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Rollerball





Director: Norman Jewison
Starring: James Caan (Jonathan E.), John Houseman (Bartholomew), Maud Adams (Elk) John Beck (II) (Moonpie)



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Rollerball (1975)
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"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 " graceful" exit.

Jonathan E:            (quietly)  The team ... they depend on me.

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 decisions

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 fate.

"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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