What is Rollerball (1975) About?

roller2Since my last post, a lot of people have asked me what Rolleball (1975) is about, and if it really is as heavy on the social commentary as it’s made out to be.  At the heart of it, the social commentary revolves around individualism.  In the future of Rollerball, the corporation has taken over, and war and disease are gone as a result.  This is done at the cost of certain freedoms, which is typical of a science fiction movie of this type.  Still, James Caan and John Houseman make the best of it.

Really there are two types of dystopian science fiction movies.  In the first, mankind has reverted back to a simpler time thanks to the Apocalypse and struggles against some force of evil or for some understanding of their problems.  This includes examples like 12 Monkeys or Mad Max or maybe Waterworld.  The second type involves a more understated struggle against the idyllic State, who has grown in power and force, like in Rollerball.

roll3Corporations are a good vehicle if you want to say something about individualism.  By their very nature, corporations favor a group identity, which is why today’s society is constantly searching for who to blame for corporate miscues, like why Windows 8.1 is so bad.  We don’t blame Bill Gates, we blame Microsoft.  But Microsoft is only a corporation, so really the whole thing goes unpunished.  This is a dumb example, so don’t get on me for the details.

James Caan plays Jonathan E, the hero of Rollerball.  He’s so popular, the corporation changes the rules so the sport becomes more dangerous, and he can be eliminated.  No one is above the group, according to Jonathan’s boss, played by John Houseman.  Of course, this makes sense after a while, but the movie really doesn’t go far enough.  There’s not really enough satire of individual elements of corporate life, although Jonathan does suffer by their rules.  The movie implies the corporation took away his wife.  How they can do that is never really explained.

roller4And so, that’s the real problem of Rollerball.  It presents an interesting concept but doesn’t really build it to believability.  We’re supposed to believe that Rollerball itself is the conduit for society’s aggressions, in the place of war and strife seen in today’s world, but it’s kinda hard to believe all the world stops fighting because of one silly sport.  Still, the movie tries little elements that might make this point more realistic, points which probably go overlooked, like how all the characters use a powerful narcotic, probably supplied by the State for nefarious reasons.  Books and information are carefully regulated by the State, everything is edited for content and information is censored.

Regardless of believability, at least Rollerball tries.  It has social commentary and it has a point.  It tries to deliver that point and give us something more than an action movie, which is what successful science fiction does.  The 2002 remake throws out all the social commentary and doesn’t want to be anything more than an action movie, which is unfortunate.

James Caan gives a good performance.  He doesn’t wade into Charlton Heston territory, so he’s much more muted in comparison, but his aggression and anger comes out during competition.  John Houseman is the perfect evil corporate head, and he does a great job.

Overall, this is a good movie.  It has it’s faults, but it’s not unwatchable.  The performances are good and the action is decent, though it’s becoming dated.  Still, I like it for what  James Caan can do with the science fiction, as he questions the corporation and frowns in the face of corporate evil.  You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.  The hero goes out and wins.  Society rises up and chants his name, like some sort of mob.  Maybe this movie has something to say about mob mentality too.  Either way, there’s plenty to discover in the brutal world of Rollerball.