Rollerball (1975) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

A very good looking movie with sports sequences that are filmed perfectly and are highly involving.  I really enjoy watching parts of this movie, but I think my enjoyment defeats the film's central thesis. 

You see, it's about a future society in which people are entertained by panem et circenses. In this case, the gladiatorial combat not only serves to pacify and entertain the masses, but also serves to teach them that the individual is meaningless in a team-oriented world, and to manipulate the human aggressive instincts. This particular version of the future is dominated by corporations, for whose benefit the corporate mentality is enshrined above all.

Rollerball is the game they play, and it is a combination of roller derby and hockey. The guys skate and motorbike around a roulette wheel rink, into which the game controller shots a giant ball-bearing at tremendous speeds. The competing teams have to catch the heavy ball as soon as they dare to, then get into position to jam or throw the ball into the opponent's goal. The opponents can do pretty much anything to stop them.  As the rules of the game change, the opponents can do literally anything to stop them, within the limitations of the game's equipment. They can't bring in guns and shoot their opponents, but they can, and do, kill them with their studded gloves, with the ball, or with body checks. 

Jonathan E is the game's superstar, and the corporation wants him out, because the fans cheer for him, not for the team, and this is against the corporate religion. The game's bosses ask him to retire, but he will not.

The final game, the world championship, is fought with no time limit. In effect, that means they keep playing until only one man can stand.

The film has a great weakness, and a great strength.

Its weakness: the vision of the future world is unimaginative, trivial, quaint, and fuzzy. The explanation of how the game is supposed to help the corporation is unclear, as is the reason why they want Jon to leave, or the reason why they took away his wife. When the wife returns to him for a visit, her motivations and thoughts are not clear to us. To me, all the logic of the film seems fuzzy, and the explanations seem as boring as they are garbled. James Caan and John Houseman have to be two of the lowest-energy actors ever, and their conversations are like hearty man-to-man mumbles. Caan goes for the "Crazy Guggenheim talking to Joe the Bartender" style of mumbling, while the classically-trained Houseman assays the much more difficult "Mr Magoo" style.


female: none

male: six extras showed their butts in the shower room scene, and two of them showed quick peeks of their equipment in side views.

Its strength: rollerball itself is a great game. While this fails as a futuristic SF flick, I think it's a great sports flick. I loved watching them play rollerball, and really got swept away by the imaginary games. 

And that brings me back to my first point. I don't think I'm supposed to enjoy the brutality and vengeance of the game. I think the central thesis of the film is that our professional sports glamorize violence and our lust for violence. So far so good. Except the film does such a good job of glamorizing the violence that I loved it. I found myself rooting for the Houston guys to extract their horrible payback from the Tokyo opponents. I was rooting for them to cause great pain for the guys who had previously hit them hard. I felt a catharsis when the other team got savagely beaten.

I don't think I was supposed to be rooting for fatal violence. Unless I missed the point, I think I was supposed to be repelled and saddened by it. 

So I learned from this film that violence is really fun, and completely justifiable, and I wish there really was such a game as rollerball.

Well, if the film is not much good at making any point, it is a good sports flick. I would pay to watch Rollerball be played (with a few modifications, of course. I don't really want to see fatal violence, but I'd love the game with NFL-level violence.). I would play the game myself if I were young enough. For now, though, I think I'll stick with shuffleboard.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterboxed, 1.85:1. An excellent transfer!

  • Full-length director commentary

  • Making-of featurette and director interview

I'm not the only one who thought Rollerball was a cool game. The stuntmen and actors loved the game so much that they played it for real when the cameras weren't rolling, and they got so involved in the scripted scenes that they sometimes got carried away with their competitive instincts and forgot the script!

The film was based on a very short story called "The Rollerball Murders", which was one story in an anthology of the same name, for which author Bill Harrison was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Here's a tip for you youngsters - locate your future scripts WAY in the future. I suppose it might have seemed possible in 1975 that 2018 might be as it is pictured here, but it is now obvious that it could not be, and some of the science now seems laughable and quaint. Everything would have made perfect sense if it was simply placed in 2409, or some distant date. 

The Critics Vote

  • Maltin 2.5/4

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.2. 
  • With their dollars ... it grossed $30 million, which was very solid in 1975, about equal to $80 million today.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C- or a D as a S/F movie, but a solid C+ as a sports movie.

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