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 In the year 2018, war is a costly and outdated waste of resources, so the global battlefield has been downsized to a violent sporting event on wheels designed as “breads and circuses” for the masses.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.

21 Responses to “Sci-Fi Dystopia Theatre: Rollerball (1975)”

  1. Wow, good piece! You pretty much covered the waterfront, but let’s see if I can’t find a couple of things to to respond to.

    “One of the common mistakes of the period was to neglect fashion projections in favor of more extreme styles of 1974. ”

    I’d argue that this is one of the most common failings of the genre regardless of era. Crewcuts in FORBIDDEN PLANET, bouffant hairdos in 2001, Seventies shag in ALIEN. Plus the makeup on the women always, ALWAYS looks mired in the period in which the film was made. (I really thought Kubrick, if anyone, would dodge this pitfall.) As I was watching MINORITY REPORT, I thought “this isn’t gonna age well.” Haven’t seen it since its release, but I bet it’s already showing it.

    The alternative is to go with the outlandish, or to do the BRAZIL retro thing.

    BLADE RUNNER is one of the few exceptions because it’s such a mishmash of styles. It looks Eighties, but not distractingly so.

    (The most and least dated SF films would be an interesting topic unto itself. Would have made a good BYOB before root rot killed Dave Poland’s blog.)

    “maybe by 2018 we’ll have come full circle back into the leisure suit age.”

    Ha. Don’t rule it out. I’ve noticed that stuff that looks really dated this decade will generally look less so in ten years time. Remember these guys? If you didn’t know better, when would you guess this was made?

    The future as imagined in the Seventies presented as nostalgia in the Nineties. (Wow, forgot what a dead ringer for Walken that dude was.)

    What’s gonna happen when we run out of retro? Will Nineties retro be Seventies twice removed? If you’re nostalgic for HAPPY DAYS or DAZED AND CONFUSED, which decade are you missing?

    Looks like I got sidetracked. But I like to think about how I’d get around this problem if I ever got to make a film in the genre. There’s no sure-fire way to win.

    Back on topic: I remember this movie as being really, really violent. I also remember it as seeming very “adult,” a perception that’s confirmed by your review. I still don’t understand how twenty-year-olds can find a film like this cheesy and dated have no problem slurping down cartoon action in the guise of SF.

    I was tempted to revisit this when the much-reviled remake came out, and then the urge passed and I forgot about it. I should take another look.

    • christian Says:

      The best thing about writing about ROLLERBALL is reading the comments about ROLLERBALL.

      Yep, most sci-fi films fail in the fashion projection department. I’d argue that ALIEN is more timeless than most, if only because in deep sleep space, you’d be a shag trucker too. BLADE RUNNER works because by that time the 80’s and ATARI might be back in style.

      But those leisure jumpsuits looked dated in 1975. That’s what all that coke and ludes will do to your judgement. I thought the clothes were as scary as the film. But the Rollerball outfits are pitch-perfect.

      I always liked Paul Resier’s upturned collar jacket in ALIENS…

      But you should definitely watch ROLLERBALL now on widescreen.

  2. nice write-ups duderinos c and fb

    ‘rollerball’ is a bloody-knuckled hard-out classic. one of first movies i saw in the cinema. twas shocking to my delicate sensibilities (every time i think about rollerball it makes me remember the first movies i went to as a kid and it’s little wonder i turned out the sicky puppy i am today. praise my mum’s hippy-ass self)

    (re: future hair, ‘gattaca’ handles it well, just enormously tidy. futuristic flicks with ‘today’ do’s are hilarious, the late 70’s ‘alien’ shags are priceless, nice one frankb)

    that tokyovhouston one-sheet is bonza

    • christian Says:

      Thanks leah z.

      It was a shocking movie to me too. It’s very violent, although today no more so than a tv show, but it’s the intensity. And no actual music during the skate brawls.

      And yes, the one-sheet is BONZA!

  3. Love this film too. I find it drags a little bit between the matches but I think that’s probably because the games are so dynamically shot. Still, nothing beats the final image of the film as Jonathan, battered but not beaten does a lap around the rink while the audience chants his name, louder and louder and then Jewison freezes frames on Caan’s face. Great stuff! How badass is that?

    You’re right about this film being something of an oddity in Jewison’s career. Hard to believe that this is the same guy who would go on to direct MOONSTRUCK and IN COUNTRY.

    I almost gouged my eyes out when I caught a minute or two of the gawd-awful remake. Sweet Jesus, a new all-time low for cinema and for John McTiernan. How the mighty have fallen.

  4. great write up xian !

    this movie traumatized me visually – not so much for the violence or even the great political subtext (i remember the “setting trees on fire” scene” as a first step toward my corporate hatred) – but for the overall connection between typograpy and modern symbolism – i guess one can compare the style to the kubrick clockwork orange underground street art. these huge blocky letters, abstracted like logos, at times unreadable or mimicking the cold urban landscape, was an cultural imprint of typical 70’s dystopian design. i still shiver.

    • christian Says:

      Fascinating. Yes, the typography is important, but I like that very 70’s atari style font. And of course in the film, nobody reads books anymore. They did get that right…

  5. Am I crazy to think, hell, believe(!) that Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” may be the perfect film to pair up with “Rollerball”? I don’t mean that as a knock on “Rollberball” which seems very underrated (as is James Caan), but they do seem to share a similar mad cap vision in their very own unique way. Anyway, I love those early ’70’s science fiction epics (& the clothes!). Very nice write up, Christian.

    • christian Says:

      That’s a great double-feature idea, Bob. SLEEPER would be the perfect antidote to the downer vibe of ROLLERBALL…

  6. Here’s a fun example of how NOT to do it:

  7. Great write-up on a film that’s remained underrated for decades now. I took this one in, I believe, at the old (and now closed down) Hollywood Pacific. The same place I saw Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. I think it was quite ahead of itself with its view of a corporate society (and its indirect comparison of Roman “bread and circuses” type corruption). Wonderful post, Christian.

    • christian Says:

      Thanks much. What a great screening that must have been — I’ve never seen ROLLERBALL in a theater proper. I think it was 70 mm?

      • Yep. The old Pacific could screen 70mm prints. 2001 played first at the Cinerama Dome and then they moved it to the Pacific on Hollywood Blvd. Rollerball is one of those film that looks absolutely stunning on a big screen. Thanks, Christian.

  8. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by V. V said: @mikkohypponen Forget Blade Runner, we are already well on the way to a Rollerball future […]

  9. Harold Grey Says:

    Great to find this article. I remember seeing the film when it came out in 75. I recently found a DVD copy and have been revisiting the film, which I consider a classic, much in the same way that Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes were thought-provoking looks at the future. The scene that always stuck with me was when the party-goers venture outside to destroy the trees. That scene really crystallized the point of the film and stayed with me all these years.

    • christian Says:

      Thanks Harold. The scene with the trees is indeed iconic and says more about the eco-dystopia than whole films in the genre.

  10. Hi guys, I was 16 in 1975 and saw Rollerball on its first cinema release – yes, I too saw it on the big screen. It blew me completely away. I loved loved loved the games. So much so I designed my own board-game and built a 1/72 scale model of the track (all long since lost sadly)

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