Rollerball: On the Beaten Track

RBall-posWhile you may glance at the poster or hear the premise and think of schlock like The Running Man, the truth is far more frightening. Rollerball is deliberately disorienting, meaningfully opaque, and many kinds of awesome.

Picture a cross between The Hunger Games and Cool Hand Luke and you’ll be on the right track. Or, at least, on the same track as a dozen spike-fisted men who aren’t overly concerned about your physical well-being.

Luckily, they’ll all soon be dead, just like you.

In the ‘not too distant future’ — in this case, 2018, so get ready — the world is done with nations and wars. Instead, we’ve got mega corporations that hold monopolies on fat slices of existence: energy, food, transportation, luxury, etc. Each of these corporations fields a sports team from its international headquarters and these teams, well, to appease the masses they play rollerball.

Until they die. For their own good, see?

Jonathan E. and Moonpie

Jonathan E. and Moonpie

The film’s protagonist is Jonathan E., played by James Caan, a naturally talented good ol’ boy who really prefers it when people don’t tell him what to do. He is the all-time rollerball champion, winning so many matches and accolades that his company — Houston Energy — has to create new ways of celebrating him.

Their latest gift is a television special about him, during which he will be so good as to retire. The fact that Jonathan does not wish to retire, or that he desires to know why he’s being pushed out — this is the subject of Rollerball.

If you would be so good as to die now, that would be convenient for us.

If you would be so good as to die now, that would be convenient for us.

Yep. Rollerball is not about violent sport or an underdog’s achievement or even the thrill of victory. It addresses instead the thinly disguised nihilism that soaks society unto ruin. It is a slow, melancholy, descent into madness. And that madness is truth.

While the film does feature a number of rollerball matches — increasingly kinetic, violent affairs — far more of the film drifts in and out of unexplained conversations, wistful reunions, fruitless searches, meaningless destruction, and numbing despair.

I miss you, in every room, on every tv.

I miss you, in every room, on every tv.

It is not a rollicking good time, Rollerball. It is not Arnold Schwarzenegger lobbing pithy rejoinders at bespangled warriors in theme attire. It is not Adonis Creed battling his way through adversity to a bout with the world champion. It is as contemplative and stubborn as Jonathan E., who still doesn’t understand why the execs stole his wife (Maud Adams) away.

He just wants to know, even if it kills him, and that’s what they’d prefer anyway. As directed by Norman JewisonRollerball feels of a kind with his earlier films In the Heat of the NightThe Thomas Crown Affair, and even The Cincinnati Kid, all of which deal with confident men who will not be swayed, whether or not that’s in their best interest.

Are we having fun, yet?

Are we having fun, yet?

There is a scene in Rollerball in which guests at a party go outside and shoot mortar shells at a stand of trees. They laugh and celebrate each incineration as Jonathan, inside, tries to battle his way to understanding. He has power, he just can’t figure out why or how to use it. It doesn’t matter to the trees, though.

They just burn for your amusement.

And men get dragged off the track, unconscious or worse.

How, I wonder, will Rollerball end? Will Moonpie (John Beck) ride Jonathan’s slipstream to success or will he find some other, more complacent fate? Will Houston win the championships? Do you care? Is there, somewhere hidden, still a part of you that feels?

If so: perhaps you should watch Rollerball.

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5 responses on “Rollerball: On the Beaten Track

  1. Been a long time since I’ve seen this one. But I did recently watch the Roger Corman produced Death Race 2000, which he put into production before Rollerball even came out, hoping to capitalize on what he must have assumed would be the craze for deadly, futuristic sporting event movies. It’s delightfully nutso.

    • Yes. Death Race 2000 is indeed a weird, strange film. But it’s no Rollerball. This one TRIES to throw you off balance and succeeds.

  2. This is only my opinion, but I think a more ruthless hand in the editing suite would have brought out a better movie. There’s an excellent film inside the somewhat bloated good film that is Rollerball.

    The bloat may be a deliberate choice; taking ages to get to the point after overlong interludes where, for example, Michael Hordern gets angry at a computer made of bubbles, may be part of the film’s being deliberately disorienting and meaningfully opaque, but I do believe it could have achieved the same effect without being quite so self indulgent.

    It’s a film I’m fond of, but one I’d probably flick in and out of for the high points if it was on rather than watching the whole thing again. That said, if anyone reading this hasn’t watched it, I’d dfeinitely recommend it.

    • An interesting and not unappealing idea. I wonder, though. If you watched it the first time through, and it was speedier, and lacked those dull and perplexing interludes of Jonathan talking with unidentified characters about unidentified things, would the film still work? Would the reactions of the rollerball championship audience match yours?

      That freeze frame at the end.

      I think that Jonathan’s struggle for meaning would be less potent if it wasn’t matched by our own. While the film would be peppier, and likely would have done better financially, it wouldn’t be as effective or interesting.

      But who’s to say? Better call Steven Soderbergh and see if he’ll recut it for us. He’s a sucker for projects like that.

  3. I just watched my spiffy new blu-ray of this last night. I’ve seen it many times, but have been waiting for the BR to watch it again. It is an amazing film, chock-full of good decisions by the filmmakers, such as:

    1) No cars. We see a few helicopters, and they look pretty much like a ‘copter one would see in 1975, but no cars. This saves the film from looking silly or dated at a later date.

    2) Very little in the way of “futuristic fashion.” Again, an element that can harm an otherwise solid film. Jonathan and Moonpie wear matching jumpsuits, but other than that (and the occasional wide tie), for the most part you wouldn’t look twice at what anyone in the film was wearing even today.

    The biggest complaints I’ve heard over the years have to do with the pacing of the film, but I disagree. People seem to want this to be an action film, but it’s not. It is very much in the vein of 1970’s (pre-Star Wars) sci-fi. There is no spoon-feeding here; instead the film makes you work to understand it, and to get into the heads of the characters.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.