Rollerball: iconic 70’s Sci-fi “classic” proves disappointing

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Watch out for that sharp-edged modern art, Jonathan!

I’d had Rollerball on my to-view list for ages, having missed it on TV over the years and never gotten around to renting this sci-fi flick with something of a reputation as a unique and influential 70’s classic. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but – despite some interesting aspects – I found myself disappointed.

The premise, for those unfamiliar with either the original or its 2002 remake, is of a dystopian future in which corporations have replaced countries as the world’s organizing power structure. They’ve also created Rollerball – a violent mix of roller derby and football. It serves as both a bread-and-circuses distraction for the masses, and a means of inculcating a message about the necessity of teamwork and the futility of individuality. You see, players aren’t intended to become stars – they don’t even get last names, just initials. But Jonathan E. (James Caan) still manages to become a fan favourite with his strength and skill at this brutal game. So, he’s informed by his corporate master (John Houseman in full imperious-glare mode) that he must retire. When he stubbornly refuses, plans are put in place to ensure his Rollerball career will be cut short.

This sounds, alas,  more interesting than it is. There are some good ideas underlying “Rollerball”, and a political message about mindless devotion to sports, but the trouble is that the movie is all situation, but no real story.

Jonathan makes some slow-paced attempts to learn why he’s being forced out, and has languid conversations with those close to him about what’s going on. But we never get to know either him, his colleagues or his romantic partners as real, well-rounded characters. Instead, we’re treated to shots of a brooding Jonathan, or of various others staring meaningfully or menacingly into the middle distance.

We get that Jonathan is no radical – he’s devoted to the game and buys into the corporate message. But we never get much of a clue as to what really drives him, even when he turns on his corporate masters and starts refusing to follow orders.

His quest does lead him to a delightfully cheesy scene of Sir Ralph Richardson kicking a talking supercomputer who refuses to give him the information he’s asked it for. But it’s a small consolation.

The art direction (including that supercomputer) is a blast from the mid-seventies past. Apparently the future is orange, orange, orange – plus everyone uses that “computer” font you see on the bottom of your cheques. But the movie has a sparse, empty look, and doesn’t give us a fully lived-in future world. The ordinary people are relegated to chanting mobs, which may be intentional (the malleable masses!) but leaves the movie bereft of a realistic human backdrop.

Although it could be called prescient in its concept of corporate dominance over sport, it misses the chance for a more robust satire of advertising and the way the star system has only expanded, not been eliminated (though a world without Dennis Rodman et al might be an improvement).

The use of music also seems amiss.  Instead of an original score, works by Bach, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky are used. And while this worked for Kubrick with his bold repurposing of The Blue Danube, it seems less effective here. The aim is for a grandiose feel but it comes across more like a temp track of greatest classical hits.

The game of Rollerball itself gets plenty of screen time – too much, I would say. It’s made clear that it’s a brutal game, and gets more so as the rules are changed to put the squeeze on Jonathan. And the hectic, ever-shifting action is well filmed. But a telling detail from IMDb’s trivia page for the film seems relevant: the rules of Rollerball were apparently never fully worked out, and much was improvised on-the-fly by the stunt performers. That shows, I think – and robs the future-sport of that clear objective which helps make real sports so appealing. The games seem almost to last their full real-time length. Better to get off the rink and deeper into the story.

In the end, I wanted to root for a conformist-turned-rebel who flips the tables over and fights the power. But I couldn’t get that kind of satisfaction from Rollerball. Even when it sort of happens, it’s too little, too late.

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