"All branches of knowledge, which continue to develop
at the thought of the spectacle, have to justify a society without
justification, and constitute a general science of false
consciousness. This thought is completely conditioned by the fact
that it cannot and will not investigate its own material basis in
the spectacular system."
(Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle)
As with cinema, science fiction reflects what is uppermost in the
contemporary consciousness. Its mood is drawn from the headlines
of the moment past, the images that have flashed across the
writer's vision and been juggled into a confetti of fantasies
and conjectures before being cast out in the form of words and
visuals. The experiences of the past are controllable, available
for manipulation, in contrast to the future which is an area of the
"uncontrollable", rushing upon us with new unimagined
possibilities or feared and long-avoided events, accidents,
oblivions. Science fiction seeks to anticipate the unknown, to
shape a future vision from a changed and "improved"
present (discovering in the process that improvements are not
necessarily for the better, nor "utopian" progress the
ideal form of existence). And if perfection is constantly elusive,
since few people can agree on what is perfect and what isn't,
science fiction most frequently signals directions by describing a
society in transition and conflict - a society not dissimilar
from any you may think of that exists in the World today.
In Norman Jewison's Rollerball (1975) based on William
Harrison's hypnotic short story, it is the year 2018 and the
World is at peace. There is no crime and there are no more wars.
Corporations now control the globe. Divided into several zones
controlled by different companies working together in mutual
co-operation. Dissent has been eliminated. An ultra-violent
hyper-game termed Rollerball is now the premier sport.
Rollerball forms an elaborate thesis on social control and
violence constructed around a clever symmetry of dystopian
visions. The atmosphere is suffused with diverse strands of
conspiracy theory. The thematic structure of the film describes
how the social order imposed by the contemporary global economy
maintains, perpetuates, and expands its influence through the
manipulation of representations. No longer relying on force or
scientific economies the status quo of social relations is (as
described by Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle)
"mediated by images".
The principle narrative in Rollerball revolves around the
consequences that result when a strong individual clashes with a
powerful establishment. The central figure - a modern
gladiator, Jonathan E (James Caan) is a hero in a definitive sense:
a Nietzschean "metal-man" - indomitable, unbreakable.
Even against the chilling uber-executive Mr Bartholomew (John
Houseman) Jonathan is resolute. The story mechanics concern a
boardroom decision that Jonathan has grown too popular and must
retire. Jonathan superstar of Rollerball and veteran of ten
seasons with the Houston team is summonsed by Area Executive
Bartholomew who is intent upon engineering the stars "
Jonathan E: (quietly) The team ... they depend on
Bartholomew: (softly) Let's think this through together.
You know how the game serves us. It has a definite social function.
The nations are bankrupt ... we don't have their tribal
warfare any more ... even the corporate wars are a thing of
the past. So now we have the Majors: Transport, Food,
Communications, Housing, Luxury, Energy ... a few of us making
decisions on a global basis for the common good ... corporate
society takes care of everything. All it asks - all it has ever
asked - is for anyone not to interfere with management
It seems that Jonathan's continued tenure as a Rollerball
champion is defeating the very purpose of the game, which is
designed to illustrate that all players (and by inference the
general populace) are an interchangeable component of a mass
conformity which characterizes the globalized brave new World.
Norman Jewison designed Rollerball as an anti-violence
statement. By constructing the game central to the film to be as
brutal and nihilistic as possible, he hoped audiences would share
his distaste for the "mayhem as mass entertainment"
that has become the dominant feature of contemporary sport. In
this respect, he failed. The three separate Rollerball games
depicted - Houston vs Madrid, Houston vs Tokyo and Houston vs
New York - are distinctly the most compelling and incendiary
sections of the film and the reason Rollerball remains a
cult favourite today.
The Rollerball game as a sport combines roller derby, motor-cross,
grid-iron football and Ice-hockey. The players skate inside a
bowl/arena using motor cycles and towing rigs in order to maintain
speed. Helmets, skates, padding, spiked mittens and weapons are
included in the equipment. The "object" of the contest
is to maintain possession of a silver hand-sized metallic ball,
which is initially fired into the course at high speed, and carry
it eventually scoring by dropping it into an illuminated aperture
in the upper perimeter. The strategy is similar to American
football, the speed and blocking ice hockey but the origin derives
from an ancient Mayan ball court-game where opponents compete with
their lives to punch a ball through an elevated stone ring.
In the arrangement of shot-construction Rollerball divides
neatly to emphasize its thesis. The exterior scenes appear in
primary long-shot form with muted colour tones (white/grey) and a
subdued sound-scape, manifesting a frozen stillness. In contrast
the game-sequences are vehement and dynamic. High impact editing
is enforced by the vibrant red and black colouration. The sound
now conjures with images of animalistic conflict.
The Corporation's executives' determination to
terminate the popular champion leads to an adaptation of rules in
each game, making them progressively more extreme. The strategy
ultimately fails and in the final game, where rules have been
dispensed with completely and where the teams play until one or the
other is comprehensively destroyed, Jonathan E is the sole
survivor, triumphantly slamming the ball in the opponents goal.
Jonathan triumphs, at least temporarily, but we never learn his
"In the future there will be no war.
There will only be Rollerball"
The actions of governments interpreted on the screen customarily
insist that bureaucracy is built upon multiple mistakes and
cover-ups, violently administered. The symbolic aliens are
frequently replaced by a savage authoritarian regime trampling on
freedom. (Alphaville - Godard (1965)) -
Farenheit 451 - Truffaut (1966) - Soylent
Green (1973) - THX 1138 George Lucas
1965)). The standard was established by John Frankenheimer and
George Axelrod creators of The Manchurian Candidate
(1962). Rollerball demonstrates the dangers of corporate
domination. All literature/information is
collected/"summarised" or effectively sterilized.
Corporations become the enemy of freedom. Jonathan E doesn't
accept the order he receives to retire. Everywhere he searches for
an answer to the question "why", he meets a wall of
silence. This defiance creates conflict ultimately played out in
the Rollerball arena.
Violent and frightening, but always true to its subject,
Rollerball is a visionary portrait of the brutal,
authoritarian and overlit future that beckons ever more powerfully
from the basis of the present techno-corporate landscape.
Reviewed by Adrian Gargett
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