Ah, the 1970s! The decade that gave us designer furniture in nuclear orange and baby-barf green, computer-looking space fonts, shirt collars you could hang-glide with and futuristic music that blended wah pedals, jazz fusion and whiny analog synthesizers and sounded more like 1974 than 2074.
And lots of really good movies. Rollerball is one of those movies and it includes all of the above mentioned cultural milestones plus a whole lot more.
Released in 1975, Rollerball was producer-director Norman Jewison and writer William Harrison’s cautionary tale about where our culture and society might be heading. Set in the year 2018, the concept of political governments have gone the way of 8-track tapes and pet rocks (but not the way of wide lapels and ugly furniture) having been replaced by a corportocracy; all decisions are made by Executives, a group of elite powerbrokers who control the world. As Corporate Leader Bartholomew (played by John Houseman) puts it “Corporate society takes care of everything. All it asks of anyone, all it has ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions.” Besides providing the bread for the world, the Executives also provide the circus in the form of rollerball, a world sport that mixes roller derby, hockey and football with spikes and motorcycles and lots of gladiatorial-styled violence. While intended to set a worldwide cultural example of how the individual counts for nothing—the team is all-important—the rising popularity of its greatest player, Jonathan E (played by James Caan) threatens to have just the opposite effect. As his surging fame begins to eclipse his team and even the game itself, the Executives order him to retire…which sets the independent Jonathan in search of answers as to how the Executives make decisions and resolve their priorities.
The film was made at a time when professional sports and the athletes who play them were making a cultural transition from being goofy and friendly role models to violent, aggressive gladiators and for this reason alone I find some of the creative choices questionable. Seeing as how individuals were already being singled out for praise by the fans prior to the existence of rollerball, why would the Executives ever think codifying all sports into a single one would have a different effect? When Jonathan meets with Bartholomew and is told he’s expected to retire, Bartholomew tells him that the announcement will go out during a worldwide multi-view broadcast highlighting Jonathan’s career, a first for any rollerball player. Knowing what we do about fan culture, how would similar homegrown tributes not have developed spontaneously amongst the fans? And if the goal is to downplay the importance of the individual, then it seems to me as counter-productive to do a First Time Ever! Broadcast that, um, highlights the importance of the individual. That strikes me a lot like walking into a furniture store and saying “Hmmm. That nuclear orange and baby-barf green sofa set is really ugly so to avoid having to look at in my friend’s house I’ll buy it and stick it in mine. What? It comes with that matching wide lapel disco shirt? Sweet!”
The soul of the film is an examination of the individual in a rigidly controlled culture and how the population has become (so far as we know) a coddled tribe slowly devolving from lack of challenge or purpose. With everything provided for them and no direct recourse to change, they’re largely kept under control…sort of an opposite Occupy Wall Street movement, an anti-99% to the Executives 1%. But despite a surface level satisfaction, cracks are beginning to show; from the anxious, weeping woman on the verandah at the Executive party celebrating Jonathan’s broadcast to the sorrow and anger of Mackie (played by Pamela Hensley), Jonathan’s former courtesan who’s just been transferred at his request to an Executive (that’s another thing about the film: it seems that the Executives get their women from the same place that Soylent Green got their Furniture. And if you don’t understand that reference, then go watch Soylent Green again. And if you’ve never seen it, you’re an idiot. It’s awesome. Go watch it now).
But there are two critical pieces of human behavior that the corportocracy seems curiously ignorant of. The first is that when humans aren’t challenged to create, they’re often drawn to destroy, a half-assed attempt to take control of an unempowering situation. The evidence is all around them, at every game. The fact that the fans are polarized around different teams, enough so that fights in the crowd are commonplace, shows that the old primate territorial initiative is hard at work and a sense of territory starts with a sense of self—just the thing the Executives strive to avoid. It’s even in their own ranks: we see it in Mackie’s eyes at the party when she and a group of others go out onto the moors (or wherever they are) with a futuristic gun and proceed to destroy a stand of gorgeous old pine trees. As the flames flicker in her eyes, the savage grin that she wore when she pulled the trigger fades into a sorrowful horror at what she just did. And if she’s feeling this conflict, others are also.
The second behavior trend is that humans typically respond more aggressively to loss than reward. We’re an impatient, unsatisfied species. When we SHOULD have enough, we quickly realize we want more; rare is the soul who’s truly happy with what they’ve got. So when you create an equation where you provide everything to a dependent and remove the wherewithal for them to provide for themselves, you quickly fall into a cycle of dependency where you must continue to escalate those provisions lest the dependent rebel…as Jonathan does after they first take his wife (who wanted to leave because she felt she’d become a game widow with Jonathan more interested in the sport than in having a life with her) and then when they try and take the game away from him. But if what you provide is the means for the dependent to provide for themselves, then you can potentially reach a state of equilibrium (albeit a fragile one). And the Executives don’t seem to be providing that.
While the theme of the individual may be the soul of the movie, the gameplay sequences are the flesh. Shot with lots of in-your-face coverage and rapidfire editing, editor Antony Gibbs maintains the speed and energy of the game while at the same time keeping a clear focus on what’s happening. While the editing could have ended up a mess of energy and movement without direction, Gibbs keeps it all under control, switching back and forth from the action to the result of all this mayhem—injured and dying players, the reactions of team members watching from the pit, the frenzied screams of the fans and the cool, usually detached Executives.
The film also flirts with conspiracy but never explores the subject too deeply which is just as well as it would have probably spiraled into a Three Days Of The Condor-esque potboiler. When Jonathan goes to a library to do research on the Executives, he’s informed that the information he wants is only available as part of a transcribed and edited file; in fact all books are gone and no longer available (except for a paperback being read in the background by an Executive during a game, an interesting suggestion about who can have access to what). Rather than give up, Jonathan heads to Geneva where the main computer that feeds all the libraries is housed. Once there, the computer proceeds to go into a malfunctioning logic cycle when questioned about the Executives and refuses to provide the information Jonathan seeks. From there the film could have quickly gotten away from the filmmaker’s control but they wisely steer Jonathan back to the area where HE controls the situation: in the rollerball arena. If he can’t get what he wants in their world, then he’ll get what he wants in his. And it’s on a satisfying and open-ended note that the film ends.
I reviewed the Twilight Time Blu-Ray and overall I was happy with it. The MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 transfer was as good as we can probably expect; some sequences were rich and sharp while others had a lot of film grain, most noticeably in the darker scenes shot under practical lighting (it almost looks like the exposure was pushed up a step or two in post to bring more of the image out). The colors were bright without being oversaturated and though the blacks weren’t as deep as they maybe could have been, they were solid and not washed out.
The disc has five audio tracks: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit), English: DTS-HD Master Audio Mono (48kHz, 24-bit), Andre Previn’s score on an isolated DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, a commentary track by Norman Jewison (ported over from the ’97 MGM DVD release), and a commentary track by screenwriter (and original short story writer of Roller Ball Murder) William Harrison. The 5.1 surround mix was well done and the game sequences especially pulled you into the action, with the release of the ball circumnavigating nicely around the room.
Also on the disc is a 1975 Making Of featurette (also from the ’97 DVD) and a 2001 short that interviews many of the cast and crew (though James Caan’s absence is conspicuous). Several TV spots and the theatrical preview round out the package.