Rollerball (1975)

Ideas and hunks: now that's my shit!
Norman Jewison
James Caan, John Beck, John Houseman, Maud Adams, Pamela Hensley
The Setup: 
Star or brutal roller-game is asked to retire, but refuses.

I watched this for the first time a little while before starting this site, and was totally into it. It also introduced me to the startling hunkitude of the alluring John Beck. So when I saw a used DVD for $5, I was all over that shit.

This movie, while ultimately kind of ludicrous, provided me with EXACTLY that kind of 70s sci-fi oh-this-is-so-serious tone that I just adore. Come now, just look at the type face of the opening credit below, and tell me if it doesn’t get across everything you need to know:

The movie opens with that Bach organ music you’ve heard 34 million times used ever-so-dramatically over the slowly introduced rollerball court. This is essentially a giant wooden roulette wheel that guys roller-skate around, occasionally speeding themselves up with the use of motorcycles. A ball is shot out at them, and they pick it up, and like football, have to avoid the opposing team trying to tackle them while they try to throw it into these little goal-holes. So the teams all file out in quite dramatic footage, then everyone has to stand for “our corporate anthem,” which I was disappointed to hear is completely instrumental. Then they play the game, which involves much brutality, to the delight of the rabid crowd. We can see from the start that our heroes Caan and Beck are among the most brutal players. They play for the Houston team, and apparently win the first game.

There is an after-game locker room scene in which John Houseman, as the corporate bigwig, congratulates Caan, and says everyone [including himself] wants to be him and bash other guys’ faces in. After the game, Caan is invited to meet with him in what is apparently the crystal room, where Houseman says the corporation wants Caan to retire from the sport. “Corporate society takes care of everyone,” he says. “All it asks of anyone—all it has ever asked of anyone—is not to interfere in management decisions.” Caan refuses, and Houseman is annoyed.

Caan goes home, where he finds that his girlfriend has been asked to move on, but hasn’t left. It seems that the corporation supplies female companionship to its executives and athletes, and Caan’s is being replaced. It seems that an executive wanted her, so he had her transferred. This woman is played by Maud Adams, and I was looking forward to that, seeing how I loved her in Days of Heaven, but I kept thinking “WHERE is she? Is that HER? It couldn’t be…” before it occurred to me that I was thinking about BROOKE Adams. Maud Adam’s was a two-time Bond girl whose resume isn’t notable for much else.

After some yakking about how Caan can’t understand why he’s been asked to leave, he and Beck take to the library in their fetching off-white jumpsuits, open to showcase their alluringly hairy chests, and tight in just the right places. WHY can’t guys dress like this anymore? Hi, am I supposed to get turned on by gangly, unwashed hipsters wearing loose clothes that make them look like a pile of dirty laundry? Okay, whatever. At the library they are informed by the irrepressibly smiley and perky librarian that there are no actual books available, and what is available has been “transcribed” by the computer. One of the good aspects of the movie is that it doesn’t spell out that the books are probably edited and rewritten as they are transcribed, and just leaves you to think this on your own. In here we also see that this movie was so early they couldn’t even do a computer screen, and had to PROJECT words [in like 78-point type] onto a translucent screen. I LOVE stuff like that.

When Caan returns home he watches footage of his previous girlfriend [on a DVD… SO prescient!], until he sees that a new girlfriend, Daphne, has been installed in his house. Then there’s some training for their upcoming match with the Japanese team, who they are warned are quite proficient in some sneaky moves, but Beck pointedly refuses to listen to any of the training, assuring the team that all they have to do is “be mean.” I hope you don’t think there’s any ominous foreshadowing happening here.

Now follows what is probably the best sequence of the film. The corporation throws a “retirement party” for Caan, even though he has never said he is retiring. There is an abundance of fabulous future-70s swingin’ party footage, complete with amazing outfits, people dancing by touching fingertips and funky 70s music [if you showed just this part to someone they would never guess it was from a sci-fi film], and the party organizer tries to get everyone to sit down and watch Caan’s most brutal moments. Later, Caan upstairs being intimidated by Houseman [again] into quitting is intercut with the partygoers gleefully blowing up trees and watching them burn.

So, on to the Japanese game. We see the nefarious Japanese sizing up the Americans, including a shot of one of them staring at Caan, which is immediately followed by a shot of Caan’s crotch [below]. The game is indeed brutal, with people getting killed and disabled all over the place. In the booklet accompanying the disc, Jewison says “there’s not one piece of gratuitous violence in the film,” which, while I know what he means about the violence being there for a larger purpose, there are individual shots [like a guy getting shot directly in the head with the steel ball or a man quite improbably set on fire in the ring] that could have been excised without detracting from the overall point. Anyway, Beck’s neck is broken, and he is carried off the field. Caan goes for the acting gold in a scene where he was to maintain his stoic game face as his unconscious best friend is being attended to a few feet away.

Turns out Beck is brain dead. He still looks DARN fetching as a vegetable, which had me wondering if I would be happy to have a vegetative John Beck on my house. Ultimately I decided no, I would want him alive and barking things like “Get me a beer, cocksucker!” every now and then, though I suppose one could program in a number of sayings that he could say upon squeezing his hand or something.

Soon after Caan visits a computer that is comprised of a bunch of tubes with bubbles slowly rising, illuminated by colored lights, which is admirably simple and yet SO effective. I love old, ingenious solutions like this, which make you say “Oh, I see how they did that, and it still kind of works!” or “I have no idea how they did that, how did they do that?” as opposed to the boring old “oh, they did it on a computer” that we have today. Anyway, soon after we find out the answer to the burning question, WHY did they ask Caan to leave the game? “The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort,” says Houseman, as he gets permission from the corporate board to waste Caan once and for all. Please save any questions about how senseless this is until after the film is over. I thank you in advance for your compliance.

Then there’s the big final round, which is more brutal than any we have seen before. The crowd is going nuts, and people are being killed left and right. Caan kills a man right in front of Houseman, and eventually everyone but Caan is dead. Near the end the crowd has stopped screaming for the violence, which we are to understand signifies that they are sick of the brutality. Caan skates a few times around the ring by himself, with the crowd chanting his name, and we [and Houseman] are to understand that he’s become bigger than the game, and an unstoppable force. Jump cut—and the end.

Overall I was totally into it, though it does have a few problems. Chief among these is: why don’t they just fire him? If they want him to retire and they’re in charge, why don’t they just tell the world he retired and leave it at that? And the nature of the threat that Caan represents to corporate society is never really explained. I get that in a vague sense his talent in the game argues for individual talent but… so? Is there any real danger that something specific is going to result from this? And the whole concept that the game was created to “demonstrate the futility of individual effort…” well, isn’t that almost antithetical to almost any form of sport? All sports necessarily have some who are better at it and some who are worse… so it just seems like a bad idea to attach your anti-individualist stance to something like that. These complaints are fairly minor, but unfortunately they are the foundation on which the entire movie rests, which is why I think it seems to lose focus toward the end and just seems to peter out. Caan never explicitly finds out the reason he has been asked to retire, ostensibly the mystery that moves the plot, and the final match seems doesn’t seem to resolve much of anything, and then the movie just ends.

What’s really good about the movie, interestingly, is not related to the primary point. What I found most powerful was the convincing vision of a society that has buffed any kind of rough edge off of its psychology. The men and women here seem convincingly brain-dead, and are uninterested in learning more about anything. This is especially true of the women, who here are mostly vacuous smile-machines who live for the pleasure of men. You might say that this is decidedly NON-prescient of the movie, but then again, I couldn’t have predicted in 1975 that by now women would be appearing half-naked on the cover of Maxim or its ilk and calling that “empowerment,” or women in their 30’s being considered “old,” or our general disregard of any woman who isn’t “sexy.” So the kind of vision of women’s place seemed, if not wholly accurate, very interesting to me. And then the whole aspect of society getting excited over the violence of the game, as well as the partygoers going out to destroy the trees for fun… it all seemed quite interesting and compelling. Like I said, this film ultimately comes off as a lot more science-fiction than I remembered it being.

Let it also be mentioned that viewers of my persuasion and tastes will have a lot of man-candy to feast their eyes on during the proceedings. You have the handsome Caan, who is always in some kind of sexy outfit with his chest hair showing when not outright shirtless, as well as the gorgeous John Beck, with his blue eyes, mustache and hairy chest. They dress in those nice snug off-white jumpsuits, that are hot, and they both play confident, sexy characters as well. John Beck also appears in the rather horrid Audrey Rose, where he looks good, but never takes his shirt off, and his character just isn’t that sexy. Anyway, it’s nice when a movie is engaging in itself, and always a bonus when the people in it are hot! Oh, and one other thing: the game of rollerball has clear rules and seems completely convincing as a real game, so that helps the whole matter as well. I must also mention that this film features Pamela Hensley, also known as Priness Ardala from the old Buck Rogers TV show!

I was not more than halfway through this before I thought: I have to see the 2002 remake NNNOOOWWW!!! I know it’s going to be terrible, I know it’s going to take out all the satire and leave in all the violence, thus reinforcing the first version’s criticism while rendering its own existence pointless, but ALL THE BETTER! It’s fun enough to watch and compare remakes, it’s even more fun when they completely miss everything the first one was about! And the disc is on it’s way to my house right now! I am so, so psyched about all this.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! Especially if you love cautionary science-fiction that is all serious and dark while not making very much sense at all.

ROLLERBALL [2002] is the shitty, low-rent remake that completely misses the point of this one.