There is a moment in Norman Jewison’s dystopian political action/drama, Rollerball (1975) when champion, Jonathan E. (James Caan) suddenly realizes his entire existence has become a calculated risk to the corporate counterculture responsible for his supremacy in the game he holds so dear. At this moment, when the will of the individual manifests itself as a threat against the state, the state itself is revealed as being even more subservient to the anesthetizing effects of creature comforts; nationalism eclipsed by capitalistic villainy run amuck.
At once, director Jewison takes us back to the primitive chest-thumping sound of prehistoric man, the grand coliseum of ancient Rome, and, the present-day mania experienced in any hockey arena; man’s transgression against centuries of societal evolution having withdrawn his more altruistic instincts in favor of the most base Darwinian essentialism – survival of the fittest. Alas, even Darwin never had the perversity of Rollerball in mind; a no-holds barred barbarism in which ‘game-like’ principles are ascribed to the basic liberties of life and the pursuit of happiness.
Most critics in America have overlooked Rollerball’s political subtext, perhaps because in 1975, the sheer concept of a handful of executives in three piece suits controlling free will, via what is essentially a very bloody game of football on roller skates and motor cycles, seemed utterly foreign to downright fanciful. Alas, we are ever closer to fulfilling Rollerball’s 2018 prophetic narrative; both chronologically (with the passage of years) and more directly, in our adopted worldview aligning itself with the movies’ pleasure pursuits. Along with art, sport has always fueled man’s ambitions. Rollerball adds politics to this slate of ‘lofty’ ambitions; each unconquerable because man is plagued by his own inevitable egotism; to distinguish and conquer, but, alas, to satisfy his inalienable vanity. Yet this feeds upon, and eventually devours his self-importance. Lest we forget the old adage “pride cometh before the fall”; the mis-endeavor leading mankind down the incontrovertible path to personal disillusionment and self-destruction.
Rollerball’s more fertile premonition, that of a superficially self-indulgent society afforded every manufactured luxury – minus personal freedom – and even further anesthetized by televised ultra-violence (and rampant recreational drug use) into a perpetually carnivorous state where ever more gratuitous bloodshed is craved to quench (though never entirely satisfy) our base and bottomless desire: these are Norman Jewison’s expansions on William Harrison’s original short story – The Roller Ball Murders. Harrison committed to write the screenplay with Jewison’s assistance; the pair cribbing from virtually every philosophical and socio-psychological debate about sport-sanctioned violence and its impact on the popular state of mind. There is, however, a more insidious undercurrent in the milieu of Rollerball; the trade-off of rugged individualism for manufactured pleasures of every shape and kind depriving mankind of the initiative to thrive and celebrate the evolution of its own societal achievements.
Those unknowing of the past yield to a civilization doomed to repeat it, the infamy in this collective cultural amnesia eerily realized in the scene where our hero travels to Geneva to satisfy his burgeoning desire for book-learned knowledge, only to realize even the world’s librarian (magnificently portrayed as just another corporate stooge by Ralph Richardson) is at the mercy of an all-knowing computerized brain – ‘zero’ – preprogrammed by the powers that be to provide only the most watered down information, purged of entire portions of human history (they’ve already misplaced the entire 13th century) and able to deny personal access to any deeper intelligent understanding of life, simply because it suits the new corporate agenda. Rollerball taps into our present day dissatisfaction with mainstream public institutions. It also feeds into our paranoia for conspiracy theories about governmental intervention and its subversive manipulation of our daily lives.
Clairvoyantly, too many of Rollerball’s ‘fanciful’ aspects in 1975 have since come to pass. Consider just a few. First, certain time-honored literary masterworks, from generations previous to our own, exists today in some sort of truncated form – altered to suit contemporary tastes, translations and socio-political analyses not indigenous to the time of their creation, and/or reworded to meet the standards of present-day political correctness. Second, violence in professional sports has become the predominant feature designed to sell tickets; comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s old joke that he “went to a fight and a hockey game broke out” having morphed into our more recent spate of televised sports: American Gladiator, WWF pro-wrestling and Ultimate Fighting mixed martial arts championships, where artificially enhanced ‘athletes’ are expected to inflict physical pain to satisfy our bloodlust. Third, corporate America’s escalation of business takeovers, mergers and acquisitions – absorbing the competition outright – has resulted in fewer, larger conglomerates limiting our freedom of choice in what we consume – as entertainment or in the diversity of goods and services provided, proportionately shrunk with the expanding market share.
Jewison’s vision for Rollerball has less to do with yet another gaudy action movie, set in the dystopian not-so-distant future, sustained by its own uber-ferocity and technical proficiency, than with marking territory as a progressively-minded film maker inspiring a worldwide cause célèbre; stirring fervor through our already familiarized passion for violence – not for its own sake, but as a response to the mania already afoot within contemporary society. Rollerball illustrates the perilous trajectory un-tethered corporate-sanctioned sadism can take.
James Caan’s central performance is marked by a curious dispassion. Indeed, his Jonathan E. has made rollerball a way of life. But this has deprived him of any lasting or even marginally meaningful human companionship. Worse, Jonathan is about to be unsettled at his very core when the godlike corporate management in charge of his fame and fortune suddenly, and seemingly without cause, decides to prematurely terminate his employ; not because he lacks either the skill or initiative to succeed, but rather because his success has surpassed their expectations. This has made him a heroic and godlike figure to the masses, threatening to their own autocratic importance and influence on life. In what is essentially a very Biblical stance (Thou shall have no other Gods…), the corporation would rather retire its’ best known public figure than allow his reputation to permeate the public consciousness – even as their cardboard savior.
Jewison and cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe transform Rollerball into a decidedly sleek, if apocalyptic vision, ironically grounded in an atypically sterile 70’s milieu of concrete, faux chrome and color-coded plastic, where nature itself is callously decimated by affluent revelers firing exploding darts into coniferous trees, taking the greatest pleasure in watching them burn. The human condition in Rollerball has been distilled to mere and very Machiavellian principles. Yet, here too, even hedonism is warped by corporate objectives; personal satisfaction a wan and disposable substitution of fine wines, fashionable clothes, and, anesthetizing designer drugs to further dull and corrupt the senses, and thus, help to advance the general malaise of unknowing currently afflicting the general populace.
Rollerball begins (where else?) but in the arena; a metaphor for the analogies of life being a contact sport; Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor blaring over the loudspeakers. In some ways, Rollerball is far more art house and experimental than mainstream pop-u-tainment; particularly in its use of revered classical music conducted by Andre Previn. If life is a game, then who can play it on these limited terms? Very few, it seems; the cream of the crop being Jonathan E. (James Caan) – a veteran of Houston’s rollerball house league who has devoted his entire life to the ultra-violent contact sport, played on roller skates and motorcycles, with a metal musket shot from an air canon, capable of inflicting serious pain or even death if improperly handled. By virtue of his incredible prowess in the arena, Jonathan has established something of a cult following with fans; a recognizable face personifying integrity and skill; in short – a triple threat to the Energy Corporation’s sovereignty, presided over by its emotionless chairman, Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman).
After an impressive victory over the team from Madrid, Bartholomew enters Houston’s locker room for a rousing pep talk. Jonathan’s teammates are comprised of a few actors, but mostly from German and American stuntmen, who trained for months to learn how to play this deadly game. Rollerball was, in fact, shot mostly in Germany, the actual arena conceived and built by legendary production designer, John Box, inside the old Olympic basketball stadium. The other rising star in Houston’s house league is Moonpie (John Beck); very much of brawn but little brain, whose signature maneuver is to sideswipe opposing teammates by clinging to the sides of the elevated court and then allowing gravity to steer his body into the oncoming human traffic.
In a bit of portentous foreshadowing, Mr. Bartholomew bestows insincere praise on Jonathan, openly admitting the corporation has run out of ways to adequately reward its reigning champion. Instead, he offers a popularized recreational drug to Moonpie, while making the announcement to the team that Jonathan is to be featured in a worldwide ‘multivision’ broadcast devoted to his illustrious career. It all sounds fairly glamorous, except the TV special is meant to mark the end of Jonathan’s career with his enforced retirement. At a clandestine meeting inside the brutalist-designed head offices of the Energy Corp. Jonathan is told by Bartholomew he must respect and trust the governing board in their wisdom to remove him at the height of his popularity. The real reason for Jonathan’s retirement, however, remains undisclosed. This won’t do. For Jonathan is, of course, suspicious and for good reason. Some years ago, his wife, Ella (Maud Adams) was taken from him by the corporation to satisfy one of its top executives.
Returning to his ranch to contemplate the future – or rather, a future without rollerball – Jonathan is remote and unfeeling toward Mackie (Pamela Hensley); the plaything meant to replace Ella in his life. Alas, she is incapable of obliterating Ella’s memory; Jonathan clinging to old video recordings of the life he once shared with his wife, home movies played incessantly on his jumbo sized monitors. Johnathan confides in his personal trainer, Cletus (Moses Gunn) that the corporation intends to retire him before the team’s highly anticipated game against China. Struggling to make sense of it all, Jonathan decides to learn all he can about the ‘corporate wars’; a supposed conflict that occurred in the capitalist nations some time ago, effectively wiping out nationalism and replacing it with the present consumer-based worship of material goods and services. However, when Jonathan attempts to access public records from his local library, he is informed by its rather artificially pleasant clerk (Nancy Bleier) only the condensed (ergo modified) records of his requested reading materials actually exist.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Jonathan discovers Mackie has been replaced by an even more vapid concubine, Daphne (Barbara Trentham); sent by the corporation to deflect and discourage his investigation. Dissatisfied by what he astutely perceives as a deceptive intervention in his private life, Jonathan instead invests himself in the education of a group of rising Rollerball stars, emphasizing the importance of skill sets and technique. Next, Jonathan travels to Geneva where the only known complete manuscripts of world history, art and literature are rumored to still exist, contained within a vast library dedicated to the preservation of human knowledge. Alas, upon meeting the rather dotty head librarian (Ralph Richardson), Jonathan discovers here too a massive purge has begun; the library’s all-knowing computer – ‘Zero’ – unable, or perhaps unwilling, to satisfy any and all inquiries he has about the ‘corporate wars’.
Returning to Houston, Jonathan and his teammates train hard for their upcoming match against Tokyo; Jonathan refusing to acknowledge his retirement during the scripted Q&A of his TV special, thereby inciting Mr. Bartholomew’s considerable wrath. Prior to the game, a select group of the chichi intelligentsia have gathered to honor Jonathan; the party devolving into a drug-induced orgy; the revelers taking to the countryside with a dart gun, firing exploding projectiles into a row of tall pine trees; observing their fiery destruction with great amusement. Jonathan is more concerned with the corporation’s decision to alter the time-honored rules of rollerball; the game essentially becoming a no-holds barred brawl where anything goes.
In preparation for the Tokyo match, the corporation hires an Asian instructor (Robert Ito). Regrettably fueled by ego and their unbeaten track record, Moonpie discourages team Houston from appreciating the lesson, chanting ‘Houston’ as the rest of his teammates join in. The resulting match in Tokyo is a disaster; the mania of fans reaching a fevered pitch as both teams come to death grips in the arena; Houston’s lead biker, Blue (Tony Brubaker) is blown to bits when the rollerball musket strikes his cycle, bursting it into a hellish ball of flame. The opposing team gang up on Moonpie; removing his helmet and severing his spinal cord with a severe blow to his head. Not long afterward, Jonathan attends his fallen comrade in the hospital, refusing to sign the Japanese doctor’s (Burt Kwouk) consent release to terminate Moonpie’s life support. Instead, Jonathan has Moonpie’s body shipped back home; ensconced in a sort of Lenin-esque memorial.
In response to Jonathan’s refusal to walk away from the game, the corporation further alters the rules for the pending match between Houston and New York, now to be played without penalties, player substitutions, or even a time-limit. Surely, in the resulting chaos, Jonathan will meet a similar fate, thus absolving the Energy Corp. of all legal responsibilities for his death. We discover that rollerball was never intended as a game, but rather as a way of breaking mankind of its rugged individualism; thus, making humans subservient to the will and demands of a one world order corporate power structure. In a last ditch effort to convince Jonathan to surrender his personal crusade, the corporation briefly reunites him with Ella. Alas, too much time has passed between them. Jonathan quickly realizes Ella is part of the game, looking out for the corporation’s interests rather than his own. Spending a few pleasurable days with his ex, Jonathan deletes all video files of their life together. He is at last free of these aching memories that, for so long, have sustained an unquenchable sadness.
The corporation has underestimated Jonathan’s resolve; also his innate desire to defy their odds and, in fact, bite the hand that has been feeding him for its own good. The match between Houston and New York results in the brutal annihilation of both teams: an all-out war to the bloody finish. Jonathan refuses to murder the opposing team’s biker, Tuffy (Walter Scott), instead grasping the metal musket and sinking it into the opposing goal; thereby affording Houston the only point to mark his victory. But it remains his victory – not the teams. Watching from the stands, Mr. Bartholomew is incensed; the corporation’s need for absolute control over man’s free will has been overrun as the crowd begins to loudly chant Jonathan’s name. He has become their one true god of the moment.
Rollerball is hardly a perfect entertainment, but it does reveal Norman Jewison’s zeal for making incredibly complex and fascinating movies about man’s enduring struggle against unforeseen forces conspiring against him. Critics in America were all too eagerly dismissive of Rollerball as just another improbable and ultra-violent mishmash in support of the 70’s counterculture dystopias seen in movies like The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). There is, to be sure, some of this oppressive self-annihilation cursorily permeating the patina of Rollerball. But Jewison and screenwriter, William Harrison’s subtext sets this movie apart from its contemporaries, using its stark modernistic backdrops to turn the socialist utopian ideology on its head. The future is not about conformity, rather the will of free-thinking individuals to hold their own dominion over the powers of the state.
On the surface at least, one can choose to interpret Rollerball in purely Marxist terms as harboring an anti-capitalist agenda. Yet, to merely dismiss Rollerball as such is selling its premise decidedly short. In fact, Rollerball is Norman Jewison’s warning shot across the bow of modern society; foreshadowing the corporate power-hungry decade of the 1980’s and its postmodern impact and fallout on individual civil liberties and freedoms, all too threateningly since come to pass. In 2014, we are decidedly through the looking glass now, and Rollerball no longer seems far-fetched or misguided in its predictions on where the modern world is headed, but unpromisingly telepathic.
Aficionados of Rollerball will likely be pleased with the overall quality of this hi-def presentation via Twilight Time; MGM’s 1080p Blu-ray a mostly attractive affair with minor caveats to consider. The properly framed 1.85:1 image is given to bright colors, accurate flesh tones and an impressive amount of fine detail throughout. Better still; the image is remarkably clean and virtually free of all but a few fleeting age-related artifacts. Alas, film grain is problematic; darker shots plagued by an inexplicably harsh digitized, clumpy and excessively thick grit, inconsistently rendered even from shot to shot. Example: the scene where Jonathan and Ella discuss his retirement in a forest of pines. The establishing shot looks slightly faded, with background information breaking up in a sea of unstable ‘grain’; immediately gone when we cut to medium and tight close-ups; these, rendered with razor-sharp clarity.
We get the movie’s soundtrack in both original mono and a new, and fairly aggressive, 5.1 DTS remix. Extras are plentiful too: a pair of informative and distinct audio commentaries (from Jewison and Harrison) a pair of featurettes (one vintage, the other made to mark the movie’s anniversary and also featured as part of MGM’s previously released DVD from 2002), TV spots and trailers; plus, Twilight Time’s usual commitment to providing an isolated score of Andre Previn’s re-orchestrated classical music. While Rollerball will never be confused with high art, it nevertheless remains an intriguing socio-political commentary on the unraveling of contemporary society made by a film maker who clearly has more intelligent things to show us than just a bunch of grown men pulverizing one another on roller skates and motorcycles. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)