Lawrence Russell

Rollerball, 1975 (United Artists) dir. Norman Jewison writ. William Harrison cine. Douglas Slocombe design John Box music Andre Previn stunt coordinator Max Kleven star. James Caan (Jonathan E.), Ralph Richardson (Bartholomew), John Houseman (Moonpie), Maud Adams (Ella), John Beck, Moses Gunn, Pamela Hornsby, Barbara Trentham, et. al.

It's 2018 AD and the world is run by corporations which operate out of the major cities. No countries remain. The Energy Corporation of Houston is one of the most powerful, runs the reigning World Champion Rollerball team as a placebo for the masses, a brutal body-contact sport reminiscent of the blood sports of the Roman Circus but with the team dynamic of the N.H.L

The players skate inside a bowl, using motor cycles as towing rigs to get up to speed and sometimes as weapons. The players wear helmets, skates, padding, and spiked mittens. The silver ball is fired into the circus bowl like a pinball. The two opposing teams compete for possession, score by dropping the ball into a red hole on the upper perimeter. So while the strategy is similar to American football, the speed and blocking to Canadian ice hockey, the game originates in the ancient Mayan ball court game, where opposing players compete with their lives to punch a ball through a stone ring.

The Corporation is in a crisis, as its leading rollerball star, one Jonathan E. (Caan) is apparently getting bigger than the Game. A creature created by the Energy Corporation, he seems more like a prize stallion or a video robot. He pastures at a beautiful ranch outside of town, and a helicopter ferries him to the games. He has exotic young women as lovers and televisions in every room. In fact, he's very much like the de facto sports royalty that exists today, a sort tragic figure like Mike Tyson but with the pure intentions of a Wayne Gretsky.

For some reason the Executive elite sees Jonathan E. as a threat and want him to retire. After another triumphant victory -- this time against Madrid -- he's called in to see the CEO, and team owner, Mr. Bartholomew (Richardson). With his tight butt sheathed in a white Elvis jumpsuit, the rollerball champion visits this slightly sinister senior citizen in his meditation chamber, a circular room curtained with glass chimes. He cuts his finger on one of the chimes in a portent of things to come. Bartholomew tells him the Executives want him out:

Jonathan: (quietly) The team... they depend on me.

Bartholomew: (murmurs) Let's think this through together. You know how the game serves us. It has a definite social function. The nations are bankrupt, gone... we don't have their tribal warfare anymore... even the corporate wars are a thing of the past. So now we have the Majors: Transport, Food, Communications, Housing, Luxury, Energy... a few of us making decisions on a global basis for the common good... corporate society takes care of everything. All it asks -- all it has ever asked -- is for anyone not to interfere with management decisions....

Just how Jonathan is interfering isn't clear, so he decides to do some background research on the Corporations between games. With his teammate Moonpie, he visits the local library only to find that the books are "classified" -- only summarized versions are available. Stymied, he returns to his ranch where a new sex chattel awaits his pleasure. But he's indifferent to this latest offering, pines for his confiscated love Ella. He plays home movie cassettes of Ella and himself in happier days as he broods over his impending forced retirement.

Everyone seems to be zonked on mood control pills, this muted atmosphere reinforced by the low conversations and organ musak. This contrasts with the exuberant roar of the rollerball fans and the brutality of the Games. An ugly contest occurs in Tokyo, with new rules that seem revised to make sure that Jonathan E. gets the message or gets taken out. There will be no penalties and limited substitutions. Furthermore, the Tokyo team uses lethal martial arts maneuvers which puts this contest back into pagan consciousness and the theatre of death. Moonpie is contemptuous, says "Can't get on to a man to man basis with a pygmy or an oriental."

Needless to say, he suffers for his arrogance, and even though Houston wins the horrific combat, Moonpie leaves the game in a coma. Jonathan survives, seemingly indestructible, a bigger threat than ever to the paranoid regime of the Executives who fear any charismatic leader who isn't part of the Corporate elite. Oddly -- and no doubt deliberately -- the Houston-Tokyo game reflects the brutal economic competition between American and Japanese companies at the time this film was made (1975).

Jonathan goes to the hospital:

Doctor: (bowing) May I say first that you played a superb game in our city.

He wants J. to sign a release form so Moonpie can be disconnected from the life support system. Moonpie's in a coma... "no dreams, nothing... a vegetable."

J. is distressed at the idea of his teammate being consigned to oblivion:

Jonathan: Even a plant can feel something.

Doctor: Who can say?

Jonathan: It senses light, can turn to the sun.

Doctor: You must sign.

Jonathan: You just leave him the way he is.

Doctor: There are rules --

Jonathan: No there ain't. There are no rules at all....

This, of course, is exactly where the Game has arrived at: no rules, just the survival of the fittest.

Sound familiar? Today the "rules" of the professional contact sports are continually revised to fit the contrasting politics of blood-lust and sportsmanship. If there's no violence in the Game, then there's violence in the stands; if there's no violence in the stands, there's violence in the Game. What's best for society? Soccer violence or an occasional concussion and coma in the National Hockey League?

There's a very interesting interlude at Bartholomew's, a tux and evening dress soiree at which Jonathan is supposed to announce his retirement. As various members of the Houston team enter the exotic villa of the plutocrat, guests appraise them:

Woman: They're really quite beautiful... in a wild kind of way.

Male Companion: Don't be silly -- they're made in Detroit.

The guests watch video montages of Jonathan's greatest "hits" -- compilations not unlike Don Cherry's N.H.L. "Knock 'em, Rock 'em, Sock 'em" videos of body checks and fights. Like the bored patricians in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, they seek excitement whatever way it might come -- sports violence or maybe a little shooting practice. A man with a silver pistol leads a group to a meadow where an enigmatic sail-like sculpture stands, and they take turns firing at a row of fir trees. The trees explode and burn with each deadly shot from the particle disintegrator, leaving the charred skeletons of these beautiful icons of Nature as a pathetic presage to the gladiatorial violence of the final game in New York.

Jonathan flies to Geneva, visits the central computer frame, "Zero". These sequences certainly date the movie. Punch cards, consoles like a hydro station, a mad scientist... and Zero looks like a cold fusion experiment, a big jar of water and vapor. But... there're no answers here, just more corporate censorship.

Ella (Adams) visits Jonathan at his ranch. She tells him about her life as the wife of an Executive in Rome. She's safe and comfortable -- another trophy wife. They go to bed... but it seems she's only here at the behest of the Corporation. "Comfort is freedom," she says, mouthing a corporate platitude. Jonathan's reply is to load up his home movies and erase them.

The rules for the final game in New York: No substitutions, no penalties... and no time limit! It's a zero-sum game, alright, a carnage, a street fight between homicidal gangs. Players get whacked, blood floods down the inclines... tow bikes explode, players are immolated... bodies and wreckage litter the midway. Meanwhile Bartholomew and his entourage sit behind the safety wire, expecting their problem to be solved....

Technically this movie stands up well against today's gleaming production values. It flags a bit during the Geneva sequences, and it could be argued that the ending is too inconclusive for the genre. Also, the motivation for it all is a bit cerebral, ambiguous, a conspiracy without a convincing cause. The politics are psychological, the resolution on-going.

Does violence by proxy act as a societal control? Does European soccer fail because the game has too many rules and the fans can only attack one another? Team sports as mercenary armies: as you watch today's ice hockey and American football franchises with their millionaire stars and corporate management, Rollerball seems less like fiction now that we're at the meridian between its creation (1975) and its setting (2018).

© LR '76/99


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