The classic science fiction film is more than just a collection of nihilistic sport and slaughter sequences.
The first time that I saw Rollerball, I was very disappointed. Admittedly, it was double-billed with Death Race 2000, and while the combo made sense – Death Race 2000 was, after all, a film that only existed because of the success of Rollerball – the bigger budget film was never going to come out of that pairing on top. But also, Rollerball had been a childhood obsession – the trailer, seen at the cinema back when you could still see trailers for adult-rated movies during kid-friendly screenings, had enthralled me, and every image I saw, every story I read – including William Harrison’s brutally nihilistic and brilliant short story, Roller Ball Murder, that the film was based on – convinced me that this would be the greatest film ever made. Instead, it felt plodding, pompous and slow, too much of the story centred around the man character’s sense of ennui – a sense shared, it seemed, by the viewer, given the film’s lack of emotional connection with any characters.
Of course, the opinions of fourteen-year-old boys are not always to be taken any notice of, and Rollerball has certainly improved on subsequent viewings. Part of this is down to the sense of lowered expectations – when you no longer have a built-up idea about a film in your head, it’s easier to see it objectively. But it’s also because I can now recognise that what seemed to be the film’s flaws are actually strengths. You have to understand that while the game is at the centre of the film, with three huge set-piece matches, that’s not, ultimately, what the film is about. Rather, Rollerball is an exploration of the struggle for individuality in a corporate world where power and control is everything, and where the masses are literally placated with bread and circuses – the circus, in this case, being the increasingly violent sport of Rollerball.
In this world, ruled not by nations but by mega-corporations, Jonathan E (James Caan) is the star player for Houston, owned by the Energy Corp. This is a problem for the executives, represented by Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman) – stars represent the power of the individual, and individuals have the ability to breed rebellion. Players like Moonpie (John Beck) are much easier to handle – unambitious, unquestioning and willing to enjoy the benefits that come from being a Rollerball player: luxury homes, women supplied as partners by the Corporation (and also regularly replaced to prevent genuine emotional attachments forming). For Jonathan, these pleasures are no longer enough, and when he is told to retire, he rebels. His stated reasons for not wanting to leave the ever more brutal game seem fatuous – he doesn’t want to abandon his teammates before an important game against Tokyo, where the constantly changing rules promise to make it more brutal than ever – but it’s clear that he needs to know who is pulling his strings. His obsession becomes finding out who is in charge of the corporations, though how this would actually help him is anyone’s guess. He also realises what he has sacrificed for the game – including his wife Ella (Maud Adams) – and starts to see how he is just a cog in a very corrupt machine.
Jonathan is actually an unlikely hero. While the final moments of the film suggest that he could be a revolutionary leader, it’s far from clear that he wants to be. At best, he could bring down the corruption of the game, the constantly changing rules designed to both please the blood lust of the audience and, by the end, to crush any sign of individuality. The final game – no time limits, no disqualifications – is designed to show the hopelessness of individuality (the intention, clearly, is for Jonathan to die in the game) and, it seems, the pointlessness of struggle – what is the point of dying for a game where nobody even cares who you are? The final game is an apocalyptic reboot, clearing out the old and the rebellious and showing that no one is bigger than The Game and its controllers.
Rollerball was shot in London and Munich and is one of the most European feeling American films you’ll ever see. Take out the Rollerball matches and this could be a classic 1960s/70s Euro arthouse treatise on the search for meaning and the loss of individuality in the modern world. In fact, that’s pretty much what Rollerball is about. It might be set in the future, but it’s a recognisable one – while it focuses in on modern, futuristic buildings, these are real buildings (the BMW HQ in Munich stands in for the Energy Corporation’s centre), and nothing is excessively futuristic, apart from the computers which of course are now the most dated thing in the film. Otherwise, the film still feels relevant – in a world where corporate businesses span the globe and have huge power, where sport is ever more elevated as an opium for the masses and where the line separating entertainment and propaganda is ever more blurred, the film seems pretty prescient.
Of course, if the cerebral stuff is too much, then the three Rollerball matches may still entertain you. This is some of the most perfectly crafted, excitingly shot fake sport you’ll ever see, brutal and bruising (with Caan clearly in the thick of it all). The games have a certain structure, and the visual style – the motorcycles roaring around the arena, the helmeted, roller-skated players – gives it an unforgettable aesthetic – the imagery of Rollerball is as iconic as it comes., and the sport itself – a collision of American football, roller derby, hockey and speedway – actually seems pretty plausible. I’m surprised no one tried to launch it in real life. The presentation of the violent games treads a fine line, but ultimately Norman Jewison manages to make the game both exhilaratingly entertaining and shockingly reprehensible – you’ll love watching it, and hate yourself for doing so.
Rollerball still isn’t a perfect film – as a central character, Jonathan is hard to find sympathetic (he’s either emotionally blank or clearly revelling in the murderous violence of the game until it is too late), and at times it’s a little too studied in its coldness. But this is a film that rewards repeated viewing, and is a fine example of where science fiction cinema could have gone in the 1970s before it took a turn for the juvenile.