Trilogy of Terror: Rollerball (1975)

I can’t remember how old I was. Somewhere between 12 and 14. I’d stayed up late to watch a particular movie on television. I couldn’t begin to tell you why. Certainly I knew nothing of Rollerball. I was born six years after it came out and it sure as hell wasn’t in the cultural consciousness when I decided to watch it on my little bedroom TV.

This isn’t a vague, distant memory. This is something I remember vividly. A movie I couldn’t have known anything about held me rapt, and its final sequence, which played out in the small hours of the next morning, sent needles of ice into my spine.

Every so often you have one of those moments, experiencing something that you know — already know, deep in your heart — you will never forgot. Any detail that you could conceivably hold on to will be retained. This handful of minutes or seconds will remain embedded permanently in your mind. Maybe not as a fond memory. Maybe like shrapnel.

Watching the ending of Rollerball, watching a broken James Caan limp over a mess of strewn bodies, surrounded by an eerily silent audience, so that he could feed a steel ball into a magnetic basket in a game nobody was even playing anymore, I knew I was experiencing one of those moments.

I knew that this was going to stay with me. Even if I had no God damned idea why.

And so when I decided to write about games of life and death this year, yeah, The Running Man was the first movie that came to mind. But immediately behind it was Rollerball.

Revisiting Rollerball was itself a chilling prospect. What if — as so often happens — the film wasn’t quite as good as I remembered it being? What if watching it again today, now, with so much more knowledge and experience and understanding of effective storytelling, it unraveled before me? Would I lose everything that initial experience with the movie had meant to me? I could still close my eyes and see Caan, maddened, desperate, dragging his busted frame toward the goal, and it still meant something.

What if I watched it again and…it meant nothing?

I ended up rewatching it, obviously, and I’m glad I did. I’m glad I did because that fucking ending is every bit as disarming as it was all those years ago. I may understand it slightly better now, but that does nothing to dilute the horror.

I braced myself to cover Rollerball with the expectation that, on some level, I’d be apologizing for it.

Instead, you know what?

Rollerball is great.

Of course, I still have no clue why I decided to watch it or stuck with it when I was younger. I’d like to be very clear about this: my critical faculties were far from developed. There were a few good films and television shows that I just happened to like, but rarely did I enjoy or have the patience for anything too brainy.

Not that Rollerball could ever be said to be too brainy.

Maybe it happened to be just brainy enough.

To summarize Rollerball is to rob it of a good portion of its narrative magic. It never sits down and tells you what its own story is, rather parceling it out in various conversations and suggesting it through things the characters strategically choose not to say.

What’s more, there are the rules of Rollerball itself, the most popular sport in this unidentified future year. Some of them are spelled out. Some of them are inferred. Any of them can (and some do) change between games. There is no tedious scene or careless text crawl explaining the game to us. In fact, the film opens with a match between the Houston and Madrid teams, and you get your bearings simply by being a spectator.

The film paints a rich portrait of a hideous world and brutal sport by focusing, perhaps surprisingly, on a character who has a decidedly narrow view of it. If we pay attention and do some mental assembly, we can understand a lot of the story. If we don’t pay attention and come only for the spectacle, we’ll understand enough. Either way, Rollerball turns out to be one hell of a window into a social nightmare.

I think that’s what held me rapt when I first watched it on television. Rollerball could have easily been a dumb movie (and it was later remade as one!), but it builds its universe so smoothly, so effortlessly, so completely, that it’s tremendously easy to get swept up on it, even if you don’t fully understand what you’re seeing. I’ve rewatched this film a few times just to write this review, and I found myself each time getting lost in the movie. Watching it unfold. Considering the world in which these characters lived and died.

At some point in recent history (at least within some of these characters’ lifetimes), the Corporate Wars took place, ultimately replacing nationality with industry. The regions on Earth are broken up based not on political ideals, but on what they can most efficiently produce, or the service they can best provide.

Houston, home of Jonathan E., our Rollerballing hero, is an energy city. Chicago is a food city. Other, unnamed cities, are dedicated to communication, to housing, to luxury, and so on. The corporations that run each city are said to take good care of their residents. “Everyone has all the comforts,” Energy Corporation Chairman Mr. Bartholomew says. “No poverty, no sickness. No needs and many luxuries.”

However, he says this to Jonathan E., an athlete who signed on to play Rollerball in exchange for this lifestyle. Mr. Bartholomew even explains that Jonathan E. enjoys these things just as if he were “in the executive class.”

The executive class gets to live a comfortable lifestyle. We get to see this comfortable lifestyle because Jonathan E., who is emphatically not in the executive class, is in a position in which he gets to live it as a reward. We never see how the other classes live, where Jonathan E. would be if he weren’t playing Rollerball.

Even if it’s true, however, and the corporations really do take universally good care of everybody, at all levels, Jonathan E. isn’t convinced it’s worth it.

“It’s like people had a choice a long time ago between, well, having all them nice things or freedom,” he says, working it through in his mind. “Of course, they chose comfort.”

“But comfort is freedom,” he’s told in response. “It always has been.”

And it’s here, perhaps, that Rollerball is at its smartest, if only because both sides of that argument are absolutely valid. Isn’t comfort freedom?

The only reason I get to spend any time doing what I love, visiting places I want to see, having fun with people I care about, is because I’ve achieved a certain level of comfort. Any time I spend doing these things — the actual time I’m spending writing this review — is time I can only spend because I don’t have to use it making a living. I can afford to work only 40-50 hours each week. I can afford to actually enjoy my downtime. I can afford my necessities, which allows me to branch into luxuries. That’s freedom.

But Jonathan E. isn’t wrong, either. This is a world in which that freedom is curated. You have your downtime, but only because the rest of your time is strictly regulated by the needs of the corporation. You have television, but only what the corporation will show you. You can engage in educational pursuits, but only with corporate teachers and edited texts. Jonathan E., like the rest of the Rollerballers, gets to live a life of luxury…but it’s also a life without personality.

And the moment he starts to develop one, the corporation takes notice.

Jonathan E. is a threat, and the way in which this gradually reveals itself is one of Rollerball‘s best touches.

He’s not an intellectual. He doesn’t have the public’s ear, except through carefully regulated channels. He isn’t rich or powerful. His downtime is spent on his isolated ranch, with a chain of women cycled through to keep him satisfied. He is in no position whatsoever to buck the system.

But he’s a threat, simply because he exists.

Rollerball, we learn, is a sport designed to “demonstrate the futility of individual effort.” How? Well, I’m no kind of sports historian so I can’t speak to that with much authority. (Though I very, very much welcome comments explaining how Rollerball, as a sport, does or doesn’t support that intention.)

Rollerball is a sort of cross between roller derby and basketball. It’s played in a circular rink with a significant slope leading down toward the center, where a gutter collects dead balls and removes them from play. The ostensible object of the game is to score points by taking possession of a heavy steel ball and sinking it into a magnetic basket in the outer wall.

It’s a contact sport encouraging a kind of strategic brutality. Jonathan E. explains to new additions to the Houston team that it might be worth taking “a little three-minute penalty” to injure an opponent who’s “skating a little too good.”

Teams consist of skaters and bikers, which are self-explanatory roles. Everybody moves counter-clockwise around the rink, whether on skates or scooters, and works to either score a goal or prevent the other team from doing so, depending upon who has possession of the steel ball.

I get the sense the futility of individual effort is meant to come across in the sheer difficulty of the sport. No one person can reasonably expect to achieve anything without teamwork. Surely no Rollerballer can succeed on his own, at least for long, when faced with a wall of beefy opponents and motorscooters between him and the goal.

Rollerball, perhaps, is designed to be a bit less of a showcase for individual talents than most sports. A pitcher who can reliably strike hitters out or a hitter who can reliably hit home runs would certainly cement his place as a baseball star rather than necessarily elevate the reputation of his team. Ditto a basketballer who reliably sinks mid-court shots, or a goalie who maintains total control of the net.

In Rollerball, you can’t do it alone. The steel ball is far too heavy to be thrown any great distance, and you won’t get near the basket without help. Both offense and defense are team initiatives, and though a Rollerballer might get a few lucky breaks on his own, his personal efforts will never rise consistently above the efforts of his team.

This may also be why the Rollerballers use nicknames. They may be assigned, they may be chosen, but the players we meet are certainly not being referred to by their given names. Moonpie, Blue, Toughie. We are at least that degree removed from knowing who they actually are. Jonathan E. gets around it somewhat; he gets what we have no reason to disbelieve is his real name as part of his nickname.

That is perhaps the first snowflake in what eventually becomes an avalanche, because Jonathan E. does rise above the identity of his team. Through skill and at least a little bit of luck, he ends up with a Rollerball career spanning 10 years, something we’re told no other player has ever achieved. Whether that’s because they retired or died, we aren’t told, but my money is on the latter.

Mr. Bartholomew, the great John Houseman (who you may recognize as the man weaving a campfire tale at the beginning of John Carpenter’s The Fog), shows up in the locker room after the match that opens the film to congratulate the winning Houston team. At least, that’s what it’s meant to look like. Really he’s there to summon Jonathan E. for a private audience the next day.

While he’s there he delivers an artfully empty speech full of hollow bullshit that’s flattering enough that nobody thinks to question it. He knows that the Rollerballers dream of being in the executive class, but he has some news for them. “Do you know what those executives dream about, out there behind their desks?” he asks. “They dream they’re great Rollerballers.”

The team roars. Of course it does. The elite pretend that really, deep down, they’re jealous of the lower class. It must be difficult sleeping in their mansions with the beautiful women they hand-select as they see fit.

That isn’t exaggeration, though Jonathan E. certainly wishes it were. At some point long before the film begins, an executive decides the woman he wants is the one married to the star Rollerballer. And that’s that. She no longer belongs to Jonathan E.

We meet her later — Ella, played by Bond-girl Maud Adams — and we learn that she’s happy with her new executive husband. They have a family. She’s advanced in society. But that only makes it sting all the more for poor Jonathan E., who loved her, and who refuses to be satisfied by the string of substitutes with whom the corporation stocks his bedroom.

It’s never stated in the film, but I get the sense that this is what tips Jonathan E. into outright Rollerball obsession. Without Ella, there is nothing else in his life that he loves. All of his time, focus, attention, and energy goes to Rollerball. He becomes the best. Crowds love him and cheer for him. Not for Houston, but for Jonathan E.

There’s a fantastic scene in which Jonathan E. meets with Mr. Bartholomew in private. They’re on Mr. Bartholomew’s turf, of course. It’s a large, white room, with chairs in the middle. The sitting area is surrounded by hanging glass. Mr. Batholomew is in the middle of some kind of meditation, or at least deep thought. “Keep silence with me for a minute, won’t you?” he asks the rising star of the sport that shouldn’t have any.

Jonathan E. does, but he’s uncomfortable doing so. On his way in, he accidentally brushes the hanging glass, setting off a series of chimes. He steadies them and cuts his hand in doing so. Mr. Bartholomew has to offer him a handkerchief to keep him from leaving his red blood on the perfect whiteness of the room around them.

This entire sequence could be played for laughs. I’m sure there are some people for whom it elicits an awkward chuckle. But the overpowering emotion conveyed is that Jonathan E. does not belong here. That’s what we’re supposed to feel, and what Jonathan E. is supposed to feel. He’s supposed to be uncomfortable. He’s supposed to be out of his element. He’s supposed to realize that he’s not the one in control.

In fact, Mr. Bartholomew spells this out for him later on, when he thinks Jonathan E. isn’t getting it. “Why argue about decisions you’re not powerful enough to make for yourself?” It’s a hell of a statement when what they’re discussing is Jonathan E.’s own future.

People well above Mr. Bartholomew have decided that Jonathan E. will retire from Rollerball. All they have to do is convince Jonathan E. to decide the same thing.

They first appeal to his ego by airing, globally, a special all about him, something no Rollerballer has had before. It will be a showcase, a highlights reel, a celebration…and it will be capped off with a high-profile retirement announcement from Jonathan E. himself.

When he refuses, people start to outright plead with him. Mr. Bartholomew, team coach Rusty, latest dedicated lay Daphne. And, to be honest, they seem genuine in their concern (if not their motives). They know Jonathan E. won’t get to make any other decision, so they want him to take the offer now. To live the rest of his life in comfort. To survive.

After all…why not? Why continue playing? “I don’t understand your resistance,” Mr. Bartholomew says. “And I don’t think anyone else will either.” He can keep playing Rollerball until he’s inevitably killed by it, or he can do what nobody has ever been able to do before: get out alive.

But without Ella, what does he have to live for? Rollerball is his career, his hobby, his outlet, and the only thing he seems to enjoy. Why give it up? And if so many powerful people are insisting he give it up…what’s their angle?

Finally, when all else has failed, the corporations agree to rule changes.

We only see three games of Rollerball throughout the film, but the small changes to the rules result in massive changes to the experience. The first game is fairly standard. Players are injured, but that’s part of the game. (There’s even a constant tally of injuries on the scoreboard.) After all, these men are hurtling around at breakneck speeds, fighting for control of a heavy steel ball, speeding around an enclosed space on motorscooters…people get hurt. It happens.

In the second game, though, the rules are tweaked: no penalties and limited substitutions. The players become more aggressive — and brutal — because they won’t even get a measly three-minute time out for roughing someone up. And the coaches are hesitant to swap out injured players, because they can only do it so many times.

But Jonathan E. keeps playing, so the rules are tweaked again for the final game. There are now no penalties, no substitutions, and no time limit. If you’re wondering how a winner can be determined in a game that’s never scheduled to end, you aren’t thinking hard enough.

The first rule change is specifically intended to encourage Jonathan E. to retire as the sport grows more dangerous. The second is intended to kill him.

He tries to figure out what’s happening…why the corporations, or something above them, are trying to strongarm the most popular player out of the most popular sport.

He never does get a definitive answer, which is understandable. Jonathan E. is never portrayed as especially bright, and he’s trying to outthink a society that’s been structured to discourage thinking at all. He isn’t sure of what he’s looking for, and the corporations have come together to ensure that even if he were, he’d never find it.

He requests books from a library, where am empty-headed clerk informs him that they can only provide him with corporate-edited versions. He enlists help from his trainer Cletus — who lived through the Corporate Wars, and who seems to be Jonathan E.’s single remaining human connection — to ask around, but Cletus doesn’t get anything beyond the corporate line.

Finally, he travels to a computer bank in Geneva, where he’s told he can perform his research to his heart’s content.

It’s the Geneva scene that provides some of Rollerball‘s best moments, as well as its unrivaled worst.

On the positive side of the ledger we have Ralph Richardson as the head librarian. A celebrated veteran of stage, screen, and radio, it’s impossible to provide even a sample of his roles here, but I certainly know him best as The Supreme Being from Time Bandits.

Richardson is absolutely incredible in such a small role here, and he’s certainly one of the best one-scene characters in my estimation. He’s constantly reacting, much like Richard Liberty as the mad scientist in Day of the Dead, always processing so much that we get the very real sense that he can’t manage to share more than a fraction of it. He comes across as both intelligent and mindless at once, which, truth be told, is both impressive and deeply appropriate for the nature of the film.

When he meets Jonathan E. he welcomes him as a celebrity, but soon afterward he forces him to leave his coat and hat behind, as a presumable sign of respect. Not for a person they’re about to meet, but for a computer.

On the way there, he chats with Jonathan E. At one point he sits down on the steps, and Jonathan remains standing just long enough that it becomes awkward. He sits down and Richardson immediately stands up again to walk further on. Jonathan has no fucking clue what’s going on, and we sure as hell don’t, either. It’s a fascinating, bizarre, brilliant performance.

He also delivers what might be the film’s darkest joke: they’ve misplaced the whole of the 13th century.

As everything is digitized and stored, some data gets lost. It happens. In this case, it was just every piece of information pertaining to the 13th century.

Richardson lets slip that this wasn’t a human error…it was the error of Zero, “the world’s file cabinet.” A computer accidentally losing a massive chunk of human history is scary enough…but we learn before long that Zero has the ability to choose what information it will and will not share with those who seek it, which means this may have been something other than accidental.

He realizes he may have overshared, and so he doubles back later in the conversation to assure Jonathan E. that the 13th century isn’t much of a loss. After all, it’s “just Dante and a few corrupt popes.”

It would be hilarious if it weren’t so God damned terrifying.

Sadly, though, we actually then meet Zero. The premise is solid; a computer that serves as the world’s knowledge database also has the ability to withhold information at will, without explanation. That’s its own story right there, and I’m happy enough with that being part of the universe that birthed Rollerball.

But the execution is completely lacking. Whereas most of this film actually looks pretty great by today’s standards, right down to the incredible stunts and game choreography that make Rollerball feel genuinely real, Zero comes across as an embarrassing mid-70s misunderstanding of how computers would evolve.

Zero is a tank of some kind of fluid, and instead of a standard interface it takes and responds to queries verbally. It’s a distractingly silly sequence, undercutting what should be a profoundly dispiriting moment for Jonathan E. with the unintentional comedy of an old man beating up a fish tank.

I’d be tempted to say the entire Geneva section of the film should have been cut, but losing Richardson and the exchange about the 13th century wouldn’t be worth it, so we’re stuck with a tremendously dumb moment embedded in an otherwise great one.

Jonathan E.’s success in the rink doesn’t seem to be due only to his individual abilities, but rather his ability to strategize on behalf of his team. He’s good at what he does, but he’s also been fortunate enough to have teammates who respect him, admire him, and complement his strengths.

The most significant bond we see on the team is between Jonathan E. and Moonpie, a beefy new player who serves as a force of sheer power and brutality. Moonpie’s signature move involves waiting patiently at the outside wall and then skating quickly inward to launch himself at a biker. It’s worth the penalty.

To him, Rollerball is about raw power, something we’re assured the Houston team as a whole excels at. (Which is a nice, unacknowledged pun on Houston being a city of energy.) Before the limited-substitution, no-penalty match against Tokyo, Moonpie leads a strange resistance toward the strategist the coach brought in to advise them.

Moonpie doesn’t need strategy. He needs power. Houston needs power. It doesn’t matter what Tokyo has planned. We can take them down.

Knowing what happens to Moonpie in that match, it’s interesting to pay attention to the sequence of events leading up to it.

First he shuts down the strategist. Later he sizes up the Tokyo team as they size him up in return. During the match he suffers a minor injury, and Jonathan E. tells him, repeatedly, to keep close.

But Jonathan himself gets injured later, and is temporarily taken out of play. While he is, Tokyo gangs up on Moonpie, Houston’s dedicated bruiser. With no penalties, there’s nothing to keep them from ignoring the ball entirely and pounding Moonpie into unconsciousness.

We find out after the match that Moonpie is in a permanent vegetative state. A coma from which he will never recover. He has no family. The doctor in Tokyo tries to get Jonathan E. to sign the forms that will allow Moonpie’s life support to be shut down.

But Jonathan E. refuses. It’s a rule he can buck, and an outcome he refuses to accept. He doesn’t understand Moonpie’s situation. He struggles to comprehend how his friend can be both alive and dead at once. He doesn’t have the information he needs to make a decision, and he can’t get it. He can only get what he’s given.

“Even a plant feels something,” Jonathan tries, searching for a way to understand the situation.

“Who can say?” replies the doctor, masterfully dismissive, shoving a pen and clipboard at him.

In the final match, against New York, half the crowd cheers Jonathan E. The other half jeers, “Jonathan’s dead.”

Only the barest efforts are made in this match to keep up the charade that this is a game at all. It quickly becomes a brawl, and then a bloodbath. The medical responders are taken down in the tumult, preventing bodies from being removed from play.

A violent game becomes an openly murderous one. There’s no time limit. No penalties. No substitutions. It builds to that unforgettable moment in which James Caan, battered and limping, moves silently through a play area littered with the dead.

He was reduced to the raw animality the rule changes were intended to elicit, but he wasn’t the lone survivor. At the very end of the match he and one New York player are all that is left.

Jonathan E. hovers above him, holding the heavy steel ball aloft. The red mist fades…and he lets his opponent live. He either retains the last remaining threads of his humanity, or he no longer sees the purpose in anything. It’s up to you what you think. It depends on what goes through your head as James Caan, dragging his broken body toward the goal, processes what goes through his.

The raging, bloodthirsty crowd at one point falls completely silent, and stays that way through the very end of the game. They came to see blood, but they get so much of it they’re shocked into total silence. They’re speechless. They got everything they were hoping to get when they bought their tickets and the sheer brutality of the event, stripped of its gamified veil, makes them wonder why they wanted this at all.

What goes through their heads? What goes through yours?

James Caan limps emptily toward a goal nobody is around to defend anymore.

The more I watch Rollerball, the more detail I notice. Most recently, I picked up on the language that’s used to reinforce the world the corporations have created. When people explain the situation to Jonathan E., they often follow it up with some variation on, “you know that.” They aren’t telling him anything he doesn’t already know, even if they are. Whatever they’re saying, they insist it’s something he accepts, believes, understands. It’s one small way of externally rewiring him.

But the other linguistic tic I picked up on this time through is what prevents that one from working on him: the characters speak often, in many contexts, of dreams.

Whether it’s the Rollerballers dreaming of being executives, executives dreaming of playing Rollerball, the “material dream world” in which the characters live, the possibility of Moonpie dreaming in his coma…the corporation can’t take away the ability to dream.

They can try, and they do. And when Jonathan E. fights back, fights through, fights his way out, he never actually knows why he’s fighting, or exactly what he’s fighting against.

But he knows he’s going to fight until he wins.

He scores the only goal in that final game. It was watched worldwide. Viewers otherwise under the control of various corporations saw the one thing they were never supposed to see: one man beating a rigged system.

I was one of those viewers. In another place, in another time, but I was watching it, through the darkness, into the next morning, unable to turn away.

We didn’t know any better than Jonathan E. what was at stake here.

But we felt it, just like he did. And whatever statement he made at the end, just by making it to the end, we knew it mattered.

I mean, something has to matter. Right?

Otherwise…what’s the point?

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2 thoughts on “Trilogy of Terror: Rollerball (1975)”

  1. I am tremendously amazed, between this and Solarbabies, that multiple times, someone sat down and thought “Let’s make a movie about a dystopian future centered around a roller-derby based bloodsport.

    And if you broaden it to “Dystopian future centered around roller-skating”, you pick up at least three more movies.

  2. For the “futility of individual effort” thing, I’d argue that letting players die is really all they needed to establish. No names on jerseys (even for the fans), and no team names (no separate identity other than what the corporation allows), were both needed as supports for that to happen, but death is it. I missed it if the movie mentioned that any other player had ever retired, but otherwise, Rollerball kills all its players. Rollerball always wins. For any given game, only numbers 1-10 matter, and those will all still be there the next game no matter what. Jonathan doesn’t get to have his last name, but that’s more personality than the game intended him to ever have.

    I’m tempted to think the 13th Century was a deliberate choice, just because that’s the one with the Magna Carta. You could point to most centuries and either dismiss them or see them as crucial to the struggle of personal freedom vs state control, but the 13th seems pretty important.

    To me, the George W. Bush-looking guy acting like it’s no big deal that the rules are changing is one of the scariest parts. But you know that.

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