Retro Film Review: Rollerball (1975)

in #aaa2 months ago


For most of 20th Century, science fiction films, especially those coming from Hollywood, were usually seen as a sorry excuse for infantile escapism. Today science fiction films are seen as a sorry excuse for display of CGI. In between those two eras there was a brief but glorious period when Hollywood science fiction films tried to be the medium for some important messages about the world and its future. Unsurprisingly, this period corresponds with the era which is today referenced as the last Golden Age of Hollywood. Many classics of science fiction cinema were made then, and one of them is Rollerball, directed in 1975 by Norman Jewison.

The plot of the film, based on the short story by William Harrison, is set in the year 2018. The world is controlled by small number of large corporations that have apparently managed to end wars and poverty. Masses are held in check through drugs and mass media, but the most popular form of entertainment is rollerball - incredibly violent sport in which players can get killed. Rollerball, which happens to satisfy violent impulses of the masses, is immensely popular and the most popular athlete is Jonathan E (played by James Caan), the veteran star of Houston team. Bartholomew (played by John Houseman), powerful executive of the corporation that controls Houston team, thinks that Jonathan became too popular and wants him to announce his retirement. Jonathan feels that his team mates can't survive in the arena without him and rejects Bartholomew's order. When attempts to change Jonathan's mind fail, Bartholomew and people around him take different course of action -they arrange the rules to be changed in order to make the game even more violent and Jonathan more likely to die in the arena.

Most futuristic films don't age well, mostly due to film-makers' lack of imagination and resources to portray brave new worlds realistically. Many futuristic films, regardless of how film-makers try to hide that, are reflections of the time in which they were made. And even worse things can happen to the films when the future they represented becomes present day for contemporary audiences. Rollerball didn't reach that point yet, but it could be argued that at least some elements of the film universe aren't that different from the world we live in.

The very fact that the makers of Rollerball didn't have resources to completely create a brave new world was the film's biggest advantage. Without special effects and immense budgets, Jewison and his team had to use simpler but more effective methods. The very beginning of the film illustrates that point. Instead of trying to speculate about the pop music people of early 21st Century would listen to, film-makers chose to use accompany the film with classic music. This gave Rollerball the element of timelessness.

Another thing that makes Rollerball as compelling to us now as it was quarter of century ago is the game of rollerball. Jewison, left without CGI or any neat tricks, used old-fashioned but effective way to portray it - his team has built the rollerball arena and let the stuntmen work. The rules of the game were improvised during the shooting. The result is a series of three brutal and magnificent scenes that would captivate even those audiences who don't care much about important messages.

The world that created such game is portrayed with equal skill. Jewison, just like many creators of 1970s science fiction films, used contemporary yet futuristic-looking architecture. He was also very careful in showing only those elements of the future world that couldn't belong into 1970s. For example, there aren't any cars in the film. Even the costumes and make-up, which indeed look like they were made in 1970s, wouldn't mean much to viewers who don't remember 1970s. Jewison also makes clever choice of showing only the top classes of future society - executives (who happen to dress more or less like modern executive do) and top athletes (who are mostly in their sports outfits). The plot takes place either in cold futuristic offices or in private homes of wealthy and influential people where retro look can be taken as a sign of someone's refined taste.

On the surface, world of Rollerball looks perfect - people live in luxury, women are beautiful, wars and crime don't exist and everyone can reach instant happiness through drugs. But this outward utopia hides the unpleasant truth the protagonist finally reveals - that the price of happiness was the loss of freedom and individuality. Books are purged or "simplified", while average citizen can't find basic data about world's recent history. And, which is even more disturbing, the very people who run this brave new world are either incompetent or prone to very human failings they were supposed to prevent.

Some of the films' most criticised scenes actually illustrate that point. In of those scenes Jewison offers vision of drugged-out party goers who indulge themselves in senseless orgy of destruction. Even more telling is the scene that seems like cheap science fiction cliche - Jonathan tries to find some answers by visiting world's supercomputer that makes all important decision. All he finds is a mad scientist and obviously malfunctioning piece of incomprehensible technology.

Some elements of Rollerball can be found in our world. Although the number of nation-states has increased in past three decades, most of them are small and powerless against major corporations. Mass media is dominated by extreme sports and reality shows. Drugs – either illegal or their legal substitutes – are aggressively promoted as an escapist panacea to millions. And individuals, like Jonathan E, have few chances of beating the system.

Because of its ability to withstand the test of time, Rollerball remains as one of the most powerful science fiction films ever made.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on October 21st 2004)

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Critic: AAA


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