Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Recent Watches: Rollerball (1975)

I’ve never been into sports. As a teenager, I resented the football games my Dad watched because they’d preempt “Futurama.” Any time I’ve been forced to watch baseball, it always bores me to years. Nobody has ever been able to successfully explain the rules of basketball to me. Despite my utter indifference, if not out-right disdain, for athletics, I have a soft spot for “death sports” movies. Maybe the only way a sport can actually hold my interest is if gore effects are involved. I personally like to think my affection for this rare subgenre is owed to its mixture of cultural satire, sci-fi oddness, and the good ol’ ultra-violence. Though a number of fine films fit this story type, one is the undisputed champion. Norman Jewison’s “Rollerball” is a movie I adore, flaws and all.

In the future, there are no wars, no poverty, no disease. There is only Rollerball. Corporations have replaced the nations of the world. The masses are fed an easy supply of drugs and television. An underclass seemingly doesn’t exist. Replacing the need for all other conflict is Rollerball, a hyper violent and frequently fatal combination of roller derby, hockey, and motorcross. The biggest Rollerball star is Jonathan E. Jonathan is so popular that he’s bigger than his team, bigger than the sport. And no man can be bigger than the sport. The corporate masters of the world conspire to make Jonathan retire. When he refuses, they change the rules of Rollerball to crush his spirit. When Jonathan keeps fighting, they plan to end his life.

“Rollerball” imagines a sport so popular, that it eclipses all other forms of entertainment. Considering how indecipherable real and very popular sports like football can seem to me, it says a lot that the game of Rollerball is easy to understand. There’s a circular rink, a goal at each side, and two teams fighting to score. Moreover, the game is very exciting to watch. Despite director Norman Jewison never making an action film before, “Rollerball” contains fast-paced, frenzied, but clearly shot action sequences. The games are shot with a very natural, almost documentary-esque style. Yet when the violence happens, the film clearly shows it, the audience feeling the force. One of “Rollerball’s” many points is about how easily people can be caught up in empty spectacle. How involved the viewer is in the film’s action proves the point without working against it.

“Rollerball” also belongs to that pre-“Star Wars” wave of seventies science fiction films. You know the ones: Usually slow paced, with ponderous themes, a nihilistic tone, and a dystopian setting. “Rollerball” fits all of the above criteria. The movie’s self-serious quality is signaled by the opening scene, where the players roll into the rink to the ominous sounds of "Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor." (It also includes some painfully dated fashion and production design. Bell bottoms, chest hair, gold chains, shag carpeting, and tube televisions apparently experience a big comeback at some point in the future.) “Rollerball’s” main theme, above all others, is the struggle of the individual against conformity. The corporate government controls the masses by discouraging individual expression. Rollerball is all about the team, all players being but a part of a system. Jonathan’s popularity challenges this system, making him a target. His refusal to fold against the leaders makes him symbolic of the self’s struggle against mass conventionality. The movie isn’t subtle but it remains a powerful point.

Most sci-fi movies would be content with handling one serious topic. “Rollerball” is only getting started. The mania fans display for the game only slightly exaggerates real world sports fandom. In the future, corporations control politics, resources, and everything else about the normal life. This, too, is only a minor embellishment of how things really are. Both of these points are amplified into satire. Fans adore their teams with religious awe. Before each game, the audience and players stand during for their Corporate Anthems. It’s funny and pointed. Yet the movie isn’t even done there. The free distribution of drugs and sex takes aim at seventies hedonism. Books are heavily censored by the state. An insane super computer controls all the world’s knowledge. In one scene, party goers explode trees with a handheld laser gun. One assumes that this is an extremely heavy-handed statement about corporate disregard for the environment. It’s very pretentious and overdone. I’d understand if some are turned off by this. For me, its part of the movie’s bizarre, exceedingly seventies charm.

Such a thematically heavy screenplay must have been difficult for the actors to interpret. James Cann’s performance as Jonathan is odd. He’s very muted and thoughtful. When not playing Rollerball, he pines for his lost wife, taken away from him by one of the executives. Caan is so low-key, he’s almost sleepy. This oddly works in the film’s favor, cementing its off-beat tone. John Houseman plays Bartholomew, the executive that owns Jonathan’s team. Houseman’s resounding voice lends the part respect, making for a creditable villain. John Beck plays the ridiculously named Moonpie, Jonathan’s best friend and favorite team member. The part is very exaggerated but Beck plays every key correctly. Maud Adams, as Jonathan’s stolen wife, is the only main cast member that doesn’t work for me. Her part is so small that there’s little room for development.

“Rollerball” was controversial upon release for its violence. The amount of gore, I suspect, was not what upset cultural critics. Bloodier films existed before and after. Instead, it’s the impact the violence hits with that makes it so startling. When someone is cracked across the jaw, the audience feels it. The blows to the heads and faces are audible. After being struck, players fall limp, concussed. As more of the rules are discarded, the game becomes increasingly more intense. In the second half, players are held down and beaten. Someone has their helmet tore away, smashed in the back of the head with a spiked glove. A man is thrown from his bike, shattering the back glass. The launched ball, a heavy steel sphere, slams into an unconscious body. A man is dragged behind a motorcycle. Later, an engine explodes, a player fleeing in flames, screaming for his life. Men are bloodied, bruised, and broken. It makes the film’s point about brutality very clear.

The final image, of a man standing triumphant against his oppressor, is inspiring in the same weird way as the rest of the movie. “Rollerball” is a film I love, an off-beat mixture of intense violence, exciting action, ponderous themes, insightful satire, cheesy sci-fi, and operatic direction. The definitive death sport film, it remains powerful despite its many short-comings. [9/10]

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