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Rollerball
Tonight's Feature Presentation

ROLLERBALL (1975)

Starring: James Caan, John Houseman, John Beck, Moses Gunn, Maud Adams

Written By: William Harrison Directed By: Norman Jewison

The Short Version

Sports and science fiction combined, with a message!  Is the public ready?

The world of Rollerball is not as farfetched as most of us would like to think.

The sport sequences are superb; the stuff in between drags.

Wait… motorcycles and roller skates and spiked gauntlets and a solid metal ball that weighs 21 pounds?

This is worth your time for at least one go-round, despite its flaws.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEESE HOT DOGS.

Good, appropriate stadium fare: hot dogs with cheese already inside.  Do not question where the cheese comes from.  That is not your concern.  Just eat your tasty food and watch the game.


Pairs Well With...

BUD LIGHT.

At the time of this writing, that is the Official Beer Sponsor of the NFL.  Please stand for our Corporate Hymn.

“The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort. And the game must do its work. The Energy Corporation has done all it can, and if a champion defeats the meaning for which the game was designed, then he must lose.”


And so the character played by elder statesman John Houseman defines the essence of both Rollerball, the sport, and Rollerball, the movie.  It is, in fact, all you really need to know to understand either.

But perhaps you might like to know how the game is played anyway.  (These are this film’s rules.)

  • The game is played on a banked, indoor circular track, 175 feet in outer diameter.  Players must travel counterclockwise only.
  • There are three periods of twenty minutes each.  There’s a two minute break between periods.
  • There are ten players per team.  The active field for each team consists of seven roller skaters (two catchers, plus five others who mix offensive and defensive functions) and three motorcyclists (bikes have a top speed of 50mph).  Players wear spiked helmets, spiked gloves, and an overall combination of leather and pads.
  • From the top of the track, a 21 pound steel ball is fired from a pneumatic cannon at an approximate speed of 135 miles an hour.  One of the catchers must get hold of the ball before it can roll into the gutter that marks the bottom edge of the banked track; a ball in the gutter is a “dead” ball.
  • Upon catching the ball, the catcher must pass it to another skater.  Only the five skaters who are not “catchers” are eligible to carry and score.
  • The receiving team must circle the track at least once, and may not conceal the ball, leaving it in the open to be defended.
  • If the defenders manage to take the ball away, they become the offense, so long as the ball doesn’t reach the gutter.
  • After one lap, the receiving team may attempt to score against the opponent’s goal.  Defenders are not allowed to post a stationary goaltender.  Goals may only be attempted from within a painted six foot area immediately surrounding the goal, which can only be occupied by either team when a goal is being attempted.
  • If the offense cannot score a goal within three laps, the ball is dead.

There are also lots of potential penalties involved, most of which include the phrase “deliberately injure”, but that becomes more and more complicated as things progress, as you’ll soon see, to the point of being completely ignored.

Sound crazy yet?  Do some math and physics in your head concerning speeds, a 21 pound ball, and lots of spiky armor and motorcycles?  Sound impossible to win this game yet, much less have a lengthy career at playing it?

As Mr. Houseman noted up top, that’s the whole point.

Which is why, as Rollerball begins, he finds himself with a problem.  (Rollerball, by the way, was adapted for the screen by sci fi author William Harrison, based on his own short story.  The story and rules change significantly, but at least the man himself did it.)

Welcome to the year 2018.  The concept of nation-states died long ago, leaving corporations holding the reins as the wielders of power in the world.  That power was further consolidated after the Corporate Wars; now, only a small oligarchy of mega-corporations remains to control everything.  These corporations are organized on the basis of what they produce: Energy, Food, Luxury, etc.  War has been eliminated altogether, and, much like the Ancient Romans with their gladiatorial combats, the corporations have turned to providing the public with gory sport as a means of stemming their appetites for violence, demonstrating the power of those in charge, and demonstrating the futility of working against that power.  Rollerball is hard to win because life is.  Rollerball is impossible to survive at for any length of time as a metaphor for the fact that there’s no use in fighting the power because the power will always grind you down.  Conformity, acceptance, knowing one’s place: these Confucian values are the very foundations of society, and any individual who attempts to rise beyond the path society has set is to be viewed as a dangerous threat.   

Jonathan E. (James Caan), star of the Houston team, is just such a threat.  He holds every major record in Rollerball.  He’s not only survived for ten whole years as a player, but he’s done so reasonably uninjured, and continues to perform like a champion with no signs of slowing down.  He’s beating the system.  Fans can’t help but notice.  For the powers that be, this is a hideous breakdown in the system.

And so they make him an offer he shouldn’t refuse: Retire.  Now.  Retire now and live in the lap of luxury with your every whim granted for the rest of your life.  More horses for the ranch?  Done.  Women?  Done.  Fantasize away; it’s yours if you retire.

I find it interesting that the more educated and/or socially sophisticated a person is, the more likely they seem to be to look at such an offer and say, “Hell, yeah!”  Jonathan, though, is a simple man.  His life is defined entirely by the pride he feels in playing the game.  He wants nothing else.  And so he says “no.”

Jonathan is too popular to “off” in the traditional manner, but the corporations have another idea.  If Jonathan won’t eliminate himself from the game, they’ll redesign the game to eliminate him itself.  And so, over the course of the film, penalties and restrictions are first lifted and then eliminated, resulting in a game with essentially no rules and carte blanche to kill one’s opponents.  It’s reductio ad absurdum meets “abandon hope all ye who enter.”  It’s a ten on ten death match with motorcycles and spiked gauntlets.

It’s not as farfetched as it sounds.  Have you looked at the world lately?  Or read any history, for that matter?

Philosophical discussions of this ilk make up about a third of Rollerball, and unfortunately, Director Norman Jewison, who was very conscious of his film’s message and quite enthusiastic about its anti-violence overtones, lets those scenes play like exactly that – academic discussions.  This doesn’t make them any less relevant, but for many audiences, it does make them something of a chore to watch.  Jewison’s intellectually driven scenes play with all the excitement of a lecture, even when their context is a conversation or a mild action sequence.  Emotion is a rare thing at these times; but then again, maybe that’s the point.  The world of Jewison’s Rollerball is numb to itself.  At a socialite party, some drunken revelers go outside with a gun and blow up the only trees that can be seen anywhere for miles.  They think nothing of the senseless waste, even though from what we can see of the rest of this film, trees are an endangered species.

The messages are potent and worth hearing; their presentation, though, is not designed for the people in greatest need of hearing them.

The emotional resonance barely rises when the camera turns toward developing the characters.  Attempts are made to give Jonathan E. some depth, but at the end of the day, he’s only got one dimension.  There is a subplot involving his wife (Maud Adams, Bond girl) that gets a massive amount of buildup, but which ultimately peters out in a set of scenes that can only be described as a ham handed disappointment.  Not only do James Caan and Maud Adams have no chemistry, but they also appear to have been replaced by robots who’ve only recently peeked at the cue cards.  This is, in fact, such a massive disappointment in its execution that Rollerball really would have been better off had this entire subplot been relegated to the cutting room floor.

So why, then, would I recommend watching Rollerball anyway, which I will?

It’s not because it has a message that remains timely even more than thirty-five years on.

It’s because of the sport sequences.

Roughly a third of Rollerball is dedicated to sequences surrounding the game itself (on and off track).  The violent, abhorrent game that Norman Jewison wants to convince us is the embodiment of political evil.

The violent, awesome game.

All of the emotional resonance that is not present in the rest of the film is jam packed into the scenes surrounding the games.  The emotions of the crowd pour out from the screen, as does the spirit of the players.  And whether or not you actually picked up on the rules, which only get more incomprehensible as they’re eliminated, the game itself is just damned exciting to watch. It’s better than some football games I’ve seen.   It’s spellbinding. 

It’s so much so that the cast and crew actually played it during their downtime on the set.

It’s so much so that some people talked about trying to make the game real after the film was released.  Jewison was appalled.

And yet…

If you just pay attention to the sporting sequences – and perhaps the conference call from which I took the quote at the top, but you could probably still skip that – you’ll still get the message.  It’s right there, in a muted yet still garish 1975 color palette, smattered with bloody red.  For the corporations, the game is the message, and for the man who becomes their adversary, the game is also the message. You may just decide to say to hell with the message and enjoy the game anyway, and that’s fine.  But you’ll still hear what Norman Jewison and William Harrison wanted you to hear if you listen.

Bottom line, Rollerball as a movie suffers from some pretty deep flaws, despite having an interesting story to build upon.  Rollerball the game, though, is so incredibly portrayed that it makes Rollerball the movie worth watching… and maybe even learning from.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011

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