“Ears! Now they’re important too.”
The Scoop: R 1975, directed by Norman Jewison and starring James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, and John Beck
Tagline: It’s More Than Just a Game!
Summary Capsule: In a not-too-distant future, James Caan and his spiky glove defy the nasty evil corporations of dystopia by playing a really violent game when they tell him not to.
Rich’s rating: Full contact reviewing!
Rich’s review: Right then, you lovely people you, before I begin this review in earnest, I’d like to point out that while many of you may already have lapsed from your oh-so-sincere New Years Resolutions to go to the gym for 9 hours every week, quit whichever habit your publicly ashamed of but secretly really enjoy (like Poolman and his exotic jelly collection… don’t ask), or to randomly give internet movie reviewers large chunks of cash (I know you’re out there somewhere, Crazy Millionaire Philanthropist), I am resolute in my determination to see mine through.
And so, in keeping with the promise I made earlier in the year, this review represents the first of the films selected for me by a member of our wonderful forum community. The lucky mini-mutant in question did try to foist a review of From Justin To Kelly on me, but since the UK border controls prohibit the import of toxic waste, I was spared that trauma, and in a kinder, gentler moment, the gent in question relented, instead asking for a review of Rollerball — so Uber, this one’s for you buddy!
Right, with that out of the way, let’s hop into our time machine and travel back to the days before I was even born, where we’ll be watching a film about what was the future then but is actually the recent past now, but they didn’t know that back then. If they had, Rollerball would probably have been called something like ‘Internet’, and would be the riveting study of how James Caan managed to power-level his Elven Druid to level 35 in just 6 weeks on Everquest.
However, the future (our present) according to 1975 (the past) is a very different place. No longer do we care about such trivial things as ‘Countries’ or ‘Nations’ – in Rollerball 2004, we are instead all affiliated to several great and powerful corporations, who’s vast hedgemony forms some kind of weird capitalism/socialism fusion where the corporations have all the money, but then just give the people who have no money (mostly everybody) stuff. So, with most of humankind happy to trade in their intellectual freedom and right to self expression to the corporation in exchange for free TV, sofas, and a lifetimes supply of snack food and tasty soda beverages, everyone’s happy, right?
No such luck. You see, what with the corporations controlling how much Joe six-pack can express himself, or indeed have any kind of independent thought at all, makes all the little people very angry. And what better way for the corporations to help vent that anger than to create a really weird sport in which lots of people get really badly hurt and/or killed?
Rollerball, said sport in question, is hard to describe. Like the rules to American Football or Cricket (depending on which side of the pond you hail from), the rules to Rollerball seem strangely formless to the uninitiated. There are men on rollerskates, men on motorcycles, spiky gloves, a big metal ball and a goal of some kind. The object of the game, however, seems simply to be to kill the opposing team with this variety of props, rather than any actual ‘scoring’ of any kind — but the crowd, who are only here for the violence anyway, don’t seem to mind.
Enter Jonathan E (James Caan). Somehow, in a career playing Rollerball for 10 years, he’s managed to avoid being mangled, spiked, run over, crushed, or in any way mutilated; as a result, the Rollerball crowds see him as the sports great celebrity — though, given the casualty rate in Rollerball, it’s hard for him to have any competition.
Unfortunately for Jonathan, the corporation for whom his team plays aren’t as overjoyed at his success as you might think. You see, all those normal people actually liking and supporting Jonathan is making them dangerously close to ‘thinking’, and that just won’t do — so the corporation promptly tells Jonathan to retire.
Now, up until this point, I have absolutely no problem with this film (apart from the fact that it’s essentially meant to be taking place around about now, and as I look out of my window I note that silver jumpsuits have yet to become the de rigueur fashion accessory they appear to be in this film). However, Jonathan’s logic here escapes me. If we imagine the conversation that might have taken place, see if you can spot where the plot of the movie and my own personal logical belief differ:
CORPORATION: “Hey, Jonathan — we know you’re a big star, but how about you stop playing that insanely dangerous game where you could be mangled and mutilated at any time and retire to a life of luxury where we will provide for your every desire, including that one about the two girls in the matching silver jumpsuits. Oh, and by the way, if you say no, we’re gonna make your personal and public life as hard as possible. Whatdya say?”
Now, if this is me, I’m already asking where to sign up. Jonathan E, however, is not willing to give up on his weekly brushes with death, and decides to defy the corporate commandment to cease and desist.
And so free-thinking, man-of-the-people Jonathan turns his back on the Corporation that created (so to speak, not literally) him, and begins a David & Goliath war between the public hero and the faceless corporation (who’s face in the film, evil agent Bartholemew, is played to a creepy tee by John Houseman). I’ll not tell you who wins – if you want to find out, go watch the movie.
Watching this again, having only really seen it once before when I was but a young teen, this is the first time I’ve actually sat down and thought about it as a film rather than just thinking “Hey, cool, that guy totally got run over by that motorcycle”. As a political allegory for control of the masses, it’s about as subtle as an Adam Sandler comedy, but the more I think about it, the more confused about which political system the movie is aimed at? The Capitalist/Socialist state which exists in Rollerball, especially things like the ‘summarising’ of modern literature, and the systems attempts to quash Jonathan’s ‘cult of personality’ seem like they’re aimed at what was then Soviet Russia… but the whole capitalism thing sits neatly with a more western approach. Maybe the point of the film is that all forms of government are bad, which, while I would be happy if I never had to pay taxes again, I feel a lack of government of any form might make such essential services such as ‘law’ and ‘safety’ a little harder to depend on.
What does all this random drivel mean? Rollerball is an interesting if dated film, which ladles out spoonfuls of heavy-handed moralising in between wonderfully shot and excitingly violent Rollerball games which make up for in carnage what they lack in comprehensibility. It’s a classic of the cult sci-fi genre, and anyone who has liked films such as The Matrix or Equilibrium should be able to see the seeds of the ideas for those films present here. James Caan is a great here (and went on to be great in The Godfather soon afterward), and John Houseman is an excellent nemesis.
A final word before I leave. Some of you may have noticed that a film, ostensibly a remake of this, came out in 2002.
Please don’t go and watch it. I suffered. You don’t have to.
- Norman Jewison said he cast James Caan as Jonathan E, the champion Rollerball player, after seeing him play Brian Piccolo, the real-life Chicago Bears running back in Brian’s Song.
- According to the author, William Harrison, Rollerball was inspired by an Arkansas Razorback basketball in Barnhill Arena during the era of coach Eddie Sutton.
- The game of Rollerball was so realistic the cast, extras, and stunt personnel played it between takes on the set.
- There was only one “Rollerball” rink. It was redressed to appear as different cities.
- During the Tokyo-Houston game, the Tokyo fans are chanting “Ganbare Tokyo!”, which translates into “Let’s Go Tokyo!”
- Contrary to rumors, no one died during the filming of any of the stunts.
- I wish where I worked had a Corporate Hymn.
- The rules to rollerball: kill the other team.
- Given the above point, I especially enjoyed the little team strategy sessions. What are they discussing? “Hey, lets run this guy over first…”
Jonathan E.: Ears. Now, they’re important, too.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Death Race 2000
- Any dystopian future film, from Blade Runner to Equilibrium
- Or, if you’re feeling reckless, Rollerblade (2002), but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
A have an issue with the concept of evil, soulless corporations (ESC for the rest of this post) in these dystopic films. While writers are good at making them act evil and soulless, they forget to make them act like corporations. By that, I mean their ultimate concern is for the bottom line. If a story involves an ESC doing something like forcibly drive off residents of an area to obtain mineral rights, I can buy that. But in cases where the evil, soulless acts are not driven by a desire for profit, there are only two instances which I find plausible. The first is when an individual within the corporation is employing company resources to carry out a personal vendetta or the like (as is the case with Dick Jones in Robocop). The other is when the ESC is merely a front for a cabal (as is the case in Guyver). Otherwise, an ESC being evil and soulless for its own sake only makes sense if it’s a nonprofit. One of the most obnoxious examples of this can be found in the film Time Chasers (shown in the eighth season of MST3K). At one point, the CEO of the ESC (referred to as Bob Evil by Mike and the Bots) contemptuously dismisses the idea of using time travel for history class field trips. This drove me crazy because that’s probably the best way to use time travel to turn a profit.
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