Rollerball concerns a brutal future pastime that’s overseen by a handful of powerful corporations, which also control what remains of the world’s governing bodies. It involves two teams, each representing a corporate entity, whose members glide along an arena that resembles a cross between the Roman coliseum and a standard roulette wheel. Dressed in armor that suggests an American football uniform outfitted with roller-derby and hockey gear, the players skate along the mixer bowl-shaped dome chasing a little metal ball that’s fired out of the side of the upper-outer ring of the court at speeds that can take a hand or head clean off. The men are to strip this ball away from the each other and jam it into a goal for points, though that aim often takes second stage to the carnage that’s inevitably wrought.
It’s safe to say that the premise of a corporation that oversees our entertainment in order to nurture our apathy toward our government, of which it has also assumed control, no longer rates as parable. Every day, there are stories of the corporate legal restrictions that have been eased due to conspiracy that’s often been dressed up with supposedly politer words such as “collaboration” and “lobbying.” Every day, TV shows, particularly sporting broadcasts, seem to get louder and more cluttered with advertisements that threaten to entirely moot the particulars of the event that’s theoretically being offered for our delectation. And then there’s the Internet, piped in over our phones, offering distractions posing as news on tap 24/7.
Rollerball scans as innocuous in this present context. Like the similarly outraged 1970s conspiracy horror-thriller Soylent Green, the film, which is all premise and no story, follows a hero as he gradually learns a shocking truth that the audience will have immediately accepted as a given. Jonathan E (James Caan) is Rollerball’s great global celebrity, an unbeatable killing machine. Nevertheless, the Energy Corporation wants him to retire from the sport, with the assurance that he will continue to live among the luxuries that he’s grown to take for granted: the privileges that are afforded executives and sports figures such as the posh homes and the pills that are greatly suggestive of the soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And, of course, the gorgeous models that are passed around with open objectified impunity.
Norman Jewison’s elegant direction proves the filmmaker quite capable of adapting his elastic visual sensibilities to suit the ostentatiously chilly decadence of the future-shock dystopia film, which usually favors bold colors (particularly white or red) that speak to the easy commodification of the supposedly ineffably personal. Jewison allows little details to sink in with surprising disconcertion on the rebound, such as the foreboding looks that Jonathan detects among his supposed friends and colleagues at an eerie debauch that’s intended as his retirement announcement. The filmmaker also uses real corporate structures, such as the BMW building in Munich, to sneakily confirm that the future is already the present, in a manner reminiscent of Alphaville and A Clockwork Orange. The action scenes, which appear to be informed by the apocalyptically hopeless dance marathons of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, are triumphs of breaking potentially impenetrable sequences down into sharp, cathartic shards of incident.
A significant irony escapes Jewison though. The bad guys want Jonathan to retire for a disappointingly ordinary reason: He’s too good at Rollerball, and his skills thusly offer a testament to solitary human achievement that threatens their close-knit arrangement in which the top one-half percent leeches upon the unseen majority. A cleverer film would’ve acknowledged that it’s precisely people like Jonathan who help to keep the majority in unblinking, ignorant, pop-culture-sated complacency, as he’s a member of the celebrity class who serves to foster a hope in the general populace that it will one day become just like him. This hope keeps people preoccupied with achievement, with the winning of baubles, and thus disengaged from the social scope of their government and tolerant of oppression, because they dream to join their vaunted oppressors, which they accept as the ultimate superior. Jonathan, and the suffocating self-entitlement narrative he represents, is a tyrant’s best friend.
This is one of the better-looking Twilight Time releases in recent memory. Grain modulation is consistent and the softness is clearly and appealingly representative of the film’s probable original appearance. Flesh tones are natural and colors are sharp. I couldn’t detect much difference between the film’s various audio tracks (the 5.1 is presumably intended to give the film’s mix a more modern oomph without unduly altering the sonic design), but they’re robust and detailed, particularly in the gladiatorial sports sequences.
The audio commentaries by director Norman Jewison and screenwriter William Harrison dutifully cover the film’s inception and despairing anti-corporate preoccupations, but the filmmakers tend to narrate what’s plainly happening on screen right back to us. (Harrison also allows large passages to play out undiscussed.) The best extra is probably the "Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball" featurette, which updates the vintage interviews included on "From Rome to Rollerball: The Full Circle" so as to emphasize the film’s retrospective prescience, considering the rampant news of corporate and government corruption that we’ve since grown to take for granted. Rounding out this mildly diverting package are various trailers and TV spots.
Though director Norman Jewison fails to follow his premise’s subtext to its most obvious and damning conclusion, Rollerball remains a poignant and unusually prescient vision of our world as defined by Walmart and Exxon-Mobil.