In a future where the world is no longer run by governments, but by corporations, the world is taught the importance of teamwork and the folly of individual achievement through the vicious sport of Rollerball. Rollerball was created specifically to be a total team sport emphasizing the importance of being one of the team…in other words, following orders and doing what you’re told…but against the game’s intentions, a hero rises, Jonathan E (James Caan). Jonathan is the greatest player the sport has ever known, but a hero is the last thing the corporate heads want and they seek to stop his example of the true power of individual achievement, at any cost. At first he is asked to retire after an illustrious 10 year career. But as Jonathan resists, they begin to change the game’s rules making each competition more and more dangerous till Jonathan submits or is killed. They even interfere in his personal life taking away the woman he loves and giving her to one of their own. But fueled by the obvious assassination of his best friend (John Beck) during a game, Jonathan E has other ideas, even if it costs him his life.
Rollerball has it’s flaws, the movie is very somber and talky and the pace is a bit slow, until the game sequences, which is when the film really comes alive with a furious energy. Director Norman Jewison has a bit more of an artsy style than the film needed, but the contrast between the sober almost sterile everyday life and the brutal viciousness of the Rollerball games does actually work to the film’s advantage. We can see how this game has become the only excitement for the masses and the only avenue to vent their negative emotions.
The good cast all perform well. Caan’s performance echoes the film’s tone. Outside the arena he is soft-spoken and somber, but comes alive when thrust into the competition of the game he loves. At first he is confused and frustrated, but the more he resists and the more he realizes how scared his hero persona makes the corporate leaders, the more powerful he realizes he is. This sets up for a final showdown when the corporate heads (represented by a sinister John Houseman), who…desperate to destroy him…remove all the rules and time limits from the final championship game, turning it into a virtual blood bath.
The film’s portrayal of a corporate run world is probably more relevant today than when the film was first made in 1975 and the depiction of the audience’s bloodthirsty love of the violent game is also more relevant as our own sports events suffer more and more violent incidents at stadiums. So to a degree, this 70s sci-fi thriller actually works better in context with today’s world, than it did in ’75.
A cool flick despite it’s flaws. Also stars Moses Gunn, Shane Rimmer, Maud Adams and John Beck as Jonathan’s ill-fated friend and teammate Moonpie. Avoid the 2002 remake.
Rated 3 (out of 4) Rollerballs!