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Non-Review Review: Rollerball

MGM has been running a rather wonderful sci-fi season this past week, screening classics like Robocop along with smaller cult films, like Rollerball. One of the great things about having channels like this that it gives you a chance to sit down and watch what you wouldn’t normally – there’s something specially about stumbling across a gem on television that you might otherwise have missed. In fairness, Rollerball isn’t quite that gem, but it’s an entertaining high concept science-fiction ideas and some great direction, even if it does seem a little bit heavy-handed and cheesy from time to time.

Is Jonathon all burned out?

The concept of Rollerball is simple. It’s about a fictional sport invented and run by corporations, with cities (not countries, those institutions are long gone) competing against each other for the pleasure of the audience. The movie follows Jonathon E, the hugely successful Rollerball champion – an iconic figure who has survived longer than his team mates and has become a focal point for public love and affection. Nobody in this vicious team sport has ever stood out like that, to the point that Jonathon is something of an institution.

When pressure comes from the corporations running the sport for Jonathon to resign, the sports star starts to ask questions – he begins to wonder why he has garnered such attention from the top, and why they’d want to cut his career short. He has some friends ask around, and begins his own investigations, only to hit a wall of silence. It seems, like any other commodity, information has been localised and played in silos by those in power. The closest thing Jonathon’s friend can uncover is an unspoken sentiment from those at the top of the foodchain. “They fear you,” the corporate officer warns the celebrity.

Jonathon better get his skates on...

The movie does quite a few things really well, but it also makes a significant number of missteps. The central mystery (and its resolution) are logical, make sense and are quite smart – however the movie isn’t quite so successful at building its own world. There’s a lot of exposition provided about “the corporate wars” and the fact that it only left “the majors” behind, or the efforts of the corporation to consolidate various resources (food, energy, knowledge) in certain cities, but most of these explanations don’t necessarily feel organic – they’re smart and well worth thinking about, but the movie isn’t especially subtle in how it broaches most of them.

I do like, however, the quite clever way that the movie tackles the commoditization of love. This is a future where the corporations have the power to “take away” people’s wives. And, although the term “wife” is used, the movie makes it clear that these women are interchangeable in the lives of their men – to the point where Jonathon describes the outfit his new wife is wearing as “the uniform of the house.” The women are swapped around men, to the point where it is prostitution – the fact the term “wife” is used is merely an attempt by the corporation to sanitise it. While I did find myself wondering if powerful woman shopped around “husbands” in the same way, it’s a wonderful way of underscoring the movie’s key themes about the relationship between individuals and society.

Feels like we're going around in circles...

The movie does spend a bit of time just wandering around, as Jonathon tries to track down information on the nebulous corporations that control his life. The problem with this particular thread is that it doesn’t really lead anywhere. It’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll just hit a brick wall no matter what he tries, and the movie has already effectively underscored just how little power the individual has in this dystopian future. That said, I do love the way the move lingers on the apples, the forbidden fruit, as Jonathon pursues questions that we (and, to be honest with himself, he) already know the answers to.

Director Norman Jewison does a good job with the material. The future does, of course, look decidedly seventies. Everything is clean, and it looks like a slightly more disco version of Star Trek. The choice of buildings used for establishing shots are effective, even if the interiors do look a little too cheesy. However, Jewison does great work with the game of Rollerball itself. I don’t think I’ve seen a fictional sport so wonderfully rendered.

On a roll...

Of course, my point of comparison here is American football, because – to an Irish kid – it might as well be a fictional sport. However, the really good sports movies find a way to make the game clear to those who are watching – even if unfamiliar. For example, I am able to follow Any Given Sunday, despite the fact I’ve never watched an actual game of American football in my life. I bring it up, because Jewison renders his fictional sport in the same way. Watching this film, Rollerball seems just as likely to be real as American football is.

That said, the movie does push it into the realm of satire, with even the most serious offense drawing (at most) a “three-minute penalty” and the relaxation of those rules throughout the film (allegedly to “get more people to watch the game”), but I’ve always regarded American football and Rugby as especially violent sports. Of course, this comes from a person who hasn’t watched much of either outside of films, so it’s not a judgment or a criticism – just an attempt to outline my own perspective. Regardless, it’s interesting how the film suggests Rollerball trends towards violence, even without the interference of corporate executives. The record for “most deaths” was, after all, only set “last November” – and it doesn’t spoil the film to suggest the record may be broken again by the time the credits role.

Yes we Caan...

The movie makes great use of established classical music throughout. I particularly love that wonderful opening sequence, as the arena prepares for the evening’s games, as Toccata plays in background. It is at once an excuse to hear these fantastic classical pieces, but also a subtle way of underscoring how stagnant culture has become. One character wonders which corporation handles music – based on the fact we hear relatively little original music over the course of the film, it’s implied that nobody does. It just falls by the wayside, along with theatre and film. It’s all Rollerball, baby.

The movie’s biggest flaw, perhaps, is its leading actor. James Caan is a solid actor, but he never feels especially comfortable as Jonathon E. He plays the guy as relatively decent and genuine, but with enough of an edge that it’s hard to believe he’s only getting wise now – there’s no point at the movie where you get the sense Jonathon is suddenly jolted awake, as Caan always seems more than a little cynical. One gets the sense the film might have been stronger had another actor played the part. Still, it’s not all bad, and Caan plays a tough guy really well – it’s just the broader stuff that the movie demands which he never gets a grip on.

Rollerball’s a smart little film. It’s too inconsistent to be great, but it has enough ideas that it doesn’t feel like a waste of time. There are stronger sci-fi films out there, but it’s well worth a spin if you’re into classic sci-fi.

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2 Responses

  1. Took me sometimes to read some the comments, any way I honestly enjoyed the post. It proved to be pretty beneficial to me and I am determined to all the commenters right here! It’s all the time good when you can not only be informed, but also entertained!

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