Rollerball is one of those movies that, once you dig down past the disco-era cheese, you might find very thoughtful and prescient science-fiction. On the other hand, you might just find another layer of that cheese. Norman Jewison’s 1975 fable of full-contact sports gone insane dares you not to take it seriously, to dismiss it as merely a more cerebral cousin of Logan’s Run.
Looking back through a prism of 35 years, it’s hard to completely dismiss the film’s future where corporations have eclipsed the power of nations. How about a world in which books are mostly forgotten and history is written on ever-changing computers where inconvenient centuries can simply disappear? Lucky guess or Wikipedia squared?
In this future, both war and sport have merged into a lethal gladiatorial perversion of roller derby called Rollerball. The star of the Houston team is the veteran Jonathan E (James Caan), who’s kind of the Brett Favre of the sport. Everyone wants him to retire, but he just never does. The problem is that he is the star of a sport that is designed to demonstrate the futility of individual effort in their brave new corporate world. When he resists the pressure to walk away from the sport just as the Houston Team is heading into the playoffs, the powers that be in the person of Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman) start to manipulate the rules of the game to ensure that Jonathan dies in the arena.
That’s basically the progression of the plot in this movie. The rather linear central plot and leisurely running time give Rollerball ample time for side trips into Jonathan’s past and his futile attempts to learn why he’s being forced out the game that’s been his entire life.
With Norman Jewison behind the camera and a rather distinguished cast on screen, Rollerball easily separates itself from science fiction efforts of the era in terms of pure production value. James Caan doesn’t get to show a lot of range, but he gives exactly what the role demands: a simple man with an athlete’s discipline who only wants to play the game, and doesn’t care about the politics going on over his head. He only knows that his ex-wife (Maud Adams) is now married to an executive for the same corporation who wants him out of the game. The dissolution of the marriage was not by choice. The executive’s position gave him the “privilege” of having any woman he wants.
His best friend and loyal sidekick, Moonpie (John Beck) doesn’t really understand why his mentor would turn down a cushy retirement of privilege and any woman he wants, but backs his play because that’s what teammates do, at least until being Jonathan E’s friend has lethal consequences.
Rollerball is very much a creature of its times. Almost everything about it’s decadent, dehumanized view of the future screams “Made in the 1970s.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s visibly dated elements might lead some to dismiss it without at least giving it a try. That would be a shame.