Movie Review: Rollerball

Posted: April 8, 2012 in Movie Review
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Wait, I’ve been away how long? It’s been when since I last wrote a review? Where was I during that time. Oh yeah, that. Well, if I don’t get back on that horse, I may never get back on. The problem of course is that the longer you’re away, the bigger your return needs to be. I need to go either really obscure or really popular. The problem is that I also need to get back up to speed, so I’ll go for something in between. This is both obscure and popular.

Rollerball (1975- United Artists – Dir. Norman Jewison)

So this one has sort of an odd story. Rollerball was mentioned in the essay “You think that movie is bad?” and since then, Rollerball has become third in the list of search terms used to find this little blog. I found it sort of depressing that people might be coming here looking for a review of the movie and not finding one, despite it being one of my Sci-Fi Greats. So let’s talk about one of the truly great sci-fi/corporate nightmare movies. Really though, it’s just a dystopian movie because, there isn’t much that’s really advanced technology in the movie. Take away the strange TV sets and one scene with a laser gun and it could have happened in ‘75 when the movie was made. The only things that are required for this to become a reality are all social developments.


Rollerball is, in essence the father of movies like The Running Man and grandfather to The Hunger Games. While I’m happy to be proven wrong, if I am, I believe this is the first movie to satirize violence in sports. In fact, if anything, people shouldn’t be saying “I liked Hunger Games better when they called it The Running Man/Battle Royale.” they should be saying they liked it better when it was still called Rollerball. Many more of the themes and ideas that are present in Hunger Games are borrowed from Rollerball than either of the other two movies. Rule changes, the game being used to keep the people in line, the desire not to have outstanding players… all there in both films. Don’t go telling me about the books, Rollerball was based on a short story that I own but haven’t read for various reasons and I’ve never read Hunger Games either. So I can only compare movies, which is as it should be. I hate the idea that I need to do supplemental reading to actually get into a TV show or movie. If the writers are directors did a better job adapting the work, I wouldn’t need to read the supplemental materials. I wish I could say that I was looking at one project in particular, but frankly the problem is wide spread at the moment that I could almost pick anything.


So the movie: It’s the future and the best game going is a violent sport called Rollerball, which is a mix between a roller derby and… I dunno, hockey? There are guys on motorcycles towing guys on roller-skates. You get a metal ball about the size of a softball and you’ve got to throw it into a round goal that appears to be magnetized. The opening fifteen minutes of the game is dedicated to simply watching a game of Rollerball and having the game more or less described to us as we watch. It’s a brilliant way to both explain the game and show off the kind of world that has created a game like this. Since this is at least in part a sports movie, you need to show them performing the sport. It also helps draw you into something that it will try to get you to recoil from later.


Early on, you’re also given the basic idea of what the movie will become. After the initial game, we’re shown the world that produced it. This is a future where the corporations are literally and unmistakably in control. The governments were abolished after the last great war and now the large corporations that have names like “Energy” rule over sections of the world. They devised the game or Rollerball as a team sport so that the lower orders would gather behind the team. The world, as we’re meant to understand it, is in much better shape for being ruled by this plutocracy.


The problem is that the hero of the movie, Jonathan E, has become a star and is outstripping his team and they want him gone because the corporation doesn’t want a single hero. What should be a basic movie about bloodsport, now has a strong undertone of the plight of the individual under a system of compliance. Funny that complete corporatism is presented more or less like complete communism is usually portrayed. Both present a world where obedience is key and everyone needs to fall into line and do what they’re told. As a result, there is a strong undercurrent of fear and paranoia for those who are aware enough to understand what’s going on. And in that we have the next point I would like to make.


Many have criticized James Caan’s performance in this movie. Usually he’s said to be uninterested, or uncomfortable. Well, actually, he should be. You’ve got a movie about a jock who has sort of worked out something is wrong, but doesn’t have the wherewithal to understand what’s actually going on. He’s not comfortable breaking from conformity, not intelligent enough to approach the question intellectually and he’s not prepared to really research much of anything. Emotionally, he shuts down every time he’s asked to do something he doesn’t want to do. This is not a man prepared for what the movie is going to ask of him. Worse yet, everyone is either less curious than he is or is actively fighting him on his quest for information. This is a world where everyone has more or less stopped thinking and stopped questioning the system that has given them so much. As a result, I find Caan’s performance to be nothing short of brilliant. It takes a lot of guts to play a man who is kind of stupid and is approaching curiosity for the first time in his mid-thirties. He gives an amazing performance, with a greater level of complexity than you see in most sports movies.


When we see a party with the executive class, they’re shown very much like a modern version of the sort of decadence that only exists in the imagination of a Roman orgy. Everyone is running around with a complete lack of thought or introspection, a marvel of vacuousness. It’s also interesting how male-centric this society is. The women are treated pretty badly, which I find less a comment on the movie and more a comment on the society in which this movie exists. I’m not sure there aren’t ways that they could have been more explicit in showing how badly the women are treated, but it does about as well as it could for the time without getting bogged down. The pretty women are used as bargaining chips and objects of affection for the most part. And there are important women in this world. One of the top bosses in the movie is a woman, but only one. I think we have to remember 1975 and let it go.


After the Executive Party, and especially after the game in Tokyo, the movie changes. The tone darkens, and the danger for everyone involved is greatly increased. Most of that is just paranoia though, although there is a real consequence for some. The final game in the movie manages to make an actual comment on the violence, leaving everyone in the stadium silenced. And then of course you have an extremely ambiguous ending. Depending on how you view things, the story could go one of two ways and both are, in my mind, perfectly reasonable.


In the end, this is a much better movie than I think most people would expect, although you need to look a bit deeper than the surface and ignore the remake. I have a DVD from England, which has commentaries from both the writer and director. Well, enough about that, let’s talk score.

Official Score:
75 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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 )

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s