Rollerball (1975) and Rollerball (2002) (review)

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One Ball, One Strike

[minor spoilers for 1975’s ‘Rollerball’; 2002’s ‘Rollerball’ has already been spoiled for you by the trailers and commercials. not that it matters]

What do you get if you combine the 1970s fads of roller skating, pinball, and political awareness? Rollerball, of course. Nowhere near as dumb as the guy you’re gonna rent it from at the video store thinks it is, this dystopic parable sneaks a message in among the extreme sports, through a subtle and unsettling tale of political and individual repression that slowly unfolds behind the sci-fi action.

In an opener of pure action that is like and also unlike anything you’d see in today’s sometimes impossibly fast-paced movies, Rollerball introduces us to the sport right away, with 15 minutes of gameplay. There’s no character development, no plot, barely any dialogue — it’s like you flipped around to ESPN and landed in the middle of a game, as Houston plays Madrid during playoff season. A giant metal ball bearing is shot out, like an enormous pinball, at players in a circular arena; they fly around on skates and motorcycles, vying for the ball and knocking the opposing team down. It’s a fast game, but director Norman Jewison (The Hurricane, In the Heat of the Night) takes his time with it, letting us understand how it’s played and, more importantly, letting us get caught up in the excitement, letting us understand why the crowd in the stands is cheering so insanely.
And once we’re sucked into this world, that’s when we see the seeds of its unraveling. We got a hint that something wasn’t quite right at the beginning of the game, when the ladies and gentlemen of the audience were invited to stand for “our corporate anthem.” It’s through star rollerball player Jonathan E. (James Caan: The Way of the Gun, Mickey Blue Eyes) that the true picture of this seemingly pleasant world makes itself known: People are happy and healthy and comfortable, but at what price? Corporations rule the world and a patronizingly paternal “executive class” oversees it all; information is restricted and blissful ignorance is a virtue. People couldn’t be more contented — with their soma and their widescreen TVs in every room and their rollerball — so why is Energy Corporation, which controls Houston (shades of Enron!) so keen for Jonathan E. to retire? He’s at the top of his game; he’s giving the world the circuses to go with their bread. So why is smarmy executive Bartholomew (John Houseman: Scrooged) giving him the heave-ho?

Nothing really resolves itself. Jonathan sets out to investigate and doesn’t find his answer — and he certainly doesn’t go running through the streets yelling “Soylent green is people!” But we get an inkling of why Energy Corporation considers Jonathan dangerous, and Jonathan maybe has his suspicions, too, because when he has the opportunity make a gesture — of the middle-finger variety — at the corporation, it’s exactly the right one… and it’s the one that proves that Jonathan is precisely as hazardous to the dominance of the totalitarian-corporate overlords as they fear he is.

Bread and roller-skating
In 1975, Rollerball was science fiction. Today, it’s barely fiction. Substitute “Prozac” for “soma” and “Survivor” for “rollerball,” and we live in this world today. Corporations rule, executives are in charge, and movies like John McTiernan’s “remake” of Rollerball are our rollerball. Bread and circuses are back, and they are playing at a multiplex near you.

To say that Larry Ferguson and John Pogue’s idiotically simplistic script is based upon William Harrison’s 1975 screenplay is an insult, though such an acknowledgment is legally required, I suppose. But other than the title, this melange of action-flick clichés, nonexistent acting, and direction that makes MTV look staid has nothing whatsoever to do with Jewison’s film. Any satire has been excised — granted, it’s hard to satirize the world we live in today, but dammit, at least try — and replaced with exploitation that thinks it’s satirical. Any point to the film has been surgically removed, because movies aren’t supposed to be about anything anymore: they are all spectacle and product placements for fizzy sugar-water.

This Rollerball was created with morons in mind, apparently: Set in the near future, it revolves around the rough sport of rollerball — a far more complicated version than the 1975 game, and unnecessarily so; and it’s shot so we have no idea what’s going on, no sense of the game, to boot — which is played in the new frontier of the former Soviet republics, like Kazakhstan. Young, stupid American Jonathan Cross (Chris Klein: Election, who is Keanu Reeves without the surfer-dude charm) goes east to play the game, only to discover that — gasp! — the owners set up some players to take bloody falls, cuz it makes the ratings go up.

This is shocking? This is surprising? This is worth forming a movie around? People watch Fear Factor and Survivor and NFL football, all of which revolves around people doing nasty things to themselves or others, so Blood = Ratings is hardly a revelation. Worse, when the trailers for the film tell you this is the big, astonishing twist, you end up spending the first 45 minutes of the movie wondering when the damn movie is going to start. What’s the point of the endeavor, if the entire movie is in the trailer?

And it’s also just damned lazy writing. Here’s a hint: For something to be satirical, it has to be exaggerated beyond reality. So here, you’d start the film not with a game in which blood is spilled “accidentally” but full-out deliberately — that’s what draws the crowd and the TV audience. How much more obvious could it be? You’re already in a place with no rules — Kazakhstan — so you bring in players who know it’s kill or be killed out on that rollerball track and let ’em go at it. And then you twist it from there. What’s the big twist? Something truly shocking, of course, something we can’t predict, somewhere you didn’t tell us in the damn trailer we were going. (Not that we wouldn’t have guessed it anyway.)

So because there’s nowhere for this Rollerball to go, it’s all completely boring and unoriginal car chases — though McTiernan thinks he can make these exciting by filming one of them entirely in green-goggle night vision, in perhaps the biggest WTF? sequence of the film; the man who made action classics like Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October really should know better — and, here’s a shock: fist fights. Here’s the real Rollerball-is-reality moment: James Caan’s moment of triumph was scoring a goal in defiance of his overlords; Chris Klein’s is whacking the shit out of the bad-guy team owners. The point of McTiernan’s Rollerball seems to be “Violence is okay, as long as you’re beating up the right people.” Could we get any more bread- and- circuses than this?

Rollerball (1975)
viewed at home on a small screen
rated R

Rollerball (2002)
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for violence, extreme sports action, sensuality, language and some drug references
official site | IMDB

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