Thursday, February 23, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Rollerball (1975)

"Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks of anyone, all it's ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions."

- Corporate Executive, Bartholomew (John Houseman) explains how it is in Norman Jewison's Rollerball (1975) 

Released the same year as the low-budget Death Race 2000 (1975),  director Norman Jewison's Rollerball is a dystopian film with many similar elements.  Both films are set in the future.  Both films involve "athletes" in incredibly dangerous contests, and both efforts suggest the notion of such violent contests as "bread and circuses" for the unhappy masses of America. 

When the chips are down, give us our gladiatorial games, and we'll forget that we don't have our liberty...

Of course, Death Race 2000 is more over-the-top, funny,and nasty in execution, and so Rollerball feels a bit reserved and staid by comparison.  And yet Rollerball is grave, impressive, and serious in its depiction of a corporate dystopia.   The film thrives on speed, acceleration and movement, and James Caan is a sturdy anchor in this tale of a world in which corporations use blood lust to control the people.

Not all critics agreed.  Writing in The Film Encyclopedia, Science Fiction (page 327), a reviewer complained the film was "overly complicated" and mixed "political intrigue and romance for no purpose." 

Others felt the film was just a cover for violence itself.  Writing in Sci-Fi Now (Octopus Books, 1977), author Alan Frank noted that the film merely created a "special environment in which the film's use of excessive use of violence can be made justified." 

By pointed contrast, recent assessments of Rollerball have been more positive.  Film Threat noted that Rollerball was "prescient about violence, corporations, and TV," and that's certainly a fair assessment.  The film is a valuable one because it questions what passes for entertainment, but more than that, what passes for "freedom" in an increasingly technological, media-saturated age.

"Ladies and gentlemen, will you stand please for the playing of our Corporate Hymn?"

 Rollerball's action takes place after the world's nations have gone "bankrupt," and after the destructive "Corporate Wars" have come and gone 

Now, corporations "take care of everyone," and the violent, team sport of Rollerball has been created by big business to remind people of "the futility of individual effort."  The goal of the corporations is to be essential to every individual's life, and for "the few" to make important decisions on "a global basis."

Unfortunately, there are serious downsides to corporate rule as depicted in Rollerball.  For one thing, all citizens are treated as powerless employees of the "Executive Class."  This means that your beloved wife can be transferred to another man's possession with the ease an on-the-job departmental transfer.  Indeed, this is the indignity that the world's greatest Rollerball player, Jonathan E. (James Caan) has suffered...and never forgiven.   He still loves his wife, but an executive in Italy had more power and stature...and took her.  And she was paid handsomely to leave Jonathan, rewarded with a villa in Rome, and extreme wealth. 

Early in Rollerball, the company -- represented by John Houseman's stern executive, Bartholomew -- also delivers another despotic edict: Jonathan must retire from the game for "the common good."   This demand doesn't sit well with Jonathan E., and he encourages his ever-increasing fame on the court, even in the face of attempts by the company to kill him.  

Before long, Jonathan finds the corporation changing the game's rules on him.  First, the Executive class eliminates penalties for rough play.  Then it eliminate replacements/substitutions, so that no injured players can leave the game in progress.  Then, finally, the corporate men push a game with no established time limit.  The final Rollerball game ends only when the last man is standing...

As you might expect, the Rollerball tournaments serve, in many ways, as the highlights of this classic sci-fi film.  Staged with meticulous attention-to-detail and with an eye towards speed and acceleration, these games grow increasingly violent throughout the film.  The set-piece against the Tokyo team, in particular, descends into a blood bath.  One player even catches fire before the game is done.

If possible, the film's climactic contest -- New York vs. Jonathan E.'s Houston team -- is even more vicious.  Scarlet blood is seen spilled all over the game arena, and in one horrible moment, the first aid responders are actually run down by a speeding motorcycle.  Then our protagonist, Jonathan, kills a player right in front of Houseman's character, and before a live TV audience.  

All the while, a packed house cheers and applauds wildly over the violent action... 

"Jonathan, there's one thing you ought to know, and nobody's said it, but I'm sure of it. They're afraid of you, Jonathan. All the way to the top, they are."

On one level, of course, Rollerball satirizes the hyper-kinetic, overtly-commercialized world of modern  organized sports, where the strongest, hunkiest lunkhead (Tim Tebow?) receives the most admiration based on the size of his... muscle mass.  

This notion of making athletes "heroes" is made clear in a Rollerball scene set inside a locker room, as Bartholomew speaks to the players' egos.  "They dream they're great rollerballers," he tells them, speaking of Executives.   "They dream they're Jonathan; they have muscles, they bash in faces."
On the other hand, and on a much deeper thematic level, Rollerball muses directly on the topic of freedom in a technological, mass-media Adams) makes a points relative to life in the 1970s and today.  Ella asks Jonathan why he simply doesn't do what the Executives want him to do especially since he would be paid handsomely for his compliance. 

Jonathan notes that it is a choice "between having nice things...or freedom."  Ella responds -- terrifyingly -- "But comfort is freedom."  

By contrast, Jonathan suggests the truth: "That's never been it. I mean, them privileges just buy us off."

In other words: Don't sweat things like individual freedom or liberty.  There are items to purchase, things to own.  Don't you want an Italian villa?

Incidentally, this very-Rollerball sentiment was mirrored rather dramatically in President Jimmy Carter's famous and much-derided "Crisis of Confidence" speech five years later, in 1979.  He said:

"In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose."

Rollerball depicts a society in which the people have indeed accepted control by a ruling return for being "provided for," in return for "privilege." 

But, in accordance with the President Carter quote, these same people have no sense of meaning or purpose. 

Part of the reason the people live with such an unjust arrangement is because of a deliberate black-out of educational materials and information.  Rollerball tournaments play endlessly on the television, and local libraries are impersonal computer centers that feature only "summaries" of important literary works and ideas. 

Instead, the corporations own history itself: "What do you want books for?," Jonathan's team-mate, Moon Pie asks innocently.  "Look Johnny, if you wanna learn somethin', just get a Corporate Teacher to come and teach it to ya'. Use yer Privilege Card..."

It's clearly an Internet-less world, and in one scene in the film, Jonathan E. goes to Geneva to visit a computerized archive where all the answers about "corporate rule" are purported to exist.  Not surprisingly, the computer librarian, named Zero, proves absolutely unhelpful. in providing such data.  In fact, the machine has lost the totality of the "13th Century" in terms of knowledge.  Thus, there is no place to turn to in this world to learn about history, science, or nature.  Everything is the game Everything is blood lust. 

Because as long as you think about the game, and which team is winning or losing, you aren't thinking about who is gaming the system and for what agenda.

Based on William Harrison's short story, "The Roller Ball Murder" (1973; Esquire), Rollerball runs for over two hours, and it features essentially two modes. The first mode reveals the kind of listless, purposeless, meaningless existence of "comfortable" citizens like Jonathan E.  The second mode involves the game matches themselves, set on a circular track.  The game play is urgent, pointed and murderous, a deliberate contrast to the film's lackadaisacal first mode.  I imagine that some audiences today would probably find these aspects of the film boring, but as the first mode concerns the existential angst of a futuristic gladiator, the insight into his daily life and routine is entirely appropriate. 

Uniquely, Rollerball also makes widespread use of classical music, including Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and Adagio in G minor from Tomaso Albinoni.  These musical selections comment on the action  (and understand the action) in a way that the film's knowledge-challenged dramatis personae cannot.  The music -- so distinctly of the human past -- connects Jonathan E's futuristic struggle for freedom to such struggles in man's long history, and arises specifically from the Baroque tradition, dealing intentionally with the "affect of man."  The musical selection that opens the film, Toccata and Fugue, renders the accompanying imagery (of game preparations in the vast Rollerball stadium) almost religious in stature and transmits the idea that we are witnessing an important ritual being played out.

Rollerball's production design is, accordingly, relatively impersonal and dehumanizing in nature.  Citizens visit vast "luxury centers," mall-like locations -- places to shop -- in keeping with such kindred fare as Logan's Run (1976).  The Executive Suites as seen in the film are palatial and extravagant.  The opulent life-style of the executive class is revealed in one dinner party scene, and the sequence ends with the drunken, entitled elite mindlessly blowing up trees with futuristic guns.

The Rollerball arena is itself an important metaphor in the film.  The track is a loop, a track that never ends, with no end and no beginning.   Teams battle one another for supremacy, going around and around on this track endlessly (kind of like a NASCAR race, I suppose).  But one individual -- a Spartacus of the future age -- breaks out of this circular trajectory and takes the fight right to the stands. 

One spectacularly effective  composition in the Jewison film finds Jonathan E. braced against a transparent wall on the Rollerball rink. Behind him is Bartholomew, the executive, scowling.  And reflected on the transparent glass are out-of-control flames 

Here we have all three critical elements: the gladiator, the villain who is "untouchable" and the fire of revolt -- of individual achievement -- threatening to burn out of control.

The enduring genius of Rollerball, I would submit, is that it artfully exposes how powerful people become addicted to controlling the lives of others  The corporate stooges of the Executive Class wage full-bore, murderous war against a citizen because they want one player -- one damned player -- to retire from "their" game.  They apparently don't consider tolerating Jonathan E's presence for a few more years, followed, presumably, by a peaceful retirement.  Instead they seek to dominate and defeat Jonathan E. -- a champion and competitor -- and in doing so, incite his sense of competition. 

For Jonathan, "Four or five little things make one big thing," and the retirement demand, on top of the loss of his wife to an executive, constitutes a tipping point.  By pushing the stubborn and tough Jonathan E. to his line in the sand, the Corporate Culture only assures that Jonathan E. proves the very point they don't want established:

The will of the individual matters.


  1. claudiu3:41 AM


    I have mixed feelings about this one. I like the on track part. The rest... not really.
    Strictly from a visual and dinamic point of view, that is.


  2. "Because as long as you think about the game, and which team is winning or losing, you aren't thinking about who is gaming the system and for what agenda."

    Sounds like our political system today.

  3. I could try to say something profound and intellectual. But all I can come up with is THIS FILM IS EFFIN AWESOME!!!

  4. Fascinating piece, JKM! I have fond memories of this film and remember watching it as a kid and finding the rollerball sequences to be horrifically mesmerizing. This film certainly was ahead of its time esp. now that you have so many stadiums named after a corporation. Are we really that far off from what's depicted in the film?

    I have always found the final scene/image haunting - Jonathan racing faster and faster around the track as the crowd fanatically chant his name and then that great freeze frame of his image blurred. Fantastic stuff.

  5. You've done this 70s cult classic justice, John. I remember when it was released and the mixed reviews that came with it. But, after catching it on its first run, I've been hooked with it ever since. From it's wonderful use of classical music, as Kubrick did with 2001: A Space Odyssey, to its contrasting modern architecture on display, and its fine casting of James Caan, John Houseman, and others, it's made an impression, alright. And in the decades that have followed, it's become more and more prescient, hasn't it?

    Yes, it has its critics, still. Some of the film's scenes come off with that 70s flat look. But, that's part of its charm, I say. It also loses something of its aura when you watch it at home on a TV monitor, as well. However, catch it on the big, wide screen with a decent sound system (as it was meant to be seen)... man, it'll rock you, regardless how you feel toward it. This is an under appreciated Norman Jewison gem.

    Good one, John. Thanks.

  6. Funny, I was searching for this film on your blog, to see what you thought about it. But only thing I found was Alien Nation, which I had read long time ago but read it again now to remind me. And here it is.

    It's amazing how brutal films were back then. Sure, we have blood and gore now. But where are the guts? It's been a while since I've seen it, I do own the special edition DVD (upgraded my previous version) and while I too feel mixed about the film; I agree about the captivating scenes of the "sport". It's as if we are a part of the audience in that stadium, following the path of the ball...just like people do with all other sports.

    Some people get very serious or even downright violent when it comes to their team, if a sport like Rollerball would become a reality, would that change?

    I've no desires to see the remake.

    Fun fact, I was listening to the commentary track by the director, Jewison. He has a really gravelly voice, very hard to listen for such a long time. My mom asked me to turn that off. I guess I should revisit that commentary track sometime.

    Also, on last day of the shoot of Rollerball, they had a choice of one more day shooting some pick-ups or additional material or stop. The cast made their choice very clear, they urinated on the arena floor. See, the will of the individual matters :)

  7. Anonymous3:14 PM

    The short story is here:

    Different, but the same. It appears that in the story, the monster of rollerball fandom created by the Corporations must be continually fed by making it more deadly. It's out of control. The Corporations have lost control of it.


    I think that you may miss the point of attempting to force retirement. The Corporations make the heroes so that the masses ahve an outlet. But if someone stays a hero too long, they get real power. Power that will remain after he retires. And the ones in power cannot allow that.

    The counterpoint is that the Corporation could presumably very easily arrange for a fatal accident, but may be just too stubborn to do so. Instead they insist on public retirement, presumably to send notice to others. It can't be a lack of ruthlessness that keeps them from acting.

    Of course, it does not work.

  8. Anonymous7:00 PM

    Another excellent review of a classic science fiction film. One that should not have been remade in 2002. Nevertheless, the film is a classic and a serious social commentary on various levels.

    I have to admit, some of the sets and production design look as if they would be right at home on Space:1999.

  9. I saw this as a kid. The scene where the people blown up trees with the laser gun horrified me. It showed a side of humanity that I as an American had never experienced. The other scene that scared the hell out of me was in Deliverance. I doubt I need to mention what it is. I still think about that scene in Rollerball from time to time.
    Thanks for the review. I am not good at picking out details of themes and significance in movies. It is definitely a skill. Your review really made it clear for me.

  10. A corporate utopia dragged into a dystopian finish by the will of a man scorned.

  11. This is a very well thought out review, unapologetic (I detest reviews that lower themselves to condemning movies from the past based on our Victorian PC views, after all, there is a difference between fantasy and reality), and yet frustrating in the: "Why didn't I see that?" sorta way. In other words, you helped me see the film more clearly, I've always loved it, got it, but your commentary adds to my enjoyment of the film, and your obvious respect for the movie has increased my own respect for the movie. Hard to believe, perhaps, but just this week I showed this movie to my class, I teach drawing at an independent comics school, and this was the film I chose to complete the "world building" series of lessons. Anyhow, great movie, and kudos to you for writing such an insightful celebration of the movie.


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