Sci-Fi Dystopia Theatre: Rollerball (1975)
The natural cinematic progeny of the sci-fi drive-in roller derby 70’s era remains ROLLERBALL, a film that seems to gain in stature over the years if only for its prescient glimpse at a hi-tech world led by corporations not countries. In the year 2018, war is a costly and outdated waste of resources, so the global battlefield has been downsized to a violent sporting event on wheels designed as “breads and circuses” for the masses. At the peak of his fame, Jonathan E (James Caan), the greatest player of all time, is forced by the Houston Energy Corporation into an early retirement for reasons he doesn’t understand. Jonathan E is a standard jock-type, not an intellectual, but he’s savvy enough to know when he’s being played. His burgeoning self-awareness (the ultimate cinematic theme of the 70’s?) is admirable as he tries to navigate the behind-the-scenes machinations of Rollerball. He soon realizes that he is but a pawn in a multinational fishbowl; his investigation into the nature of the sport and his ultimate rebellion against the corporate system leads to a suitably fiery, violent conclusion.
ROLLERBALL, written by William Harrison and based on his 1973 Esquire short story, is a genuine oddity in the Norman Jewison directorial canon (his previous film was JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR), but archetypal for the early 70’s, when studios weren’t afeared to release films that didn’t play to easy audience expectations. Like other movies of the era, the story isn’t out to provide a noble hero with a cathartic victory, though that theme runs between the wires here. How visionary is it that Jonathan plays for the Houston team, symbol for the Texas monopoly on energy and entertainment. The opening scene is unforgettable if you saw this film as a lad or lassie, the ominous chords of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor as it leads us from the stark entrance of the Rollerball teams to the audience rising for the Corporate Anthem. I dig how Jonathan taps his spiked fist against his leg; he’s ready to skate and bash. I also like the image of the well-suited business giants led by Barthlomew (John Houseman in a terrific performance) in their box seats savoring the deadly brawls on the rink above the hoi polloi. Jewison expertly directs the Rollerball games using a verite camera to capture the tics and mannerisms of the eager players and bloodthirsty audience, mimicing the raw spectacle of ABC’S WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS. This whole almost wordless opening is a testament to the 70’s era of subtlty. Until the steel ball shoots out and the players take to the rink in fierce battle.
As Jonathan E, James Caan turns in one of his most interesting performances of the decade. Caan is a tough actor who doesn’t project much warmth, specifically because he is tough, and his quiet inner-rage suits the character well. He doesn’t completely alter his personality as he discovers the smoke and mirrors bottom-line manifesto of 2018, and it’s not clear if Caan merely resents his beloved death sport being twisted by corporate manipulation or if he has realized the whole system is bankrupt and an enslaving illusion. The scene where Jonathan E lets Moonpie get revved up against the Tokyo team shows that he still revels in the competitive bloodlust of sports. Still, it’s better that he never speechifies about his societal confusion as Caan lets us see him awaken. Harrison’s sparse script and Jewison’s clinical direction keep these ideas bubbling under the story’s cold surface. This is a very 70’s film: the characters are flawed, unlikable and emotion is kept at spiked arm’s length. They’re even addicted to tiny pills that induce a Soma-like calm and reverie.
Of course the most interesting thing about ROLLERBALL next to its ingenious sport is the science fiction elements and how they are portrayed in an era before STAR WARS (1977), when the genre tended towards somber brooding cautionaries in the cinematic dystopic age. Special effects tended to be bland opticals done by faceless departments. One of the common mistakes of the period was to neglect fashion projections in favor of more extreme styles of 1974. The polyester jumpsuits and the feathered hair along with “futuristic” numbers are in abundance here, but that’s cool, maybe by 2018 we’ll have come full circle back into the leisure suit age (that would be true dystopia). Fortunately, there are many visual pleasures in ROLLERBALL, courtesy of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), whose stark wide-screen vision complements the minimalist sets and design. Art director Robert Haig’s “Multi-Vision” big home screen is apropos and the “television and crystals” look is consistent with the new-age era. Since Haig did similar duties for ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969) he gets an approving pass. The film’s German locations definitely give it an otherworldly ambiance. And what can be said about the classical score, conducted by Andre Previn and featuring one of the funkiest Moog tracks (“Executive Party”) to ever come out of that wondrous soundboard (of course it’s become a favorite of modern hipsters).
The actors are all game, and it’s interesting to note that in the post-feminist future, women like Maud Adams can be replaced like stock options and the ultimate goal is to marry an executive, a few who were former Rollerball players. Moses Gunn is good as Jonathan’s sincere, confused coach and John Beck makes an effective Moonpie, who seems just right as a Texas-sized bruiser. And I do love John Houseman here, a corporate guru who feeds pills to his players as he gives them locker-room pep-talks. “Stupid Game. Awful game,” Bartholmew later tells Jonathan E. in the last breach with his company-induced reality. He also informs him that “Corporate society was an inevitable destiny” in a line that sums up the major theme of the film. Ralph Richardson provides the film’s only intentional levity as the absent-minded overseer of “Zero” the world’s super computer who sadly has no more memory. Although this scene is tonally different, as are Peter Ustinov’s scenes in LOGAN’S RUN (1976), it adds a nice comedic respite in an otherwise grim, steely film.
ROLLERBALL is certainly one of my favorite genre films and I pine for the day when complex thematic questions could be asked but necessarily answered (the less said about the pitiful 2002 remake the better). But that’s not to say that the movie doesn’t engage us on a primal and visceral level, which certainly accounted for its box-office success — without which we wouldn’t have DEATH RACE 2000 (1976) — asking us to check our responses to the onscreen carnage. As a child I responded by putting on hockey gloves, a football helmet and my skates so me and the neighborhood kids could find out for ourselves. Norman Jewison’s direction is just right for the outrageous material (roller derby as arbiter of world conflict? If only!). The Rollerball scenes are fast, ferocious, and the stuntwork is still amazing. Also effective and disturbing is when a group of corporate elites burn a row of towering trees in one of the seminal moments of 70’s sci-fi dystopia theatre. I also love the bloody, apocalyptic battle at the end, with fires burning and bodies lining the arena as Jonathan E makes his final stand to the world audience. What that means for their future can only be conjectured but if you see the endless line-up of reality shows that have blurred the line between voyeurism and exploitation, you might think 2018 is right around the rink.