives. The corporations, however, unwittingly spawn a populist hero. That was the last thing they wanted.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The story opens (slowly) to a rollerball game between the Houston team and Miami. The game is tough, but Jonathan’s leadership gives Houston the win. Afterward, Mr. Bartholomew (Houseman) gives the team a locker room pep talk about their semi-finals match against Tokyo. He also asks Jonathan to come see him at his office. At the corporate headquarters, Mr. Bartholomew tells Jonathan that the corporation wants him to retire. Jonathan is puzzled, thinking only of his team winning another championship, but Bartholomew insists that he announce his retirement on a TV special. Jonathan is polite, but noncommittal. Later, he asks his trainer to find out why he is supposed to retire. Jonathan, still trying to research why he is being pressured to retire, tries to check out books from a library. All his choices have suddenly become classified. His corporate-assigned mistress has been replaced. Daphne tries to urge him to retire. At the taping of the television special about Jonathan’s career, he refused to make his retirement announcement. Jonathan flies to Geneva to get information from a major computer portal. Zero, the computer quietly managing mankind via information control, only answers in tautologies. “Corporate decisions are made by executives. Executives are those who make corporate decisions.” Bartholomew demands that Jonathan retire. Jonathan demands several concessions — one of which is to see his former wife, Ella, who was taken by an executive that fancied her. There is a party in Jonathan’s honor (and to watch the TV special). Later, many of the party guests go outdoors and blow up several spruce trees with incendiary bullets. (a metaphor) The Tokyo game is brutal, as a rules change eliminated penalties. Still, Jonathan leads his team to victory. His friend and teammate, Moonpie, is rendered brain dead by the Tokyo team. Jonathan refuses to sign the release to take Moonpie off life support. When Jonathan returns to his ranch, Ella is there. They reconnect in a distance sort of way, and share apologies, but their former life is irretrievable. She, too, urges him to just do what the corporation tells him. “Comfort means freedom.” Still, Jonathan refuses to retire. The finals match against New York has more rules changes. No penalties, no substitutions, and no time limit. It is, essentially, a cage fight to the death. Many players are killed in savage ways. It comes down to two NY men vs. just Jonathan. He escapes the attack by one of the NY men, killing the NY man in front of Mr. Bartholomew. He defeats the attack of the second man, but stops at the moment of killing. Instead, he takes the ball and scores the game’s only goal. The stone-silent arena bursts into cheers and chants of Jon-a-than, Jon-a-than! He skates toward the camera, smiling. Freeze frame. Roll credits. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
This is a serious and well-done dystopia tale. There is much to muse over and discuss over beverages later. The directing and acting are great. The writing has depth. The cinematography, while dark at times, has a richness to the views and textures. While the vehicle is gruesome, the story is engaging.

Cultural Connection
Corporate Villains — Big corporations as villains was not a new trope. They had taken on some air villainy back in the late 1800s. This was the era of the “robber baron” tycoons: Carnegie, Mellon, Morgan, Vanderbilt, etc. A couple world wars and a Cold War added some more urgent villains, but when those waned, the old corporate villain archetype re-emerged. The “flower child” youth who came of age after the crest of Atomic Angst did not share their elders’ fear of communism. Instead, the old villains were rediscovered.

Pre-Hunger Games — There are many similarities between the 70s dystopia of Rollerball, and the 2000s’ dystopia in The Hunger Games. Both feature an oppressive tyranny that uses an annual brutal sport as a distraction to keep the masses’ energy spent in useless channels. In both, the protagonist is good at “the game.” In both, the protagonist becomes aware of the larger picture (the games are deception) and thus the protagonist opts to rebel. In both, the evil overlords try to manipulate the rebellious protagonist with rules changes. In both, the protagonist “wins” their way and thus anger the overlords, who are all the more angry at the protection fame gives. Rollerball is the Hunger Games of the X generation.

Boring Middle? — Some viewers regard the middle third of Rollerball to be weak and boring. This may be because they expect an all-action film. Instead, the middle of the film is all about the awakening of Jonathan’s soul. In the first third, he is the unaware pawn of the overlords. He lives to play the game and win. His natural leadership qualities, which made him the championship team captain, alarm the overlords. They rule by bribes. Keep the people comfortable and they won’t make trouble. The game was designed to vent any aggressive urges. But, the overlords’ brutal diversion was breeding a populist leader. That would not do. The call for his retirement on the eve of another championship series is the dissonance that breaks the spell. The middle third of the film is about Jonathan’s growth. He is the reluctant rebel. His former life was good, but once the genie was out of the bottle, there was no turning back. Even when the corporation gave him his stolen wife back, he could not resume his former life. Everything had changed. His growth in the middle third explains why he fights so hard to stay in the game designed to kill him: why he kills the second-to-last New York player directly in front of Mr. Bartholomew: why he refuses to kill the last player and why he bothered to make the winning goal. Defiance of the overlords. That, is what the middle third is about.

Closet Colossus — Behind the scenes of this comfortable world of 2018, is the super computer Zero. Not much is made of it, but it is hinted at by the Librarian, that Zero controls everything. Zero talks in smoke-screen tautologies. Zero controls all of mankind’s information. If Zero wanted the whole of 13th century history to “disappear down the memory hole,” that history is gone. With no books anymore, mankind has no recourse. Unlike Colossus (of the Forbin Project), Zero operates behind the figureheads of the corporate oligarchy. But, do even those directors actually control things, or does Zero actually control them?

Hockey Roots — Screenwriter William Harrison was a hockey fan. He liked the game as a game. It was at one particular game that a nasty fight broke out (surprise!) and the fans cheered with bloodlust. It was the savage nature of the hockey fan and the opiate of violence that inspired and informed his screenplay. Rollerball is not so much an indictment of sports — even violent sports — so much as it’s an indictment of the masses’ addiction to them and the corporate/media pushers who feed the addiction.

What’s Up With Killing Trees? — A scene that puzzles some viewers is when the guests at Jonathan’s screening party amble outside and take turns gleefully blowing up tall spruce trees with incendiary bullets from a revolver. This scene often elicits a “What was THAT all about?” It’s partly a metaphor for how the corporations consume (burn up) the rollerball players with the game. Note how many players die before the end. But it is also a metaphor for the public’s complicity. Note the idiotic glee the guests show while destroying the trees. Only the acceptance by millions of fans can give the game its mesmerizing power. Near the end, the team’s exec shouts at the trainer, who was upset that the game had become just a street fight. “The Game? This was never a game!”

Bottom line? Rollerball is well worth watching. The party music is badly dated, but the rest of the film is timeless. Yes, it has some brutality. The “gore” is very mild by today’s grim standards. Caan plays his role excellently. He is heroic, but has no swagger. Houseman does an excellent job too, as the silky smooth villain. The supporting cast are good too. There are a great many subthreads and tangental topics in Rollerball. This makes it worth watching several times.


Anonymous said...

The only thing i`ve ever really liked about James Caan is that he is perhaps the most rampantly heterosexual man who has ever lived.

Unknown said...

Howdy Film Buffs,

I remember when this film came out.

Who would have thought that it would be a semi-accurate vision of the future.

Sports figures, entertainment personalities, reality shows, trank for the masses.

Kind of like the science fiction books of the fifties - they got so many things right (they blew it in regards to computers).

A well made and well acted movie.