Film * Norman Jewison * Corporate Dystopia Death Sports * 1975
I have to say that I’m fairly disappointed with the murderous kill-sport of rollerball. The film Rollerball also has some issues, but the actual sport depicted is… not particularly murderous? The movie begins cold with an entire game being played between Houston and Madrid. It is very seventies. As far as I can tell, the game is basically roller derby with motorcycles and an oversized ball bearing. Look, I don’t know. There’s a bunch of grown men whipping around on actual factual roller skates, going in literal circles. The track is a wooden ring, with a safe-cage in the middle where the coaches and doctors and benchwarmers hang out during the match. On the outside of the ring is a gutter where the tiny steel bowling ball is shot out of a pneumatic cannon. Some team scoops the ball up, and the other team tries to knock it out of his scoop-glove. The goal is to get the ball in a little ball-alcove in the side of the arena. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of structure – maybe it’s like soccer where there are formations which are fluid – but there are definitely motorcycles. Guys get punched around a bit, but if this movie-opening first game is any indication, the NFL is more violent.
After what feels like a full game of rollerball (it’s actually only like fifteen minutes, but still), the actual movie starts. The concept is actually pretty solid. Rollerball takes place in an indeterminate future, although the aesthetic is exactly 1975. Earth tones are everywhere, and so, so much wood paneling. In this future, all the world’s nations have gone bankrupt leaving corporations to govern society. There are some intriguing allusions to “the corporate wars” sprinkled throughout the opening of the movie, as well as an understanding that for the most part, humanity is content. It seems as if everyone has their basic needs met, and there is no longer the strife and struggle of modern-day living. The sport of Rollerball, then, is a sport of the times. Yeah it’s violent, but it’s all in the good fun of global competition. Besides, the players are all pretty well taken care of. So everyone is happy with the arrangement. The vast majority no longer has to struggle to live, there’s a sick new sport to get into, and all you have to do is abide by whatever management decrees without question.
It’s that last little bit which becomes the crux of the film. The protagonist is a man named Jonathan E. He’s the best, baddest rollerball player in the world. The best who ever was. Now, I skimmed over some reviews of the movie before writing this, both contemporary and modern, and most of them spoke well of James Caan in the role of our hero. Personally, I found him to be bland as shit. Like he did the movie as a favor to a friend, but not a particularly good friend, and so he just coasted. The whole point of conflict of the film is that old Johnny E is getting to be too big of a star, and therefore is a threat to the whole CEO structure of corporate society. Company leadership then directs him to retire before the season is over, which doesn’t sit well with Jonathan. He wants to know why. Corporate basically says “fuck you, that’s why.” What follows is a whole lot of listless rebellion. By the end of the movie, I’m not even all that sure what the stakes are, or how any of the actions which occur over the course of the story affect society as a whole. Despite some of the intriguing setup and exposition that we get, there seems to be very little in the way of payoff. Unless you consider three extremely long games of Rollerball to be a payoff, in which case Rollerball has you covered.
The primary issue that Rollerball flirts with while never actually engaging all that deeply with is that freedom. Namely, it’s asking two questions about it. First, and most importantly, is what do we mean when we talk about our “freedom?” The second question kind of depends on the answer to the first, which is how much freedom are we willing to sacrifice for security, or vice-versa? To its credit, the film actually seems to want to engage with these ideas in between lengthy rollerball scenes. Yet it’s those very same namesake matches which distract from the larger overall state of the world. And yes, James Caan’s lackadaisical approach to the role don’t help matters, but there was little in the way of staking a position in terms of the two above questions. It’s weird because there is an ongoing escalation between the corporate masters and Jonathan’s refusal to retire, which is reflected in the games. Essentially, the managers keep changing the rules to make the game more vicious, with the hope that Jonathan E. will eventually succumb to the rigors of the game. He does not. Jonathan E. triumphs in the end and is the literal last man standing. What is not clear is what, exactly, the dude wins.
From the viewpoint of the average person in the world of Rollerball, life seems pretty good. All basic needs are covered and there doesn’t appear to be any social strife to speak of. It’s explicitly stated that warfare is a thing of the past, and that the “corporate wars” sealed that aspect of human society off forever. Further, most people seem to be perfectly content with the way the world works now. The only catch is pretty simple, if management says to do a thing, you do that thing and don’t ask questions. Despite that seemingly galling stipulation, there doesn’t appear to anything impeding people from doing things they wish to do. So, what is freedom? Is freedom the ability to make your living as comfortable as possible? Or is it the ability to pursue your own desires, regardless of what that might be? Jonathan E. wants to be the best dang rollerballer of all time. This desire conflicts with corporate interests. Old Johnny is going to be all right, when it comes to basic needs. Yet he continues to fight the power and to leverage his power as a global superstar in order to achieve his desire. Why? Well, the movie doesn’t have a great answer for you. It simply doesn’t spend the time outside the rollerball arena to create the necessary social context to provide a strong point of view.
There is one thing that’s fairly clear given what insight we do get is that most citizens of the Rollerball universe seem fine. Pretty much every other character in the movie spend their time on screen trying to get Jonathan to chill. This seems misguided, because nobody has ever been as chill as Jonathan. Seriously, he’s engaged in this battle of wills with the entire global social order and finishes the movie in a physical duel to the death with a bunch of beefy guys on roller skates and motorcycles, and yet throughout the entire movie he seems like he barely cares how things turn out. Anyway, judging from the actions of the ancillary characters, it appears that humanity is happy trading their definition of freedom for safety and comfort. Johnny just wants his girlfriend back. I guess? Man, who knows. Everyone is so goddamn tepid it’s hard to say. And this is ultimately why Rollerball fails to hit with its premise. Most of the time, when the corporate world order is depicted in fiction, it’s the late-stage capitalist nightmare of ultimate income inequality. That’s not the case here, and the social question is far more subtle. Too subtle, in fact. Since we don’t have the context of what the rest of civilization actually looks like, it’s hard to determine if trading ultimate freedom for ultimate safety is the right call. In the end, Jonathan E. is the last man standing, but what has he won? Not only will we never know, it’s hard to say that we have any reason to care.