Making futuristic movies in a time when the ability to realise said worlds is heavily limited is tough. Not only can you get bizarrely dated styles during a period when things are supposed to be sleek and unfamiliar but there’s always going to be that unavoidable time when the actual year your particular example of future shock is supposed to be set which can make things unintentionally humourous – disco music and medallions? In 2018? What where they thinking?
Seemingly the only way you can circumvent these aspects is to have your central concept be as sturdy as a solid steel ball and be a eerily relevant as you possibly can in order to hit future audiences as hard as a studded gauntlet.
Roaring into this arena on a heavily armored dirt bike with a bloodied James Caan clinging tenaciously to the back is Norman Jewison’s face breaking Rollerball, a movie that follows all the corporations-are-king plot tropes but follows it up with some superlative, smash-mouth action.
It’s the future (I guess) and the whole world is now run by corporations that each govern an aspect of modern day living and who guarantees a life of peace and prosperity in exchange for never having their decisions questioned. The biggest past time this hugely compliant population has is Rollerball, an insanely brutal version of roller derby whose highly questionable rules seems to have been think-tanked by a Florida meth addict. Used as a much needed outlet for a society that’s as neutered as a handbag dwelling chihuahua, the sport makes it’s players gods and gives them the same luxuries as the executives and as Huston reaches the semifinals after making the team from Madrid a crumpled smear on the ramp, Jonathan E, a player who’s been at the top of this vicious game for an unheard of ten years, is told by the Energy Corparation that he’s going to retire before the season is out.
Despite being a big lug who usually stores his brain in his punching arm, Jonathan is suspicious of this decision due to having his life altered by the Energy Corporation in the past when they arranged for his wife to leave him. As Jonathan starts to rail against orders, the rules of Rollerball starts to change to become even more vicious and so he galvanises those battered brain cells into investigating exactly how and way the decisions deciding the fate of humanity are made.
As Rollerball gets ever more dangerous and with his friends dropping like flies, Jonathan E channels his disconnect with the established order of things by doing what he does best – booting people in the face with a pair of roller skates on – but can this sensitive jock really buck the system by literally playing the corporations at their own game?
If we’re being brutally honest – and brutal is definitely the name of the game in Rollerball – large chunks of of this down and dirty dystopian display are woefully dated and such points that may have been hinting at the way things were going with society in 1975 has worryingly either already come to pass or just seem adorably silly. With sports stars owning their own brands and essentially becoming corporations in their own right (as I write this, Lebron James is headlining the Space Jam reboot for God’s sake), Jonathan E’s painfully slow realisation that the underclass are merely playthings for higher ups who also have no idea how we’re all governed seems monstrously quaint. Plus the ruling class is (deliberately) ill defined and seemingly incredibly easy to defy seemingly based on the fact that no one’s thought to do it until now – after all, despite loading the deck against Jonathan by stripping away what little rules Rollerball has, there’s no super sinister Soylent Green style twist that shows a totalitarian government violent flexing their fist. No one is made to disappear, no one is escorted away by secret police and no one even thinks to take Jonathan’s comfortable lifestyle away as he swans around in a hideous cream coloured zoot suit – maybe if we got more of a first hand view of life lower down the societal ladder, we’d have a better view of what’s at stake.
Also, the fact that Rollerball was originally conceived as a way to prove to the masses that individualism is pointless makes about as much sense trying to catch a fart in a net considering that the very history of sport shows us that it’s a fucking licence to endlessly forge blue collar heroes.
However, where Rollerball remains evergreen is with, you’ve guessed it, the Rollerball itself which is a deliriously savage mardi gras of thudding bodies and crunching bones that finally makes the movie’s concept oddly come true in a roundabout way as you sit through drama that’s trying to be socially aware desperately waiting for the cool shit to start again.
It’s also here where James Caan shines and while it’s initially odd to see Sonny Corleone roller skating for his life, he makes his physically gifted lead a quiet, understated presence out of the arena and a fucking god of war inside it. Jonathan E admittedly isn’t the brightest bulb on the scoreboard, but he’s smart enough to know that he’s a little worm on a big fucking hook and his attempts at getting to the bottom of things are as stilted and uncertain as he is. But when he’s whizzing around the game, splattering whatever opponent is foolhardy enough to get between him and the scoring zone, his defiant integrity kicks in and he’s the most confident man who ever laced up skates.
As the three featured games get ever more lawless, the stuntmen get evermore reckless and it’s a wonderful, primal sight to behold and the show stopping final, bereft of rules and any structure whatsoever, turns the game into nothing more than a merciless gladiatorial arena as broken bodies litter the ground and bikes burn and through it all a bloodied Caan finally sells the core concept through sheer brute force alone.
Gliding through the carnage while Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor reverberates over the soundtrack while the rabid crowd chant his name, Jonathan finally brings Rollerball screeching home in rousing fashion with a gauntleted fist doing far more than all the attempted subtlety ever could.