Rollerball (1975) starring James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams
Synopsis of Rollerball
In a corporate-controlled future, an ultra-violent sport known as Rollerball represents the world, and one of its powerful athletes is out to defy those who want him out of the game. Cult 70s classic directed by Norman Jewison.
Bartholomew: [in a video conference with other corporate executives] In my opinion, we are confronted here with something of a situation. Otherwise, I would not have presumed to take up your time. Once again, it concerns the case of Jonathan E. We know we don’t want anything extraordinary to happen to Jonathan. We’ve already agreeed on that. No accidents, nothing unnatural. The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort. And the game must do its work. The Energy Corporation has done all it can, and if a champion defeats the meaning for which the game was designed, then he must lose. I hope you agree with my reasoning.
Rollerball is a lot of things. First and foremost, it’s a dystopian future, where heartless corporations now rule the world. It’s the story of an athlete, Jonathon E., played well by James Caan. He’s at the age where he should retire from the sport he loves — Rollerball. But, he believes he can still play. As does the audience. But the corporation doesn’t.
As he fights to stay in the game, he unwittingly begins to reveal some of the background of this dystopian society. Which the people living in it don’t realize it’s dystopian. After all, war’s a distant memory. But …
Jonathon E., years before, was forced to divorce his wife. So she could be the wife of a corporate executive. Neither of them had any say about it. And the corporation doesn’t care. Because it’s not a person, it’s a thing. The head of his corporation, Bartholomew (played wonderfully by John Houseman) is actually sympathetic. He’s not an evil man. He’s also a cog in the corporate machine. And, likewise, doesn’t realize it.
Rollerball is used as the opiate for the masses. It’s used to vicariously work out peoples’ aggression. No revolt, rebellion, or war. Just Rollerball. And it’s absolutely vicious.
- James Caan (The Godfather) … Jonathan E. The protagonist, who’s not ready to retire. And he’s using his popularity to push back against the corporation. Like, visiting his ex-wife. Just to see that she’s all right. Like visiting the Librarian, to get some background on how the world got to be this way.
- John Houseman (The Paper Chase) … Bartholomew. The corporate leader. He personally likes Jonathon E. He’s willing to stretch the rules for him. Butt, only to a point.
- Maud Adams (The Man with the Golden Gun) … Ella. Jonathon E.’s ex-wife, forced to leave him for a corporate executive. She clearly still loves him, and warns him of the corporation’s plans …
- John Beck (Audrey Rose) … Moonpie. Jonathon E.’s best friend. A nasty, vicious brute of a man. But, good at Rollerball. Later in the film, he suffers a debilitating injury. And causes Jonathon E. to make a very difficult decision.
- Moses Gunn (Heartbreak Ridge) … Cletus. Jonathon E.’s former coach, corporate executive – and still friend.
- Pamela Hensley (The Nude Bomb) … Mackie
- Barbara Trentham … Daphne
- John Normington … Executive
- Shane Rimmer … Rusty, Team Executive
- Burt Kwouk (Revenge of the Pink Panther; Curse of the Fly) … Japanese Doctor
- Richard LeParmentier … Bartholomew’s Aide (as Rick Le Parmentier)
- Robert Ito (Quincy M.E.; Women of the Prehistoric Planet) … Strategy Coach for Houston Team
- Ralph Richardson (The Ghoul) … Librarian
Editorial review of Rollerball courtesy of Amazon.com
In the year 2018, violence and crime have been totally eliminated from society and given outlet in the brutal blood sport of rollerball, a high-velocity blend of football, hockey, and motor-cross racing sponsored by the multinational corporations that now control the world following the collapse of traditional politics. James Caan plays Jonathan E., the reigning superstar of rollerball, whose corporate controllers fear that Jonathan’s popularity has endowed him with too much power. They begin to pressure him according to their own ruthless set of rules, but Jonathan has rules of his own–the rules of a man determined to retain his soul in a world gone mad.
As directed by Norman Jewison (who was enjoying a peak of success during the early and mid-1970s), Rollerball creates a believable society that’s been rendered passive and compliant by the homogenization of corporate dictatorships, where the control and flow of information is the only currency of any importance. It’s a world in which natural human aggressions have been sublimated and vented through the religious fervor toward rollerball and its players.
Rollerball now looks like one of those 1970s science fiction films (another example being Logan’s Run) that seems a bit dated and quaint, but its ideas are still provocative and fascinating, and the production is visually impressive. The DVD includes full-screen and widescreen versions of the film, audio commentary by director Norman Jewison, a behind-the-scenes featurette, an interactive “rollergame,” trivia, and production notes. –Jeff Shannon