Empty Balcony: Rollerball (1975) & Rollerball (2002)

Alongside post-apocalyptic films, there exists another popular nihilistic genre of film — the dystopian tale. Civilization doesn’t have to have collapsed into a dense ball of suffering for the dystopian film to work. Rather, current mores and politics just need a little bit of tweaking and society becomes unrecognizable. Indeed, in some dystopian futures, it could be argued that humans are thriving. What is common in dystopian films is that some eroding of freedoms has occurred, brought on usually by technology, capitalism, communism, post-industrialism, or a conglomeration of every fear we have about the role of individuality in the future.

I think the best dystopian film ever made was George Lucas’s THX-1138. His nightmare vision was one of capitalism run so rampant that humans are reduced to stressed-out slaves whose only purpose in life is to be productive. It’s such a stark vision of the finality of capitalism that it looks more like North Korea on steroids than the Wall Street era we all know and loathe.

The two films I’m writing about today are also about control and ruthless profiteering, but approach the subject from a completely different direction — through the spectacle of roller derby!

Rollerball, from 1975, was directed by Norman Jewison from a screenplay by William Harrison, who was adapting his own short story. The film follows Jonathan E. (James Caan), the most popular rollerballer in the world. He’s the Michael Jordan, the Pelé, the Babe Ruth, the Michael Schumacher, of rollerball. And what is rollerball?

Rollerball is an adaptation of roller derby, with a number of tweaks that make it more violent. The game is played on a circular, banked track. Players on rollerskates, and motorcycles(!), attempt to score goals by throwing a grapefruit-sized metal ball into a magnetic trap. The sport is full contact, with players regularly pounding each other into the wood.

The opening sequence of the film is a condensed version of a single game. As the players are introduced, the crowd begins chanting for Jonathan. We see the violence and the spectacle; see the gameplay of this sport that the filmmakers realized so well. This long opening segment is wonderful for establishing Jonathan E’s bona fides, and in helping the audience grasp a sport that is unfamiliar to all of us.

Jonathan E. may be a star, but that doesn’t sit well with everyone. The world of Rollerball is one dominated by corporate conglomerates. World governments have collapsed and corporations have stepped in to fill the void. But, personal freedoms seem to be largely non-existent. There doesn’t even seem to be such a thing as free citizens. Jonathan plays for the Houston rollerball team, which is owned by the Energy Corporation. Everyone in the area appears to be an employee of Energy Corporation, which, in this film, makes everyone the property of Energy Corporation.

Rollerball is a game designed by the corporations to be a violent distraction for the masses of humanity. It was never meant to be a sport that could produce heroes. But that is exactly what Jonathan has become. Worried that Jonathan is becoming too popular, the mysterious executives who run the conglomerates have decided that Jonathan must retire, but Jonathan is not game. They pressure him, but he does not relent. They change the rules of the game, making it more and more violent, but still he refuses to quit.

Why he does so is uncertain. But there are clues. Despite Jonathan’s success, and the riches that come with it, he is a man who is unsettled by the lack of control he has over his life. He is aware, even though he has never known life before the conglomerates, that what the corporations demand of him and others is not right. His act of rebellion at the tail end of his career is the only way he knows to express his dissatisfaction with the current world order. It’s more than just about not being willing to quit playing rollerball.

Caan, for his part, plays Jonathan as quiet and restrained outside of the rollerball arena. It appears he was going for a lack of intelligence on Jonathan’s part, but instead it makes him look more like an introvert. It’s a little hard for him to pull off convincingly — sort of like if a film had Dwayne Johnson playing a watchmaker. Caan comes into his own in the arena, where his natural demeanor of violence and aggression fits much better into the script. I like how the character is more restrained while in his regular life, but it was a little too much heavy lifting for Caan. Still, he plays a fine Jonathan.

John Houseman, he of the most wonderful upper class accent, plays Jonathan’s boss Mr. Bartholomew, the chairman of the Energy Corporation. Houseman is ruthless — exactly the type of person one would expect to thrive in a worldwide corporate conglomerate. He spends much of the film in the stands of the rollerball arena looking grim, but when he has dialogue he nails it. His locker room speech after the conclusion of the opening rollerball game is every bit as good as any locker room speech ever given in a sports film. I salute both Harrison and Houseman for this sequence.

The stakes for Jonathan and Mr. Bartholomew continue to grow throughout the film, leading to denouement in the championship game that closes out the film.

Rollerball is an incredibly dated film, and that hurts it. I first saw it in the mid-1980s, with the film barely a decade old, and it was already dated then. The costumes have a ready home in 1975, and never try, at all, to be a vision of the future. Jewison, for his part, embraced his inner Kubrick with the film, choosing modernist exterior locations to convey the future setting. He also went heavy with the classical music. It’s kind of interesting how the film can whipsaw back and forth from disco culture to Bauhaus.

Despite how dated it is, Rollerball is a very good film, and I recommend it.

Rollerball, the remake from 2002, however, is not so good. It’s not that screenwriters Larry Ferguson and John Pogue, and director John McTiernan, didn’t have good ideas — they did — it’s just that this remake’s intentions as a film didn’t have much to do with quality.

Rather than a future corporate world-state, Rollerball from 2002 takes place mostly in Central Asian states in contemporary times. The premise is that former Spetsnaz operator and KGB agent Alexi Petrovich (Jean Reno) has created a brand new sport. It has taken over the airwaves of Central Asia, and Petrovich has his eye on a North American cable deal. This version of rollerball isn’t about distracting the corporate slaves from their drudgery, although there is a built-in blue-collar constituency in the form of Kazakh miners. Instead, this is about oligarchy.

Chris Klein plays Jonathan Cross, an extreme sports slacker with dreams of playing pro hockey, who decides to take an offer to play rollerball on the other side of the world. His introduction to audiences plays like a Mountain Dew commercial, failing to either show his significance in the rollerball world, or explain to audiences how the game works. In fact, we don’t get a game of rollerball until later.

When we do finally see the game, it’s a much less realized sport than viewers got in the original. There was a plausibility to rollerball, the game, as presented in the first film. Think about it too much and it’s easy to see how the real game would differ from the film version, but it still felt like a sport. In the remake, rollerball is a costume party, more kin to the fight scenes in a Joel Schumacher Batman film than to a sport. This creates a gulf in believability that makes it hard to take anything in this movie seriously. It’s a jumble of flashy visuals and acrobatics, at times descending into visual confusion at its most frenetic points. And yet, it lacks sophistication. Despite all the shit flashing by on screen during the rollerball games, it feels like little is actually happening.

In this film, Petrovich doesn’t want Jonathan to retire. No way. He needs Jonathan to help secure the cable deal. But, Petrovich is a gangster. It takes a while for Jonathan to wake up to the reality of his association with Petrovich, but when he does, he, and his buddy Marcus (a superfluous LL Cool J), try to flee.

The plot of this film is just fine. The ideas behind it are the equal of the original film. But the overall film lacks most of the sophistication of the original, and most of the filmmaking skill, which is surprising coming from McTiernan. It really is a shitty film. As such, it gets a rating. Alien: Resurrection is a better film than the Rollerball remake.