Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Amused to death... Rollerball (1975)

I’m not sure how I managed to sneak into to see this one in the cinema as I would only have been a young teen… but we were all keen to see this film with its futuristic violence – a winning combination in the Seventies as now as Divergence, Hunger Games and The Maze Runner show.

The film was hard-hitting with the relentless aggression of the game leaving its mark but, watching this film 40 years on its not the most impressive feature of Rollerball. The future 2018 is one dominated by corporations who use sport as a distraction for the masses and also a constant reminder of the futility of individual action. The players work together but serious injury and death make retirement almost impossible.

Contestants, ready!?
Here and now with just three years to go, we have been subsumed by organised amusement with multiple screens bringing instantaneous entertainment, news and two-dimensional emoting. All of this is controlled by huge corporations who, whilst they may dedicate themselves to “doing no evil” are more deeply embedded in our daily lives than many “customers” suspect.

We’re not quite in dystopia but we’re not far off… maybe even just three years.

Game on!
But we don’t have to look into the future for validation of Rollerball’s central thesis; these sportsmen are gladiators and as ever the circus keeps the citizen’s at bay.

Directed by Norman Jewison with a script from William Harrison based on his own short story, Rollerball features the story of one player who refuses to go gentle into the good night and starts to transcend not only his team but the sport itself: Jonathan E. (James Caan). Caan plays with almost too much restraint as the serial winner who, as he keeps on repeating, just loves the game: a very believable “jock” whose will to win is the spark for his rebellion.

Star player

Jonathan plays for Houston a team run by the Energy Corporation, one of the mega-conglomerates that run what seems like a post-political world in which capitalism has won and everyone is commoditised. Executives rule the game whilst women seem to be reduced as playthings with the most attractive offered to the most successful – one of the most shocking aspects of the film as it now happens.

John Houseman
Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman) runs the Energy Corporation and treats his team almost like slaves as well. After a brutal demolition of the Madrid team he passes through the dressing room throwing out condescending compliments to the victors in ways that most can’t see. All, that is, except Jonathan, perhaps… Bartholomew says that the corporation have run out of ways in which to reward him and, as the star player’s face begins to fall flat, says that they will be devoting a TV special to him, something that has never happened before.

But, as it transpires this gift of public celebration is only the cue for Jonathon to announce his retirement. It’s never made entirely clear why the Corporation wants him gone but his popularity is clearly dangerous and they need the source of his challenging fame to be removed – he can safely fade away as a former winner rather than continue to stir the blood of millions with his sporting success.

Pamela Hensley - every home should have one
Jonathon lives in the lap of luxury – a TV in very room of his huge house and the best concubine the Corporation can provide – currently Mackie (Pamela Hensley – later the baddie in Buck Rodgers and a big favourite of my teen years!) – but he misses his wife Ella (Maud Adams) and continually re-watches old videos of their life.

She is no longer around and this in itself is a hint of the Corporation’s ongoing attempts to contain their sporting phenomena. Soon Mackie is moved on as well to be replaced by Daphne (Barbara Trentham) – selected more for her loyalty to his employers than anything else.

Barbara Trentham, actress, painter and later married to John Cleese
Meanwhile Jonathon plays on with a team containing Moonpie (John Beck) and coached by Rusty (the great Shane Rimmer… Alan of Thunderbirds!). Their next game is against Tokyo and this time the rules are changed… there will be no substitutions and no penalties: it will be more brutal than ever before.

The coaches try to prepare the team for the martial arts of their up-coming opponents but Jonathan and Moonpie ignore all of this and focus on the strength of their team unity: this is not the way the games is supposed to roll.

John Beck and James Caan
Sure enough, Tokyo are engaged and defeated but at a cost as Moonpie is badly injured and ends up in a coma. The executives want to pull the plug but Jonathan is more and more comfortable in voicing his own opinion and dictating events. The TV tribute is broadcast and he refuses to announce his retirement.

Tokyo get taken down
There’ s striking moment at a viewing party when the guests head off and fire blasters at a row of beautiful trees in the gardens… the revelers burn them all to the ground wanton destruction in the absence of anything more meaningful to do: this is society devoid of direction and self-restraint.

Trees on fire
Jonathan tries to find out more and is frustrated in his search for knowledge as he finds the central library devoid of content. Ralph Richardson is superb in his brief cameo as the librarian without a cause.

Ella reappears, sent by the corporation, in an attempt to break Jonathan’s resistance: everything is controlled and even the love of his life was taken away and given to another man.

Maud Adams and James Caan
But this is a competition now and Jonathan loves the game… he heads into the grand final against New York knowing that the odds are stacked against him but, if he survives what can the corporation do?

Dusty verdict: Rollerball feels slightly hollow after all these years and lacks the visceral thump of my viewing in cinema. That’s probably an indictment of cinema’s trend towards ultra-violence as much as any jadedness on my part…

The gloves stay on in the murderous finale
James Caan makes for a strangely contemporary sporting hero: lost in the singular purpose of “the game” whilst John Houseman makes for a superbly nuanced chief executive: brawn against business.

The film is readily available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon... it's still a class act and a prescient view of our contemporary culture of submission to sensation.


1 comment:

  1. “All that I have and am, I owe to the game of Roller Ball Murder,” Jonathan E says in W H Harrison's short story. The game as depicted here is genuinely exciting, but James Caan's portrayal of a “dumb jock too stubborn to quit” departs from Harrison's character, a philosophical warrior far more perceptive and intelligent than we see here - and it drags the film down terribly, almost fatally. We are given no reason to care about this lummox, or why he resists retirement.

    [ “Hollywood Has No Ideas”: The utterly forgotten 2002 remake ranks among the top ten examples of this. “Needless” is the word appearing in many reviews. ]

    n b: As an exercise in 70s SF concepts, imagine Rollerball played in the domed city of “Logan's Run” - and the “retirement” of Jonathan 5 ('E') thus meant in the “Blade Runner” sense. Now we understand why he resists… That might have been an interesting story. What price “team loyalty”?