Dystopian science-fiction thrived during the 1970s, as filmmakers wrapped their anxieties about the state of the world into violent cinematic dreams about future: Logan's Run, Silent Running, Soylent Green, Westworld, THX 1138, Quintet, etc. The “predictions” made by these movies were typically outlandish, but rooted in an inescapable sense that something awful waited for us at the end of the path we were marching down. One of the more peculiar and intriguing films of the era is Norman Jewison's Rollerball, which plays like a futuristic fusion of gladiator movies, paranoia thrillers and sports dramas.
What is “rollerball,” exactly? It's part roller derby and part football, but more challenging and violent than either of those sports (it's not uncommon for serious injuries or even deaths to occur during a match). The teams are owned by powerful corporations, and the national anthems of various countries have been replaced by corporate anthems. We're only given fleeting glimpses of the larger world of the film, but it's clear that there's a strictly-defined caste system in place. Players are rewarded for delivering exceptional performances, but they're basically expendable and have minimal free will. The executives are the only ones with the power to make decisions.
The league's biggest star is Jonathan E (James Caan, The Godfather), who plays for Houston on behalf of the mighty Energy Corporation. Jonathan's rewards have been exceptionally lavish: he has a large country estate, a revolving door of attractive girlfriends (hand-picked by the Energy Corporation) and just about every sort of modern comfort a man could want. One day, after Jonathan leads his team to yet another big win, Energy Corporation Chairman Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman, The Paper Chase) delivers a shocking piece of news: the company wants Jonathan to retire. It seems that Jonathan is too good for his own good: he's become a superstar, and brings glory to himself rather than bringing glory to the corporation. Plus, his success reinforces the idea of individual achievement, which is a dangerous concept to promote to the general public. Jonathan defies Mr. Bartholomew's wishes and decides to continue playing, but soon finds himself forced to navigate a wide variety of dangerous scenarios (including some rule changes that make the sport even more horrifically violent).
While the increasingly bloody (and well-staged) sports action sequences may make the film feel like a companion piece to the exploitative Death Race 2000, Rollerball is far less concerned with delivering sensationalist entertainment and far more interested in delivering some genuinely thought-provoking ideas. Between the big setpieces, the movie is quiet, mysterious and experimental, dipping into surreal, symbolic moments that feel like something out of The Prisoner (observe the scene in which a conversation between Jonathan and a friend is intercut with clips of attractive young women using a powerful laser pistol to set trees on fire). As Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem would do decades later, the film suggests that corporations – not governments – will be the real bureaucratic oppressors of the future. Indeed, the portrait of sports teams as nothing more advertising tools for powerful corporations feels eerily prescient: a nod to the future of AT&T Stadium and FedEx Field.
Caan's performance is an effective portrait of quiet masculinity; a more restrained version of the sort of work Charlton Heston did in dystopian sci-fi movies of the era. Both his smile and his scowl are subtle, and there's always concern in his eyes (it never quite becomes panic, but it becomes more prominent as Jonathan realizes that he's in the middle of a sinister conspiracy). Houseman's performance is the film's best, as he offers condescending paternal encouragement that frequently shifts into something more threatening.
Jewison's direction alternates between sturdy simplicity and more visually experimental ideas. The movie isn't quite as frisky in the editing department as Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair – it's slower and more sterile – but the way the film slips into moments of dark, dreamlike surrealism are intriguing, and Jewison's heavy use of ominous classical music brings a chilly elegance to a number of key sequences. A few subplots don't quite get the development they need (in particular, Jonathan's relationships with other people tend to feel like half-finished sketches) and the film's themes get a little muddier than they ought to, but the movie pulls you in and delivers a climax that makes a real impact. The movie's portrait of a world in which celebrity is downplayed doesn't feel much like the one we live in, but its portrait of a world in which privileged executives stoke the public's bloodlust for their own benefit seems pretty damn familiar.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Year: 1975