FilmJuice have my review of Norman Jewison’s iconic 1970s science fiction film Rollerball, which has just been re-released on Blu-ray. When my editor at FilmJuice approached me to write about Rollerball I was initially a bit reluctant… I first saw Rollerball at the age of six because I was named for the film’s protagonist and my mother couldn’t be bothered to provide me with boundaries. In fact, I actually saw Rollerball a number of years before I first saw Star Wars and I remember being puzzled by the latter’s lack of blood. Where was the scene in which Luke wrenched off a Storm-trooper’s helmet and punched him in the back of the head with a spiked glove? I watched Rollerball so frequently as a child that I wound up committing huge sections of the film to memory at least a decade before acquiring the emotional and conceptual apparatus to understand what the film was actually about. I was reluctant to take this reviewing gig as I have never before written about Rollerball and was a bit concerned that the suck fairy might have gotten to it… Thankfully, while the film turns out to be something of a thematic mess, it more than stands up to critical scrutiny:
The 1970s was a time when science fiction was enjoying a moment of rare literary respectability. The collapse of the pulp magazines had forced the genre’s writers to shift closer to the literary mainstream and the institutions comprising that mainstream had rewarded this cultural obeisance with a market for short fiction that spilled from the pages of glossy magazines and out into the Hollywood hills. Perhaps sensing that science fiction was a genre on the up, [director Norman] Jewison secured the rights to a short story that had appeared in the pages of Esquire magazine and hired the author William Harrison to provide him with a screenplay. Despite Jewison having no experience directing action and Harrison having never before written for film, the pair managed to produce one of the most bewildering and influential works of 1970s science fiction.
The reason I call the film bewildering is that while the action sequences remain viscerally potent and brilliantly conceived, the quiet stuff surrounding them turns out to be more than a little bit confused. The problem is that while the film is based on a short story, Harrison’s story is all about how the unexamined life is not worth living. In the story “Roller Ball Murder”, Jonathan E is an exquisite physical specimen who has been raised to the peak of physical fitness and celebrated for his athletic prowess. However, as time passes and the game becomes more violent, Jonathan begins to wonder whether there might not just be a little bit more to life than victory, accolades, drugs and sex. Doubting his vocation, the big lump tries to educate himself about history and philosophy only to realise that the government has destroyed all the books. Now… while the director of Fiddler on the Roof would have had his pick of new projects, it is unlikely that even 1970s Hollywood would have helped to fund a science fiction sports film about the lack of spiritual sustenance to be had from a hedonistic lifestyle. As a result, Harrison and Jewison ditched the story’s Platonic theme in favour of well… a number of different themes:
Inexperienced as a screen-writer and forced to come up with a new motivation for his character, Harrison threw everything but the kitchen sink at his script in an effort to provide Jonathan with a set of motives that were both primal enough to be relatable and high-minded enough to give the film thematic heft. This resulted in a protagonist whose act of rebellion feels so hopelessly over-determined as to be effectively meaningless: Apparently Jonathan E is angry with the people who broke up his marriage, and looking to avenge the death of his friend, and start a rebellion, and embody the kind of radical individualism that is supposed to pose an existential threat to corporate governance.
Rollerball is a hugely influential film that inspired not only Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games but also the flood of YA dystopias that followed in its wake. At first glance, this influence is rather shallow as both Rollerball and The Hunger Games are set in dystopian futures where governments use bloodsports to keep their oppressed populations in line. However, look beyond the surface tropes and you will notice that both Rollerball and The Hunger Games are in the business of presenting small acts of athletic disobedience as the birth of revolutionary subjectivities that pose an existential threat to their respective societies:
- Jonathan E doesn’t want to retire, this forces his government to change the rules of the game and marks him as a threat.
- Katniss Everdeen would rather not kill her fellow tribune, this forces her government to change the rules of the game and marks her as a threat.
In order to make this act of thematic inflation stick, both Rollerball and The Hunger Games blur the boundaries between the political and the personal to produce a weird thematic mess that is both a literal description of an athlete who becomes a political rebel and a weirdly metaphorical treatment of both individualism and the similarities between becoming an adult and acquiring political agency. The big difference between Rollerball and The Hunger Games is that while Rollerball ends with that moment of individualistic awakening, The Hunger Games goes on for several more books and films exploring the athlete’s political career.
Another way in which Rollerball influenced The Hunger Games is that while both films rush to adopt revolutionary postures, their critiques of despotism are both completely toothless.
Despite pre-empting the idea of corporate rule that featured so prominently in Sidney Lumet and Paddy Cayefsky’s Network, Rollerball really struggles to imagine what corporate rule might look like and how it might be undone. Consider the memorable speech from Network in which Ned Beatty proclaims that “the world is a business”:
It is easy to imagine Rollerball as a film set in the post-national future that Ned Beatty describes but rather than a vast homeostatic system in which unfettered capital flows from one side of the world to another, Rollerball has a set of neatly-ordered monopolies in which the corporations no longer even bother to compete. In fact, the film even goes so far as to suggest that money is no longer an issue as there is no poverty or talk of wages and Jonathan gets his luxuries with the help of something called a ‘privilege card’. Also deeply weird is the idea that the game of Rollerball was designed to highlight the futility of individual effort and that Jonathan E’s rugged individualism poses some sort of threat to corporate hegemony.
The truth is that while Rollerball may present itself as an anti-corporate film, the system it critiques is actually much closer to Communism with its planned economy, institutional monopolies and rule by elusive grey-faced men. Rugged individualism will always pose a threat to the vision of Communism that existed in American minds for much of the Cold War but as everything from the Premier League to the NBA will tell you; when the people love an athlete and the athlete breaks the law, corporations will always look the other way.
Revisiting Rollerball as a critic did not exactly undermine my childhood love of the film but it did suggest that I wasn’t really missing very much when I failed to connect with the quiet talky bits. Those action sequences are amazing and the film continues to look great but when it comes to political critique, the film is much closer to The Hunger Games than it is to Network or the paranoid Hollywood cinema of the 1970s.