December 2, 2013

Movie Review: Rollerball (1975)

“You can't make me quit.” – Jonathan E. (James Caan)

Director: Norman Jewison

Writers: William Harrison (short story and screenplay)

Producer: Norman Jewison

Studio: MGM/UA

Major Stars: James Caan, Maud Adams, John Houseman, Moses Gunn, John Beck

I was worried going into this viewing that I would find myself disappointed the way I was with Logan’s Run. That a 70s sci-fi movie that I loved growing up would fail under the weight of those rose-colored expectations.

That didn’t happen here. Rollerball is still a solid sci-fi movie, one with a message. It doesn’t redefine the genre, but it carves its own niche into it and can hold its own with today’s flashy additions to the genre.

The plot is pretty straightforward. In the near-future, a handful of mega-corporations run the world. They provide all the basics of life and in return simply ask that the people let them run things as they see fit. To further distract the masses, they run a game called Rollerball where each corporation has a team. It is a hyper-violent sport that not only entertains the crowds but reinforces the idea that individualism is useless, that no one person can rise above the masses. It’s like if Mussolini ran a soccer league where all the players carried spiked bats.

On the Houston Energy team is the most popular player in the world, Jonathan E. (Caan). He starts to receive pressure to retire. No one will tell him why. His decision to seek out the answers drives the film to its conclusion.

Caan is great as Jonathan E. Jonathan begins the film content in his role as a player. He is a product of his world; a contented worker bee with a rudimentary education. But as he is pressured to retire, his eyes are opened to how rotted the world has become. Libraries are gone and now fully digitized, but information is constantly lost. Executives are awarded “privileges” where they can do things like take someone’s wife for their own (which happened to Jonathan). The Corporations run the world with unchecked power but rely on a faulty master computer for guidance.

That makes for one of the great moments of the movie. Jonathan demands to question the master computer in Zurich to find out why things are the way they are. Once there he is informed the computer has lost all the information pertaining to the 13th century, but that it doesn’t matter since the only thing of interest then was Dante. At which point the computer starts to babble incoherently. Jonathan realizes the computer is hopelessly corrupted, just like the world it has spawned.

And yet he doesn’t give in. The whole movie is, in part, a message about the individual fighting to claim their uniqueness in a world that tries to nullify it. The rollerball matches Jonathan competes in get more dangerous. His best friend on the team, Moonpie (played wonderfully by John Beck) is attacked during a match against Tokyo and intentionally placed into a permanent coma with a spiked glove shot to the back of his unprotected head. Jonathan is offered power, money and women. He is even offered back his wife, the one taken away from him by the Corporations so many years ago, as the ultimate bribe. All of this if he will simply retire.

But Jonathan won’t do it. Mostly because no one will tell him why they want him gone at first. But by the climax, he won’t do it because he sees everything the Corporations touch as rotted to the core, including the game he loves. The only thing he has that is untouched, that is his, is his name. And he won’t give that up.

During the story there are a couple of great scenes with Jonathan and Bartholomew (Houseman), the head of Energy. Bartholomew treats Jonathan like a simple child, telling him that it is all for his own good. But as Jonathan’s stubbornness asserts itself, Bartholomew gets angrier and angrier until, in their final meeting, he tells Jonathan he can and will be stopped.

That leads to a great ending. Houston and New York meet for the championship in a match with no substitutions, no penalties and no time-limits. It is a match designed to kill everyone, to demonstrate the power of the Corporations and the futility of one man, any man, to try and control his own destiny. The match is hyper-kinetic and brutal beyond measure. And in the end, Jonathan triumphs once more in one of the great closing scenes in the sci-fi film genre.

Director Norman Jewison was also commenting on violence in Rollerball, and its use as a form of entertainment. The sport is completely insane, with motorcycles, spiked gloves and death a constant possibility. And when it fails to do its job, the corporations just up the violence until the last match is a mockery of itself, a sanctioned slaughter. I guess we’re doing a little better these days; most trends in sports are towards safety, not blood.

The scenery and such is slightly dated, but Jewison was trying to incorporate a lot of modern architecture from the time into his shots. It’s almost like looking at an alternate version of our future. That’s more than made up for by the rollerball scenes, which are intense and 100% real. Rollerball was the first film where stuntmen got a full credit in the closing credits. They earned it; the scenes are great.

If I had a complaint about the movie it would be that, outside of Jonathan, everyone else is kind of a cardboard cutout. That includes the world itself. We never exactly find out how the world got the way it is beyond vague references to the “Corporate Wars.” The other characters are there to play off of Jonathan. The one exception is his wife, Ella (Adams). Their scenes together towards the film’s end are good because Ella has her own desires and needs and you can see them come across on the screen.

So where to put Rollerball on the current list? I feel confident ranking it between The Fifth Element and They Live. I like They Live but Rollerball has a message and an emotional core the other film doesn’t. But The Fifth Element is light-years ahead of Rollerball in scenery and costumes, and has a solid story to boot.

Rollerball is a good sci-fi film, easily re-watchable and more than just a few action sequences. It’s also a voice against violence for the sake of entertainment and a stand for the sanctity of the individual. It’s holds up real well even today. Definitely a must-see if you have missed it up to now and a definite buy for your DVD collection.

Oh, and whatever you do, don’t go see that horrendous 2002 remake. The fact the two movies share the same name should be grounds to lock McTiernan away at the Supermax in Colorado for life.


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