Rollerball (1975)

Rollerball (1975), directed by Norman Jewison, written by William Harrison, starring James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck and Moses Gunn.

A blaring Toccata and Fugue plays ominously, as a dark rink gets illuminated. People walk around it, checking out that everything is in order. Referees and other game personnel get ready, while the audiences on location and at home gather to watch the only sports that matters: Rollerball.

Rollerball. A round rink, men on roller skates and motorbikes. A metal ball. High speed, action, danger, even deaths. Heroes for the people. All that you can ask for, delivered daily in a multivision format everywhere in the world.

Jonathen E is the ultimate hero of the game. He's the captain of the Houston team. A household name, whose name is chanted by the fans. And he's the man, the corporations begin to fear, as he's done something unexpected: he has gotten really good at the game.

See, the game itself is an illusion, a daydream for the masses. A dose of opiate keeping the public docile, while their individual rights keep slowly dissolving in the hands of the companies, that rule the world. There are no governments, no wars, no countries. There are just corporations, who provide and ask only a little bit of control in return.

But Jonathan E, he's an individual. Sure, he's a part of a team, but he has lasted long in a game, where no man was supposed to grow strong in. The sole purpose of the game was to show to the public the futility of individualism: without the team, a single person is nothing, only as a cog in the machine you amount to something. But Jonathan, he's not a cog, he's the machine. And that is what the corporations get afraid of: it's a lesson they want the world to forget, just like Zero, the main archivist computer forgets the whole of the 13th century.

Jonathan E
 The first moment Jonathan E figures something is wrong, when Bartholomew, a high ranking executive at the Energy Corporation informs him, that they want him to retire from the game. They have arranged a multivision program for him, as the only Rollerball player ever to receive the honour. The corporations have figured, that it would be a good opportunity to announce his departure from the game. But Jonathan doesn't bite. He loves the game and stubbornly keeps refusing. Even when he's bribed, he keeps refusing: he wants out on his own terms, not on someone else's whim.

  As Jonathan E must be removed from the equation by either willingly or by the game itself, the corporations alter the rules of the game. At first, they remove penalties. The match against Tokyo team turns into a combat zone, with causalities on both sides. Even Jonathan's closest teammate Moonpie is rendered in a vegetative state. This is the match which makes Jonathan see clearly, how much the higher-ups want him to leave the game. But that doesn't dissolve his resolve.

The Tokyo team doesn't like Moonpie
The corporations give and take away. We learn why Jonathan E has resentment towards the corporations: he was married once, but a corporation executive got his eye on his wife and wanted her for himself. So she was taken away and Jonathan was left only with a memory of love. And a steady stream of the corporation provided escorts.  In order to sway Jonathan more, they send back his wife, but at that point it's already too late, as by then it's not just about being stubborn, it's about Jonathan having realized, that he or anyone else is truly free, no matter what the official corporation fed news lines tell. Now it's just about sticking it to the man, showing the people that there can be change.

The final match begins with Jonathan skating to the rink. He knows, that this time around the game is rigged so, that he's likely to die in the arena. Silently he and the Houston team skate to face New York in a match, that has no limitations: no penalties and no time limit. It's only over when it's over. The game is a massacre.

In silence the executives and the audiences all over the world watch, how Jonathan E tackles the final, standing player of the New York team. The arena is littered with bodies and burning motorbike hunks. Slowly Jonathan skates to the goal and hits in the only point of the match. The game is over, as there's no one else left to oppose him. With a grim face, he begins to skate around the rink and people start to chant his name. Even those, who supported the rivalling team join the chant. Even some of the executives do. Jonathan E has risen above the game. He has turned into a symbol.

Executives standing for a corporate anthem
When you consider the premises of Rollerball, a sci-fi movie about a sport that feels a more than a bit impractical combining motorbikes, roller skates and high-speed metal balls, it's actually surprising how deep and thought-provoking the movie really is. The game itself is a framework really, as that's not really what the movie itself is about.

It's a retro-futuristic tale set in a world, where individualism has almost perished in the hands of corporations. It's an idea, that's more relevant today than it was when the movie originally came out, as more and more big corporations get their hands on peoples lives. More and more big corporations decide what information is provided. They own more and more in form of patents and trademarks. They want to own the resources of the world, even those which should come as free, like water. Corporations want everything to be a business, as that way they will have more power than the governments of the world have. By owning they will be in power, as the one who provides is the one who makes the rules.

Rollerball does end in a glimmer of hope though: it doesn't have to be so. It's not the provider who has to make the rules, it can be the individual as well. A free person has the right to make decisions of his own, even if those decisions would go in the grain of the establishment. And when one person realizes that, surely the others will follow.

I'm not a huge fan of sports movies in general, as I'm not really a huge sports guy. But Rollerball has always been one of my favourite movies, as it really is more than your typical underdog sports tale about rags to riches. It's a story about resolve and freedom. It's about how an individual can make a change, despite everyone around hims would be against it. And that, I think, is something we all could try to achieve from time to time.

On the side note, there's a terrible remake of Rollerball directed by John McTiernan out there. It's a movie that fully misses the point of the original and I kinda like to think it's the reason McTiernan was put in prison for.

If your version of Rollerball looks like this, someone has bamboozled you.