Rollerball (1975)


(director: Norman Jewison; screenwriter: William Harrison/also story Roller Ball Murders; cinematographer: Douglas Slocombe; editor: Antony Gibbs; music: Andre Previn/Tomaso Albinoni/Johann Sebastian Bach-from “Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565″/Dmitri Shostakovich-from “fourth movement of symphony No. 5 in D minor”/Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; cast: James Caan (Jonathan E.), John Houseman (Bartholomew), Maud Adams (Ella), John Beck (Moonpie), Moses Gunn (Cletus); Runtime: 125; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Norman Jewison; MGM/UA Home Video; 1975)

“Seems to being going around in circles trying to say something but is not sure about what it wants to say, as it keeps stumbling around every bend.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The world of the future, 2018, where an extreme sport called Rollerball dominates the airwaves because of the passive public’s bloodlust for lethal games. Rollerball is a combination of rugby, roller derby, professional wrestling, basketball, hockey and motorcycle racing, where the team that scores the most goals win (other than that, we never even have the rules of the game explained). The dangerous sport, where violent death is part of the deal, is run by the Energy Corporation, one of a few such conglomerates running the planet when countries and individual governments are no longer in power.

It’s based upon an Esquire short story by William Harrison, who also wrote the screenplay. Norman Jewison (“Fiddler on the Roof”/”The Cincinnati Kid”/”Jesus Christ Superstar”) directs this one-note parable sci-fi film without much conviction but with lots of style; it presents a vision of a perfect world in the not-too-distant future (except it doesn’t look that much different from today’s world), where the corporation provides the population with life’s basics such as food and all its material needs. As a result there are no wars, no poverty, no revolutions, no free will, no God, plenty of beautiful people, a crime-free environment, and mood-altering drugs; these things are provided as long as the population remains docile and doesn’t rock the boat, while their need for the stimulus of aggression is satisfied by watching on television or at the sports arena the Rollerball games. The silly premise has all of mankind’s problems solved in the future except for the terrible price that must be paid for individual freedom

The plot revolves around Rollerball superstar Jonathan E. (James Caan), from the Houston team, who has become too popular with the fans and the Energy Corporation’s sinister team owner, Bartholemew (John Houseman), pressures Jonathan to retire in fear that his popularity has endowed him with too much power. Why he wishes this when the real world power is in the hands of the corporation executives, is never made comprehensible. In any case, this leaves our Rollerball superstar, as well as this viewer, in a constant state of bemusement and leaves this supposedly anti-violence themed flick going on for over two hours with wall-to-wall violence through the games. But it also covers its bets to appease classical music fans, as there’s music throughout by Bach, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Albinoni that was chosen by Andre Previn.

The people’s hero Jonathan E. and his individual struggle with the ruling powers is a drag, as he furrows his forehead and wrestles with the forced retirement issue and the promised corporate reward of the drop-dead gorgeous Ella (Maud Adams) as his love interest to keep. His internal conflict touches upon the individual being taught not to think for himself and thereby influenced by the corporate powers to go along with things as they are and to do only what they are told. But the film doesn’t bring to full light with any conviction or merit the struggle of freedom and the fight against privilege; instead we find our attention is turned fully to the game’s glorious heroic aggressive competitions, the technological marvels introduced and the stylish white on white backdrops. The film seems to being going around in circles trying to say something but is not sure about what it wants to say, as it keeps stumbling around every bend. In the end it looks more like a formulaic sports film than a thoughtful sci-fi venture; it’s a spectacle that dazzles visually but fizzles as a work of art.

In my humble opinion, this high-budget film was a waste of money and effort.