Starring: James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck, Moses Gunn
“Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks of anyone, all it’s ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions.” (Mr Bartholomew, Rollerball)
The best futuristic movies are those grounded in reality, the ones that aren’t just flying cars and laser guns but actually feel like they really could happen in the years to come.
Although some elements of Rollerball may not fall under this category – I don’t see a sport in which deaths are considered acceptable coming any time soon – so much of it feels remarkably spot on 40 years after its release.
Set in 2018, it stars James Caan as Jonathan E, a veteran player of Rollerball – a sport that combines roller derby, handball, speedway and kicking fuck out of people.
Because of his numerous years on top, Jonathan is considered the most famous Rollerball player ever, and to celebrate the Energy Corporation (who sponsor the Houston team he plays for) want to run a TV special about him.
This is a big deal. You see, in the future, the world is no longer split into different countries, but is one single global corporate state comprising of six monopolistic mega-corporations that run entire business sectors: energy, transportation, communication, housing, food and luxury.
There’s just one catch. On this celebratory TV special, the Energy Corporation wants Jonathan to retire.
No explanation is given for this: all Jonathan is told is that he can expect an extremely generous retirement package and that he should bear in mind the importance of respecting the decisions of the corporations.
Jonathan isn’t having any of it, so the corporations try to up their game to force him into retirement, or worse.
As he leads Houston through each round of the Rollerball tournament, the rules are continually tweaked to make it more dangerous: fewer penalties and substitutions become the order of the day, and multiple deaths per match become the norm.
Will Jonathan bow to the corporations’ will and retire gracefully, or will he continue to defy them and lead Houston to the final (and potentially death)? Guess.
Everything about Rollerball is fantastic. The set and costume designs are brilliant examples of that typical ‘70s sci-fi style, both futuristic and archaic at the same time.
The performances are fantastic throughout, from Caan’s increasingly rebellious attitude to the evil chairman of the Energy Corporation (played by John Houseman) as he becomes ever more frustrated and desperate to stop him.
It’s also obviously a brilliant commentary on the nature of corporations and their desire to control and restrain every element of society, a theme that only gets more relevant with every passing year.
Once you discover the reason why the corporation wants Jonathan to retire, you realise just how perfectly it continues to fit in with today’s culture and the way celebrities are built up by large media organisations then cut down when they start getting ‘too’ popular.
I am but a shallow man, however, and at this point you may be worried that I’m starting to get a little deeper than That Was A Bit Mental is usually accustomed to.
Take solace, then, in the fact that the main reason I love this film is because all the action bits are bloody good fun.
Considering it’s presenting a brand new sport to you – one with motorbikes and rollerskates and curved arenas and loads of other weird shite going on – its opening sequence does a sterling job of quickly getting you accustomed to the rules.
By the time you’re watching the final match a mere hour and change later, you feel like a Rollerball expert who’s been watching it your entire life. Which is more than can be said for the bewildering remake (but more on that soon).
Its violence is also shockingly unflinching – considering this is long before the CG era it’s a miracle that nobody was seriously injured or killed while filming, given the countless stunts and harsh trips and falls you’ll see during the numerous matches.
You owe it to yourself to see Rollerball. It looks gorgeous, it’s got some legitimate social commentary that’s even more valid today than it was in the ‘70s, plus you get to see loads of people getting punched in the face.
And if those aren’t the three most important things in a film, I don’t know what are.
Rollerball’s rating earns it a place in the hallowed That Was A Bit Mental Hall Of Fame. Click here to see what else made the grade.
HOW CAN I SEE IT?
By far the best way to watch Rollerball in the UK is the Blu-ray release by Arrow Video. The picture quality is incredible and it’s packed with extra features philosophising about what it stands for. Alternatively, here’s the bare bones DVD. In the US, it’s DVD only.
SHOW ME THE TRAILER: