Science fiction is a nebulous thing. It can be heavily futuristic, or it can take place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Or sometimes, it can take place just barely in the future, giving the audience a glimpse of almost an alternate timeline of history. It is one of these worlds in which 1975’s Rollerball takes place.
Rollerball is set in a world in which the most popular global sport is one where the players wear roller skates and fly around a circular track, either by their own power or being pulled by a motorcycle. The object of the game is to throw a heavy metal ball into a magnetic goal, thus scoring a point. Of course, the other team will do anything to stop that from happening. It’s an incredibly brutal and violent sport, and the fans eat it up. The biggest star in the game is a man named Jonathan E. (James Caan from Misery and Thief), who captains the Houston Team along with his best friend, Moonpie (Audrey Rose’s John Beck).
Behind the scenes, the entire world is run by corporations who sponsor the Rollerball teams, the Houston Team being owned by The Energy Corporation. The chairman of The Energy Corporation, a fat cat named Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman from The Fog and Ghost Story), feels threatened by Jonathan’s growing popularity and pressures the superstar to retire. When Jonathan pushes back, the rules to the game suddenly and conveniently change, making the contests more dangerous in an effort to force him out another way.
Rollerball was directed by Norman Jewison (Jesus Christ Superstar, The Thomas Crown Affair) from a script by William Harrison (Mountains of the Moon). It’s pretty much a tale of two movies, with the exciting, action-filled Rollerball games being the big draw, and the wordy, dramatic lulls serving to let the audience come up for air. It’s an added (and eerie) bonus that the backstory about corporations ruling the world is more prescient today that ever. There’s even a scene in which a bunch of rich people blow up and burn down trees just for the fun of it. Similar to other just-futuristic movies like 1984 or The Warriors, there’s a very realistic dystopia at work within Rollerball.
Most of the non-subtle horror in Rollerball comes during the games. Three matches are shown, with stakes being raised between each one. The opening game shows Houston easily battling Madrid, with plenty of rules and regulations in play. The next is Houston against Tokyo, with no penalties and limited substitutions. Finally, Houston goes up against New York, with no penalties, no substitutions, and no time limit – as one character half-sarcastically points out, they play until everyone’s dead. And of course, by the end, the scoring is secondary, and the object of the game is the carnage. The medical triage team can’t even get the bodies off the track without being run down themselves.
For a movie about a made-up sport, Rollerball is surprisingly rousing. As is the case with most sports movies, the actual athletic competitions are what deliver the most excitement. The sport of Rollerball is a combination of roller derby, street bike racing, and basketball, so it’s both fast paced and incredibly violent. During the games, cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (who shot movies like Scream of Fear and The Fearless Vampire Killers, but is best known for his work on the Indiana Jones movies) puts his camera right on the track with the players, dollying and swerving, panning and tilting to give the viewer the actual experience of being in the middle of a Rollerball match. Thanks to Slocombe’s fluid photography and Caan’s audience-winning performance, Rollerball is right up there with Miracle, Rocky, and, uh, Real Steel as one of the greatest sports movies of all time.
There is no credited musical composer for Rollerball, but André Previn (Dead Ringer, Bad Day at Black Rock) wrote a handful of pieces for the film, and a few cues from Dmitri Shostakovich (Byzantium, The Lobster) are used as well. The rest of the soundtrack is made up of classical standards from the likes of Bach and Tchaikovsky recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra (and conducted by Previn). The music clearly illustrates the class struggle motif of the film; the string quartet and orchestra pieces drive home the wealth and culture of the bourgeoisie, while the pipe organ-based themes get to the heart of the blue collar sporting event vibe. It’s a perfect dichotomy of sounds for a divisive movie like Rollerball.
Science fiction movies don’t have to be futuristic to be effective. They just have to show the audience a view of the world that is slightly skewed by some factor like technology or politics. Rollerball is an excellent example of this. It’s also a great action sports flick for those viewers who don’t want to be bothered with any deep subtext or heavy analogy.