Rollerball (1975)

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*. This is what the future looked like in the 1970s. No need to say “dystopian future” because that was understood. Think films like Soylent Green (1973) and Logan’s Run (1976). Not because of their stories or themes (though there’s a bit of environmentalism thrown in here I’ll mention in just a bit), but for their production design.
*. The clothes. The interiors. The buildings. The women who all look like models (Norman Jewison thought this made sense, as we would have figured beauty out in the future so that we could make everyone look good). The men who have hair on their chest. I mean, James Caan is one hairy man. I love how, at the high-society party, everyone is dressed in black tie but Caan has got his shirt unbuttoned to show off his pelt and gold chain.
*. It’s hard to be critical. Basically, if you’re trying to project what the future is going to look like, in terms of its style, it makes sense to take the most stylish elements of your own period and exaggerate them. So the buildings are the cutting-edge of modernism (the BMW building in Munich, which opened in 1972, makes a good icon for corporate power). The loose, flowing clothes make it look as though everyone is getting ready to go to the disco, from the women’s neo-classical evening gowns right down to Jonathan E. in his big-belt-buckle, open-neck urban cowboy look. The interiors are large and garishly cluttered. Couches are as wide and expansive as beds. And of course you can never have too many television screens in your home or office.

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*. Things start off well: prepping the track for the game, introducing the teams, and then throwing us right into the action. And the game itself is well conceived, visually arresting, exciting, and fairly easy to follow (basically you just stick the ball in the hole). The photography and editing are also terrific, and given how much this kind of filmmaking has changed in the last forty years the fact that it holds up so well is a testament to how advanced it was at the time.
*. It’s all fun and games as long as there are still rules. The final match, however, is a bit ridiculous. There are no substitutions, no penalties (thus no rules), and no time limits. The whole point of the exercise is to just let everyone fight it out and whoever the last man standing is wins. So why bother even trying to score? Why not just have everyone beat the hell out of each other? Jewison: “If you take out all rules of conduct then you’re going to end up with total violence.” Well, yeah.

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*. Outside of the game, the movie starts to fall apart. The political point, about the heroic individual triumphing over corporatism and cynicism, is muddled. Sports leagues have always had individual stars, so what would have made the rollerball managers think their game wouldn’t? What’s more, doesn’t it seem kind of lame that the corporate suits can’t manage to get rid of Jonathan? Couldn’t they just fire him? And isn’t it a rather abstract point to be trying to make anyway? Rollerball was intended to display “the futility of individual effort”? That’s just not the way games work.
*. Other elements seem just as awkward. You’d think no one would want to be standing next to the drunken women who are firing that napalm pistol off, but even aside from that the point being made is obscure. These people have no respect for life and “have a lack of empathy with all living creatures” (Jewison) . . . so they blow up trees? What does that have to do with “cold corporate greed”? And what’s with all the stuff about Jonathan having his wife taken away from him? Yes, women are mere trophies to be awarded to whoever’s higher up in the corporate hierarchy, but that’s a crude point not worth the time spent on it. And in the end, Maud Adams’s character is only a walk-on and walk-off, serving no dramatic purpose.

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*. Then there is the computer, Zero. This, I’ll admit, is funny. Silicon has been surpassed and the latest thing is “fluidics” so Zero is basically a tank of water. Ralph Richardson is the dotty scientist, part lab tech and part animal trainer. Apparently he retains enough of a classical education to be nonplussed at Zero having managed to lose the entire thirteenth century (which is no big deal, as it was just Dante and some bad popes). I blame those stacks of punch cards!
*. But again, the point gets muddled by a script that doesn’t seem to have thought things through. Zero is “the world’s brain,” but becomes totally discombobulated over a fairly straightforward question: How corporate decisions are made and who makes them. At first Zero doesn’t want to answer and then provides the obvious tautology (“Corporate decisions are made by corporate executives. Corporate executives make decisions.”) This is then followed by some lame aphorisms like “Knowledge converts to power. Energy equals genius.” Jonathan had to travel all the way to Geneva to hear this? It seems so pointless.
*. Some of the technology is shrewdly prophetic. The library with no books because they’ve all been “transcribed and summarized” sounds familiar. Behold Google Books! There is, however, no “cloud” computing and all this information has to still be stored at a physical location, where it has been compromised and can be controlled by the corporations.
*. Also prophetic is Jonathan’s deletion of Ella’s video files. She’s being ghosted! And she’s standing right there in front of him!

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*. What was it that filmmakers in the ’70s liked so much about ending movies with blurry freeze frames? It seems like such a dumb thing to do, but for a while it was all the rage. You don’t see it as much now.
*. Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 came out just before this film, in a different kind of race to sneak in and ride the wave of Rollerball‘s promotion. They’re interesting movies to compare. Obviously both deal with futuristic bread and circuses, violent entertainment fed to the masses by corporations as a kind of “safety valve for the explosion of emotion” (Jewison). We may also think of Network, which came out the next year, in this context. Rollerball, however, is played straight, and its message drags it down. Network is a black comedy and Death Race 2000 is a pure comic book that leaves politics in a dust cloud somewhere in its rear-view mirror.
*. I think Rollerball‘s earnestness it its undoing. It does a great job with the game itself but the rest of the film is awkward and often dull. Some of the spirit of satire or black comedy that fuels Death Race 2000 might have helped it out. It’s fine that Jewison wants us to take it seriously, but when it comes to making us care about what it is we’re supposed to be taking seriously he drops the ball.

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4 thoughts on “Rollerball (1975)

  1. Carnot Antonio Romero

    “The final match, however, is a bit ridiculous. There are no substitutions, no penalties (thus no rules), and no time limits. The whole point of the exercise is to just let everyone fight it out and whoever the last man standing is wins.” No, the whole point of the exercise is to ensure that Jonathan E dies in the ring, ending his heroic arc in the only way tolerable to that larger society as constructed by the corporate executives. Of course, somehow he perseveres 🙂 Personally I think they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble with a plane crash on the way to Geneva (or the way back), or a truck accident, an overdose etc..Or just stop feeding him performance-enhancing drugs and let nature take its course 🙂 Find a way to destroy the icon and his reputation.

    Not a perfect movie but I think worthy of a bit more credit for the serious bits than you give it. I also think some of the muddied-ness is deliberate — Jonathan E lacks the insight and intellect required to crystallize any greater politics, and I think we’re in some sense deliberately stuck in his perspective.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      You make a good point about the audience identifying with Jonathan’s limited perspective. I hadn’t thought of that.

      With regard to the final match, I agree that the plan is to have Jonathan die in the ring, but all I meant was that in the final game they’re not really playing Rollerball any more. With absolutly no rules or penalties and no substitions the only “game” is just to have both sides fight each other. They don’t have to bother chasing the ball around or trying to score goals, they just have to kill or incapacitate everyone on the other side and then they’ll win. As Jewison recognized, all that was left was the violence. That made the game seem kind of pointless to me.

      Reply
  2. Dan

    Rollerball doesn’t do a very good job of explaining HOW the game demonstrates the futility of individual effort. What Jewison should have done was explain a little better how Rollerball kills its players. Jonathan was exceptional because he survived a game that ultimately kills or cripples EVERY player. It’s what Americans might call a “Japanese” world-view. Death is central to a way of living where the individual is merely a part of a larger mechanism.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      That’s interesting. I can also see a link to what were at least popular notions in the West of Japanese business/management culture in the movie.

      Reply

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