10/18/10

Rollerball (1975)

In the not-too-distant future, wars will no longer exist.

There will only be Rollerball.



Players divide into two teams of ten, seven on roller skates and three on motorcycles.

A steel ball is fired into the arena which one player of either team must catch with a mitt.

The object of the game is to place that ball into the opposing team's goal, while that team tries to trip you up and run you down to defend it.

Whichever team scores the most goals in three twenty-minute periods wins.

It's sort of a hybrid of football, motocross, basketball, roller derby and hockey. In that it's tactical, exciting, fast-paced, full-contact, and extremely full-contact, respectively.

A farily simple game on paper.

Also an entertaining one, considering the global balance of power rests on it and there hasn't been any wars since it was first established.

So fascinating a game that American novelist William Harrison wrote a short story about it for Esquire magazine in 1973.

Then Norman Jewison and United Artists turned it into a movie in 1975, with Harrison's screenplay.

Then John McTiernan and MGM remade it in 2002.

We'll just be focusing on the 1975 movie today.



Welcome to the future, circa 1975. Everything is all white and curvy, TV screens come in sets of four, there is wood paneling in everything, and the computers are so out of date they may as well be iMacs. It is also a future of capitalist Communism (or would that be Communist capitalism?) where nations no longer exist and corporations now run everything. It's the lobbyist's dream come true coupled with the Tea Partyer's worst nightmare. At the very least there's no more war, hunger or disease, so it's got that going for them.

And the reason there's no more war is because the powers that be have established an international rollerball league where the proletariat can vent their frustrations through watching men in crash helmets kill each other. And despite the fact that it's a very dangerous game and people have been known to die playing it, it's the only sport in business to the exclusion of every other.

That's right, all you Brett Favre and Peyton Manning faithful, someone succeeded where Jesse Ventura failed. They actually convinced the people of America that this game was a million times better and more profitable than the NFL.

Jonathan E. (James Caan) is the all-star player for the Houston team, backed by the otherwise-nameless Energy Corporation. After a successful game against Madrid, corporate executive Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman) asks to meet with him in his office the next morning, where he lays down some conflict: he's been in the game for ten years now, longer than any other player in the league, and he's won every last award they can throw at him, so...maybe it's time that he consider retiring from the sport.

They've also signed him up for a TV special and the teleprompter they have him reading from during the "interview" from has his retirement speech typed on it. After he finds this out, he gets into an argument with his "host" and storms off the "set."

You see, Jonathan has a sordid history with his corporate overlords - his wife Ella (played by two-time Bond girl Maud Adams) was forced to divorce him when she was promised to an executive, and they've been sending concubines to his house on a regular basis ever since, though he still watches footage of Ella on every multivision set of four screens in the house.


"Why yes, I do enjoy hanging wind chimes. Why do you ask?"

After about twenty minutes of scenes establishing that this is the future that Adbusters warned us about ("privilege cards" instead of viable currency, books computerized and possibly censored) we have the next game on the schedule against Tokyo. And since they're Asians and this is 1975, they play using unorthodox skills derived from karate and aikido. For Jonathan, the rules have also been tweaked a little in an attempt to force him out of the game one way or another - no penalties and limited substitutions allowed.

Before the game, however, there is a fancy party at Jonathan's house where everybody sits down to watch his TV special - or the half-hour clip show it turned into after he stormed out. Again, Mr. Bartholomew pressures Jonathan to retire, citing that no one player is greater than the game, but Jonathan is still curious as to why they want him to quit.

Meanwhile, several guests are out in the middle of a field blowing up trees with a flare gun for no reason.


"Me hate the trees! Me hate the trees!"

Ignoring the naysayers, Jonathan decides to play in Tokyo, and the team is loudly overflowing with confidence prior to game time. With the aforementioned rule changes, it quickly descends into wanton brutality and players on both sides are killed. Houston comes away with the victory, but to them belong the spoils: during the game their lead biker burns to death when his motorcycle explodes, and several Tokyo players gang up on Jonathan's best friend and teammate Moon Pie (John Beck) and give him such a beating that the hospital he is rushed to declares him brain-dead.

Now comes the part in the movie where we actually get a message, this one about groupthink comfort versus individual freedom. An emergency meeting of the corporate heads of office reveals why they want Jonathan to retire: the original purpose of the game was not only to end all wars and fuel the working class' need for bloodsport, but also to demonstrate "the futility of individual effort", so they say, and Jonathan's rising popularity and nasty habit of surviving poses a threat to it. So it is decided that the next game, the last game of the season against the New York team, will have further rule changes - no penalties, substitutions, or even a time limit, in the hopes that Jonathan will either retire or play the game and assure himself an early grave.


Oh, this guy was amazing on the track. I heard his next of kin got a sweet shoe endorsement deal.

After much contemplation, a fruitless conversation with Zero, the world's supercomputer whose motherboard is so fried that it has managed to lose the entire 13th century, and a sudden appearance by Ella to try and talk him out of it, Jonathan is in the program for the New York game. And just to add fuel to the fire, the New York players and fans come out chanting "Jonathan's dead, Jonathan's dead, Jonathan's dead" leading up to tipoff.

The game begins, and not surprisingly the first period's not even half over before it reaches a level of violence not seen in athletic competition since the gladiator duels in the Roman empire. The crowd slowly turns silent as players on both sides drop left and right, and for added effect some of the motorcycles collide and explode, setting the track ablaze.

When the metaphorical dust finally settles, Jonathan is the sole survivor on the Houston team, and two players, a biker and a skater, remain on New York's side. Jonathan easily dispatches the biker and is just about to beat the skater to death with the ball when we get one of those tense "will-he-or-won't-he" moments where the savagery of the game stares him right in the face. He leaves him alone and casually scuttles on the tips of his skates to the goal and scores. Then he skates a victory lap as spectators slowly start chanting his name again and Mr. Bartholomew, sitting in the stands, silently exits.

I haven't seen much of the 2002 remake, but from what I can tell it incorporates a proper love interest, LL Cool J, and not so much of the global corporate domination subplot of its predecessor. It also has a 3% score on the Tomatometer, while the original has a 68.


Good thing it wasn't on "Dollar Beer Night".

Rollerball is standard dystopian science fiction fare, with a dated futuristic backdrop and classical music soundtrack seemingly inspired by Kubrick's 2001 and a tendency to tell more than show the dark oligarchic consumer culture in which it takes place. However, I am recommending it for its action scenes. The rollerball sequences are very intense and chillingly well staged; this film wasn't the first in motion picture history to include its stuntmen in the end credits for nothing.

It isn't often that I commend a movie for anything shown on screen over its plot, but then this film has something for both sides - if you don't like debates about conformity versus free will and the importance of individual identity, at least stay for the parts where rollerball players try to smash each others' faces in.


It's the eye of the tiger, it's the thrill of the fight...

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