Dystopias are usually set in a tweaked present rather than a distant future. 1984 is simply 1948, the year of its composition, writ backwards. And so it is with Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (1975), a gloriously entertaining dystopian thriller, set in the futuristic seventies. Nation states have been abolished and the world is run by massive corporations, which have segregated society into ruling Execs and everybody else. Discontent is allowed cathartic outlet with the spectacle of a violent gladiatorial sport Rollerball, in which teams of skaters and motorcyclists fight their way around a rink for possession of a heavy metal ball with which they then score.
The star player of the most successful team – Houston – is Jonathan E played with bearish charm by James Caan. A veteran of many games with the scars and the TV special to prove it, Jonathan is rewarded with a luxury ranch, personal helicopter transport and beautiful women who he can use and dispose of at will. His pampered existence is not perfect however. He still moons over his wife Ella (Maud Adams) who was taken from him on the whim of a high ranking executive, watching endless clips of her walking in the woods to Albioni’s Adagio. And worse still he is being pressured to use the upcoming TV special to announce his retirement from a sport he loves. The executive in charge of the Houston team, Mr. Bartholomew, is played by veteran actor and Orson Welles collaborator John Houseman.
He reveals to Jonathan that the ethos that the game is supposed to instil is being undermined by his continued and unique success. It has been designed to show the powerlessness and expendable nature of the individual but Jonathan’s superstar status challenges this view. Reluctant to resign and increasingly resentful of the narrowness of his own life, Jonathan begins to suspect recent rule changes rendering the sport more dangerous are specifically designed to take him out of the game, one way or another. Although there are the occasional off-hand attempts at satire and Ralph Richardson has an allegedly comic turn as a computer nagged librarian, the film maintains a dourly serious tone. Paul Bartel’s Deathrace 2000 – which Roger Corman released the same year to steal Rollerball‘s thunder – took a far more broadly comic tone and made many of the same points but with a hilariously gory zeal.
Jewison’s film has a tendency to plod once away from the rink: Jonathan’s investigations meander in a predictably fruitless way and a vacuous hedonistic party includes far too much exposition small talk and funny futuristic greetings (fingers to foreheads etc.). That said, the image of one of Jonathan’s rejected lovers blowing trees up the morning after is both startling and strangely moving. Yet it is the sport that enlivens the movie, with genuinely gripping sequences of three competitions played out almost in full – against Madrid, Tokyo and New York. Each time the rules slacken – no penalties, limited substitutions – and the violence becomes more extreme. With a fantastic stunt team, a gamely macho star and some wonderful editing, Rollerball is so convincing, urban legend had it there were fatalities during the shoot. When you’re fed up of The Hunger Games and Quidditch doesn’t really do it, Rollerball will still be here as the one fictional sport to be genuinely as exciting as the real thing.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty