It’s the near future and corporations with executives rule the world rather than governments. The individual is suppressed in favour of serving companies and globalisation. A violent sport called ‘Rollerball’ has been created to satisfy people’s bloodlust. It involves two teams on rollerskates in full American Football gear, plus three motorcyclists per team, which the skaters can use for tows. They go around a smallish, indoor, banked, circular track and a steel ball is fired from a cannon at the top of the track. You must grab the ball, keep it in full view and attempt to score a goal by chucking it into your opposing team’s receptacle. There are a few rules which are gradually eliminated during the course of the film. The teams corporation anthems are played before each game. The anthems are all played on a pipe organ and all sound the same.
Jonathan E (James Caan) is Houston’s star player. The Houston team is sponsored by the Energy Corporation headed by Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman). Jonathan is a rising star, too rising it seems. Those who are at the top are paid with luxuries, favours and privileges plus drugs, but there are to be no idols. Jonathan is surprised to hear that his retirement is to be announced and doesn’t understand the reasons. He refuses to play along and steps are taken behind his back.
He is to announce his retirement on prime-time tv, but walks out. Bartholomew implores then threatens Jonathan if he continues to play. The next game against Tokyo has limited substitution and no penalties. Death is not uncommon in Rollerball and this game is particularly rough. Jonathan’s team-mate Moonpie (John Beck) - another rising star, is attacked and left brain dead. Jonathan refuses to sign documents to have the body taken off life support.
In the meantime, he has been trying to find out more about corporations and who makes the decisions and why. An understanding of privilege is that no questions are asked of the decisions made by executives. He has to travel to a computer centre in Geneva where books are being summarised (censored). He meets a Librarian (Ralph Richardson – in full thespian, scene stealing mode) who isn’t much help. The computer won’t play ball either (the usual ‘cannot compute!’). This is a pointless part of the film and could have been taken out.
Jonathan changes wife as often as his hat. This isn’t his fault, the corporation sends them along to his ranch whenever he’s out. He misses his first wife who is duly despatched back to, in effect, offer herself if he’ll quit. He doesn’t. The final game against New York approaches. There are no substitutions, penalties or time limits. The winner will be whoever is left alive to score.
The entire world is watching. The team are in sombre mood. Everyone chants for Jonathan as he comes onto the track, except the New York fans who want him dead. The game starts. People begin to die. Being simply knocked down is quite fatal it seems. Eventually Jonathan and two New York players are left. One is murdered in front of Bartholomew. The second is given mercy. Jonathan slowly takes off his helmet, goes to the NY goal and scores – the only point in the game. He slowly skates around the track. The audience begin to gradually chant ‘Jonathan, Jonathan…’ until this is all that is left to hear.
Rollerball is one of a number of 70’s science fiction films that pushed us into considering the politics of the future. Intelligently written, superbly cast and filmed. The director of photography is the legendary Douglas Slocombe. Norman Jewison was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, apparently. The music is totally classical. Modern buildings form an important part of the futuristic look and many of those featured, including the Rollerball track, were filmed in Munich. The Energy Corporation and one of the public buildings are part of the BMW headquarters. Designer furniture and multi-screen TVs form much of the interiors. Caan is excellent and doesn't over-play. Houseman is the master stroke.
The game action itself, is genuinely exciting. There was talk of actually starting it as a serious game, which horrified Jewison. As far as violence goes, the film depicts it without gratuity. There are some great moments, such as an executive party that descends into shooting pine trees with a gun that has napalm style bullets. Don’t accept any substitutes for the real game. Music by Bach, Albinoni, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Andre Previn.