Rollerball (1975)

The 1970s were so fucking cool.  If I was somehow able to, I’d have raunchy back alley sex with the entire decade.  Sure, there’d be a lot of pubic hair, chest hair, and medallions, but goddammit I’d be one satisfied weirdo.

And I can say all that for two reasons.  1) I am a weirdo so I might as well be a satisfied one.  2) I was born in the 70s.  Like with a few years to spare too.  It wasn’t like I was born on December 30, 1979, I was born in February of 1977.  So I existed in the decade I want to make dirty, dirty love to.

I’m not sure what I like more about the 70s – the music, the violence and, at times both visceral and over the top, gore of the grittier movies, the fashion, the afros, the women, roller skates, or Jack Nicholson’s critical hit after critical hit career of the era.  All I know is, whenever I see a movie or hear a song that is followed by a year in the 70s in parentheses behind the title, I’m immediately interested.

That leads us to this week’s feature, 1975’s Rollerball.  Set in 2018, which is just a few months away now, the movie mixed elements of the 70s, with a roller derby type of game, with ideas that are usually reserved for some sort of post-apocalyptic or dystopian future as the game is more violent and gladiatorial than even the rough and tumble sports like football, hockey, or the aforementioned roller derby, and also ideas that are eerily prescient in our society now like governments and society being run by global corporations.  What’s additionally interesting about this film is that it’s directed by three-time Academy Award Nominated Norman Jewison (twice nominated before the film), and stars a cast that has a total of four acting Oscar Nominations (James Caan, Ralph Richardson, and John Houseman) and at least one Tony Award Nominee (Moses Gunn).  This was a for real deal movie starring some of Hollywood’s best.

And the movie is about a futuristic sport – that is pretty astonishing.

It’s been a very long time since I saw this version.  I watched bits and pieces of the bullshit remake made in 2002 when I worked in the projection booth at a movie theater.  I know this was a movie that wasn’t uncommon to see on TV when I was little and my brothers (all definitely old enough to have seen the movie in the theater when it was still out despite its R-rating because the 70s were fucking cool with kids seeing that shit) all seemed to have fond memories of it.  When I saw the movie at Disc Replay one Saturday afternoon, I knew I needed to talk about it here on the blog.

As for the synopsis, this comes from the back of the DVD box: “The year is 2018.  There are no wars. There is no crime.  There is only… the Game.  In a world where ruthless corporations reign supreme, this vicious and barbaric ‘sport’ is the only outlet for the pent-up anger and frustrations of the masses.  Tuned to their televisions, the people watch ‘Rollerball’: a brutal mutation of football, motocross, and hockey. Jonathan E. (Caan) is the champion player – a man too talented for his own good.  The Corporation has taken away the woman he loves (Maud Adams) but they can’t take away his soul – even if the diabolical corporate head (Houseman) tells him he’d better retire… or suffer the old-fashioned way.”

Ooh…  Now that sounds like my kinda movie.  Let’s get, erm… rolling on Rollerball!


Jonathan E. ready to smash some fuckin’ heads in.

The movie opens to Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” as a game of Rollerball is preparing to begin.  After the teams for Madrid and Houston (led by Caan’s Jonathan E.) roll out onto the rink, the crowd stands not to the National Anthem, but the Corporate Anthem.  The Corporation bosses watch from their fancy boxes high above the rink like the Roman Emperors would in ancient times.  After the anthem, the game begins.

It’s a fucking crazy game.  There are guys rolling around on skates bashing into each other and guys on motorcycles giving the guys on skates a tow and people are wiping out all over the place and getting dragged off the rink.  There are people in headlocks getting punched in the fucking head by guys with spiked gloves.  I’ts a total madhouse.

The object of the game is pretty simple: a metal ball is released into the rink, a guy from one team scoops up the ball and passes it to a scorer who then has to put it into a tiny hole on the wall of the rink.  Guys can bash each other, tackle each other, run over their heads, toss people around, etc.  It’s fucking great.  I wish this was real.  If for no other reason, I just want to see people get their goddamn heads run over by the motorcycles.  Houston wins tonight’s game and prepare for their next game against Japan.

The head of the Energy Corporation, Mr. Bartholomew (Houseman), congratulates the team and tells Jonathan he wants to feature him in a special TV show about his career.  In the course of the conversation with the team, John Houseman says the term “bash faces in” and it was possibly the most important thing I’ve ever heard in my life.  It’s not every day you hear the old guy from The Paper Chase say something about bashing faces in.  The next day, Jonathan visits with Bartholomew, as requested the night before, and is asked to retire.  Why?  Because he’s played longer than anyone else ever has and the Energy Corporation made a decision and he just has to do it.

Jonathan is a bit confused about the request.  It’s also revealed that it’s not so much a request.  It’s an order.  Even though he is being given some time to think about it, Bartholomew says he should truly understand the request because he doesn’t understand Jonathan’s resistance to the order.  Also, it’s been revealed that Jonathan’s wife Ella (Maud Adams, aka Octopussy from Octopussy) was handed over to another executive just because he wanted her and they can basically issue those orders and that’s just the way it goes.

There’s additional information revealed about the structure of the world.  For example, each city is run by a separate corporation.  The geo-political structure changed when corporations went to war.  The corporations basically just took over and provided new societies and rules by which people must live by.  Pretty much every aspect of life is controlled by whichever corporation runs the city/area you live in.  Even relationships are handled by the corporation as seen when Jonathan comes home and is confronted by his girlfriend, Mackie, who received orders by mail to be “reassigned” – in other words, he broke up with her and had to file the paperwork to get her out of his life and moved over to someone else’s.

These types of movies are always fascinating to me.  The way of life is foreign and weird – almost sterile, but not so futuristic that we can’t see some of the features of this life in our present day.  For example, while represented here as corporations that handle a lot of what people consume in media or able to consume as knowledge, it is somewhat eerily familiar to how media influences who and what we should care about the most.

Even being able to easily obtain factual information from libraries (or depositories of information) is edited and summarized instead of available in its full context.  Next time you read an article online about important issues, think about the source you are obtaining it from.  Does it have a particular agenda or seem skewed by one world view or set of political preferences over another?  Yeah, mutherfuckers, I’m gettin’ deep in this article.

When Jonathan decides to watch some old movies of his ex-wife in his home, he’s able to watch it in any room he wants much like how we are able to use particular apps or devices to stream information in multiple places at once.  Hell, there are even little pills that people take to be able to live a little easier.  Just about everyone takes one much like a doctor can probably prescribe some sort of little helper for every single person on Earth to help them cope with stresses or little pains they feel in life.

I don’t think I even need to discuss trading safety and security for an increased encroachment on personal liberties or how heads of corporations are given much more opportunity to succeed than those who work under them or feed into by way of consumption as two very blatant ways this movie is making fairly uncomfortable comparisons to our present day life.

Not to get too heady here in a movie about a gladiatorial sport and John Houseman saying “bash faces in”, but science fiction before Star Wars was mostly pretty good predictors of what the world was going to become.  Be it 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rollerball, or Logan’s Run, we often found ways to make artificial intelligence to help us perform complex tasks, being safe and secure, and a society full of youth and beauty cautionary tales.  These movies may have been off on what year these things would become part of our life, but considering these are all from 40-50 years ago, I will give them some leeway on their predictions.

In an effort to push Jonathan toward his retirement, the Corporation starts to make changes to rules in order to make the sport even more violent than it already is hoping he’d heed their concern over his health.  He doesn’t understand why future games will be played without penalties but his coach basically tells him there is nothing they can do about these orders and they just need to do what the corporations want.  To prep for his TV special, Jonathan’s retirement statement is already prepared for him, upsetting and confusing him even further.

As the Houston team trains for their game against Tokyo, a trainer is brought in to coach them on the techniques used by the Tokyo players – which involves several martial arts moves and deathblows.  Jonathan’s hotshot skating partner on the team, Moonpie, ignores the advice given by the trainer and leads the team to chant “HOUS-TON!” repeatedly over the trainer.  This turns out to be a major mistake for the team.

At a lavish party to celebrate the team and Jonathan for the premiere of his special, there’s a really eerie sequence of these high class socialites all high on these relaxers/aphrodisiacs everyone is constantly popping watching in near euphoric excitement as it’s shot after shot of Jonathan bashing people in games.  Jonathan’s personal trainer, and friend, Cletus, tells Jonathan that the only thing that seems to be the reason for the offer for Jonathan to retire is that the highest ranks of the Corporation are scared of him.  It is as if they are scared he will incite a revolution over him being a hero of the people.

While Jonathan makes demands for concessions (like seeing his wife) in exchange for his retirement with Bartholomew, drunk and high guests from the party from the night before are excitedly blowing up trees on the property with a little hand cannon that some of them fire off with as much zeal as Yosemite Sam.  I believe this is portraying how Jonathan’s individualistic nature is encouraging even the most elite to give into their base, violent tendencies.  It is a sequence that reminds me of Zardoz and I’m not so sure that is a good or bad thing.

In Tokyo, the game between the home team and Houston devolves quickly thanks to the no penalty and limited substitution rules recently added to the league.  The Houston team members don’t seem to take their opponents too seriously because a bunch of the Tokyo guys look like a giant nerds.  The Tokyo team goes out aggressively and scores first.  As the game goes on, it becomes more and more violent with Moonpie viciously killing one of the Tokyo players and seriously injuring a few others.  Another Tokyo player is killed when Jonathan drags him to the chute the ball is shot out into and having his head get hit by the heavy ball speeding out of the tube.  When Jonathan is sidelined to deal with an injury, Moonpie is left defenseless and is attacked by three Tokyo players and brained, leaving him in a vegetative state.  Jonathan returns to the game with renewed vigor and takes out as many of the Tokyo players as he can, but not before several more Houston players are seriously injured.

After the game, we learn that Houston won, but Moonpie is brain dead.  The doctor urges Jonathan to sign the papers to terminate Moonpie’s life, but he refuses.  Instead, Jonathan has Cletus take Moonpie home.

After an emergency meeting held by the corporations, we learn that Jonathan’s retirement was asked for because the game of Rollerball was designed to demonstrate the futility of individual achievement.  Because he has risen above the sport, new rules must be put into place for him to lose.  We later learn that means the championship game between Houston and New York will be played without penalties, without substitutions, and without a time limit.  Essentially, it will be down to whichever team has the last man standing.

Before returning home after the Tokyo game, Jonathan goes to Geneva to try to obtain information about the Corporate Wars but the computer will not, or is unable to, give him answers to his inquiries.  Once he returns home, his wife, Ella, makes a surprise visit.  He asks her about her life.  She was given to a city engineer.  They have two cats, and lots of friends…  And a son.  They spend time together, riding horses and even have sex, but there’s a real reason why she was sent to see him.  She was sent by the corporations to convince him to retire.

Jonathan tells Ella that he has been thinking a lot about society and how comfort was simply a way to buy off people into being malleable to the corporations’ dumb rules.  She offers the rebuttal that the whole of history was about humanity being freed from want and poverty.  Angry that she was basically his reward for doing what they want and her not understanding the world as he sees it, Jonathan decides to let Ella go and stand his ground even if it kills him.  He deletes all his videos of her and visits Moonpie one last time before going to New York for the Championship Match.

Within seconds from the start of the game, it turns into a fuckin’ Mad Max battle of attrition and violence.  The biker guys run into each other, people are tripped, punched, dragged around by their skates, and kicked.  It really looks more like a wrestling match on skates than a sport.  In fact, I don’t think we ever really find out who has the ball during most of this sequence.  It’s just a fucking pile of bodies with blood streaks all over the place.  Before the first period even ends, Jonathan is the lone Houston player and being pursued by a New York biker and skater.  Right in front of Bartholomew, Jonathan kills the skater, and takes the biker off his motorcycle.  He considers bashing his head in with the ball he took from the skater, but changes his mind.  Before a silent crowd, he scores the only point of the match.  He skates alone to increasing chants of his name as the film ends with Bach again.

I think what makes this movie both fascinating and ultimately not as great as I’m sure United Artists and Norman Jewison would have truly wanted is that there are a ton of really great, and pretty spot on, ideas, but it doesn’t really go too far on many of them.  At least not totally far enough on hardly any of them.

Everything starts with the main story – one man fighting against the system.  Let’s take a look at the two sides which reveals our subplots.  First, the corporations.  They suck.  They seem to take the role of “The Man”.  They have the money, and they have the power, so they make the rules.  Their laws act almost more like a Code of Conduct you sign when you start a new job.  They say what you do and what you know.  They build this sport around the idea of making sure the masses stay pacified, but apparently they also built this ultra-violent game around the idea that the struggle to be an individual is ultimately futile because no one can stay on top for too long.

Yet, there’s our hero – Jonathan E.  He turns out to be both pretty smart and pretty unbeatable.  He was perfectly fine being a player doing his thing and resting in his place.  And that was even AFTER they took away his wife which I think was only done as the first attempt to destroy him, but it’s not explored other than that the corporations can do that however they wish with no one able to refuse.  He still did his thing. However, when the Energy Corporation asked for his retirement, Jonathan transitioned from a slave to a revolutionary.  Or at least that’s what I think we’re supposed to view him as.

But is he really?

He’s mad at the corporations.  He had a happy life with his wife, and they took her away from him and separated them to the point that she is happy with the way life is made for her through the corporation way and he’s starting to be stripped of the things he loves.  So he bucks the system.  However, each time he bucks it, the rules are changed to take him down, but it hurts others.  Like his best friend.  He plays in a game that should kill him, but instead, he sees everyone else he bonded with on his team dead or severely injured and he personally, intimately, viciously kills at least two dudes.

Is he really a hero for the people to rally behind?  I would say that the story fails in this regard.  He’s kind of selfish.  Okay, I’ll give him that he got fucked bad, but do you want to root for a guy who kills some guys, either directly or indirectly, because he lost his wife to a bullshit law that she seems okay with?  His heroism is incredibly flawed.  Now, you could say he was kind of a dummy.  I mean, he was an athlete who basically lived out in a relatively secluded and had everything handed to him.  Okay, but he was shown with a desire to gain knowledge about the Corporate Wars.  When he couldn’t get it at the library, he knew what questions to ask to find out where it was.  Also, he seemed to have a fairly decent grasp on what personal liberties mean to a society.

You can definitely say that the story of our main hero is terribly flawed, but there’s another flaw that has a heavy impact on the movie.  There’s a very interesting world built here.  Corporations have taken over the world.  They handle laws like transactions.  They also seem to be rather cynical toward the lower castes by just giving them whatever mind-numbing entertainment to keep them from doing anything about their status in life.  But there are a ton of ideas and little pieces of a future world that has very little explanation or obvious indication for what it means.  The little pills.  The upper class people blowing up trees with a gun.  Their orgasmic fascination with the violence of Rollerball is probably the easiest to determine the meaning of, but it’s still very thin.  I don’t think we need an exposition robot spouting off stuff about what some things mean, but an opening text crawl and some background dialog about some of what this world is built around would be helpful.

Overall, this isn’t a terrible movie, but I don’t think it’s as deep as it wanted to be.  It doesn’t make us ask the questions of ourselves that 2001 or even Logan’s Run did.  It falls more into the neighborhood of Zardoz and Soylent Green.

Next week, I’m going to lighten things up and check out a comedy I watched a dozen times when I was a kid.  Plus, since I hadn’t had any vampires show up in a movie I’ve covered in a long time, It’d say it’s a good time to revisit the spiky toothed devils.  Come back next week for 1989’s Transylvania Twist!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s