Directed by Norman Jewison.
Starring James Caan, Maud Adams, John Houseman, John Beck, Moses Gunn, Burt Kwouk, Pamela Hensley and Ralph Richardson.
In the not-too-distant future the corporations control everything, and when they tell top sportsman James Caan he can’t play the game of rollerball anymore he decides to challenge the controlling bodies.
Do you remember the old Bitmap Brothers computer games Speedball and Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe? For those that don’t they were a pair of games where the idea was to get the ball in the opponent’s goal using a variety of throws, rolls and casual violence as you kick, punch and barge as many other players as you can. Great games and they would have made a great film, if only one hadn’t been made over a decade earlier in the shape of Rollerball, a dark sci-fi thriller that has loftier ambitions than being just mere exploitation action.
Based around the sport of rollerball (or just The Game, as it is referred to in the film), where players roller-skate around a circular arena to try to place the ball in a hole in the wall, James Caan (The Godfather/Thief) stars as Jonathan E, the star player for the Houston rollerball team in a dystopian world where the mega-corporations control everything, even down to who you marry and how long you stay together before you get moved on or your partner replaced. Having been at the top of his game for 10 years Jonathan is asked by his corporate boss Bartholomew (John Houseman – The Fog) to retire and go to live on his ranch in corporate-paid luxury, but Jonathan doesn’t want to retire and begins to question why this decision has been made, forcing him to rebel against his superiors and force his way to the top to find the answers.
As with a lot of 1970s American cinema Rollerball is bursting at the seams with communist metaphors and the idea of an individual fighting for the right to free will, so anybody coming to this film expecting a balls-out action spectacular may be slightly disappointed by the socio-political commentary that is at the forefront. But all of the great sci-fi movies – or at least all of the great pre-Star Wars sci-fi movies – are metaphors for other things and that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them on an entertainment level, and Rollerball is as entertaining as it is socially conscious thanks to a solid cast and strong lead performance from James Caan, who never goes down the sensational superhero route but keeps his part to simply being a man who just wants to know why.
With obvious thematic comparisons to The Last Man on Earth and A Clockwork Orange, Rollerball does have its fair share of violence as there are some spectacularly shot action sequences in the rollerball arena. The violence itself may look a little tame compared to what we get nowadays but it doesn’t need to get too bloody to make an impact, and the fact that a leading man like James Caan is relishing being in the thick of it amongst all of the carnage adds to the overall feel of realism. The set design and the 1970’s idea of the future may have dated but it still looks fantastic, especially now it is in a pretty impressive HD print, and there are plenty of extras to delve into, including a brand new interview with James Caan and featurettes on the stuntwork involved. Overall, an interesting film with lots of appeal but maybe not for the obvious reasons.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★