Directed by Norman Jewison
Written by William Harrison
Starring: James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck, Moses Gunn, Ralph Richardson
Tagline: The Next World War will not be fought. It will be PLAYED!
Trivia: One of the first films where all the stunt persons got full recognition in the closing credits
Set in the distant future of 2018, Rollerball imagines a world controlled by corporations while the people are distracted by an ultra-violent spectator sport. Bears little resemblance to our own 21st Century reality. Right . . . Right . . . Let’s just keep thinking that . . . . .
James Caan plays the game’s most popular athlete Jonathan E, a soft spoken Texan who starts to question everything. Even though Jonathan’s considered the world’s greatest player his life is controlled by the team’s owner Bartholomew (John Houseman). After an “Executive” fell for Jonathan’s wife he was forced to give her up. Fearing Jonathan might be getting too popular and influential, Bartholomew orders him to retire.
Rollerball took much from George Orwell’s 1984. A running plot point explains all the world’s books were downloaded into a supercomputer and made available to only a select few. Jonathan recalls hearing about the NFL and World Cup, but records of their history were erased after the “Corporate Wars.”
Director Norman Jewison also acknowledged Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) as a major influence, especially the use of classical music and potent violence.
The “Rollerball” scenes were well shot and cleverly executed, allowing the viewer to figure out the game as it happens. However, some of the best sequences happen outside the sport. A long sequence of a garish party where elites gather to celebrate the retirement of Jonathan, they go outside at dawn and shoot down trees with a laser gun, gleefully watching the healthy trees burn in a fantastic metaphor of consumerism and privilege.
During the 1970s the NFL exploded in popularity, surpassing baseball and basketball in TV ratings. Fans loved the violence and grittiness of the sport, even as the players beat themselves to pulp every week. The role of money in all professional sports, filling the bank accounts of corporations with TV contracts and merchandising, perverted the enterprise into an ostentatious spectacle – a cultural trend Rollerball foresaw.
More importantly, Rollerball envisions the long term effects of a valueless, consumer driven world. Sports and big business now exist in a harmonious marriage. Blowhards on sports TV make a lucrative living from the gift of gab, cubicle dwelling males have fantasy football to debate while the boss is away as an escape from the inevitable fate of domesticity and 401K plans. Meanwhile the masses worship at the altar of the CEO, gratefully kneeling to kiss the ring, even electing one president.
So Rollerball has proved more prescient than many of the dystopian films of the 1970s. The Cold War allegory of the film, the individual being diminished in a maelstrom of banal capitalist/communist ideologies, continues to resonate. The Cold War mindset (at least ideas still mattered then) gave way to something even more sinister: a world view molded by cracker jack commentary. While the film climaxes on a note of hope with Jonathan defying the corporate bosses, one gets the sense it’s more of a Vonneget “Harrison Bergeron” ending of fleeting glory in the face of monolithic power.