Thursday, July 23, 2015

An Alternate Reality #9: Rollerball (1975)

Though the story takes place in 2018, the sport of "Rollerball" was in effect years before Norman Jewison 1975 classic commences. Rollerball, like any worthy competition, focuses on teamwork, though not in the good, old fashioned way, but rather in a blurred merger where individuality is diminished in pursuit of success: perhaps not far removed from what characterizes our existing reality.

Per William Harrison's excellent script (culled from his short story, "Roller Ball Murder"), the film's premise initially mirrors "Festival": the weird celebration that appears in "Star Trek: Return of the Archons", or for that matter, similar events depicted in "Alphaville", "Deathrace 2000" and "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome". The game offers a sadistic release from hum-drum life: a sport so selectively influential, it's replaced all of our once beloved athletic pastimes. 

"Rollerball" stars James Caan, perhaps in his most memorable role, as Houston Captain Jonathan E, a Derek Jeter equivalent within this imaginative scheme. Rollerball is based on roller derby, but its violence real, as one team attempts to insert a steel ball in shoots at each end of an enclosed arena. Rules are sparse (and later in the story, nonexistent), so that members of both teams can do whatever is necessary to win, and no one has proven more deft at such than Jonathan: for all intents and purposes, a gallant, succeed-for-the-team guy. 

Jonathan, however, is no conformist. His individuality (i.e., his ability to stand out from the crowd) inspires the spectators, which worries the U.S. based corporation that sponsors Houston. In fact, a number of global corporations also back teams, and the competitions act in lieu of wars, while reaping a profit within a global, pill-pacified society.

Jonathan's boss, Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), sees the threat in his hero's attributes: that Jonathan might inspire others to aspire beyond the norm. On this basis, Bartholomew and his colleagues decide it's time the warrior retire or else force him into a permanent demise. 

The likelihood of a unsavory outcome is, indeed, prevalent in this world. Jonathan witnesses his friend, Moon Pie (John Beck) fall brain dead after a bout with Japan, and prior to such, we learn that his wife, Ella (Maud "James Bond" Adams) was seized by an executive for personal pleasure, which has left Jonathan empty and confused. 

He confides in his ex-couch, Cletus (Moses Gunn), and to a lesser extent, his assigned girlfriends, (Pamela "Buck Rogers" Hemsley and Barbara "Death Moon" Trentham), but the reassurance he seeks remains elusive. Jonathan's concerns increase, and yes, it would be easier for the champion to resign than fight, but that's not what distinguishes the man. 

"Rollerball", unlike "Deathrace 2000", maintains a somber, if not ironically serene atmosphere. The sports sequences, however, are well staged, invoking an air of danger, but then the film's anthem, J.S. Bach's ominous "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor", is enough to set the tone. Still, over the film's two-hour-plus stretch, a sense of nagging desperation reverberates (with evidence of computer tampering and an erasing of history that suits the corporate providers), at least until Jonathan's revolt. Then the film bristles of boiling rage: a demonstration of how Jonathan will never succumb to those who claim they know what's best for him and his admirers.

Jonathan's introspective journey makes "Rollerball" more than just another Orwellian knockoff. Though he isn't a man of profound expression, Jonathan is observant, as Caan's understated performance conveys. He watches the precious past crumble before his eyes (savoring video footage of Ella before deleting it: a vain gesture of acceptance toward corporate demands). Such is also shown during a tense exchange between Jonathan and Bartholomew, when their guests scamper off to blaster-gun trees, oblivious to how long the majestic specimens have stood or the beauty they've long invoked. Through all this, we learn that "Rollerball'"s reality is a hollow place, where the present is perpetually present, and now with Jonathan's inclusion in the game to be snuffed, he must grasp his place in it with all his might, but how can he succeed when the corporation has stacked the odds against him?

For better or worse, "Rollerball" doesn't end decisively, leaving the door open for whatever fate may bring. A sequel may have appeared inevitable, but instead, an ill-received 2002 remake came in its wake, which placed adolescent adrenalin at the forefront. What makes the original film special is Jewison and Harrison's pensive assessment of dystopian bondage. Like "Logan's Run", the tale presents a staunch supporter of a system, who finally awakens when forced onto the losing end. It's about changing one's mind, of seeing the truth, of daring to be unique, when others insist you march to their dictatorial drum. 

Like other dystopian adventures, "Rollerball'"s message rings clearer today than at the time of its conception. This is understandable, considering our current, cultural norms. When people are encouraged to do the bare minimal, or restrain themselves from being all they can be, the need to rise to any occasion may seem fruitless, if not dangerous. "Rollerball" spits in the eye of such notions. As the great Jonathan E. learns, conformity (and therefore, complacency) is never life's answer, only its curse.


  1. I've always enjoyed Rollerball because it is one of those great 70's films that give us a totally dystopian future disguised as paradise. Logan's Run being another great example of the genre. Really liked the review, thought it was spot on. And yeah, probably Cann's best role. Even better than in the Godfather.

    1. Thank you for the kind assessment, Rick. I appreciate it immensely. I think the movie endures because of its quality story-telling. Also, Caan does a splendid job of making Jonathan identifiable. It's very easy to sense his woe and of course, cheer him on when he rebels. Now that I think about it, "Rollerball" is a kind of dystopian "Rocky".