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Ladies and gentlemen, our corporate anthem.




There’s a particular cachet to ’70s-sprung dystopian futures. The engineered breakdown of the hippy dream left aesthetic and visionary despair that wouldn’t be plugged until the quasi-spiritual, junk-food sheen of Star Wars made everything seem alright again. Rollerball’s is quite a tricky dystopia too, in some respects. If it’s failing is that it doesn’t really interrogate the mechanics of its system, on the face of it, one has to conclude that most of its citizens appear to live comfortably and don’t have an awful lot to complain about; there’s no war, no unemployment, no poverty. Sure, it seems the Elite may demand a few chattels in a “Best not refuse” way, and the preferred global sport is brutal in the extreme, but isn’t that lack of total autonomy a small sacrifice?

Bartholomew: The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort. Let the game do its work. The Energy Corporation has done all it can. If a champion defeats the meaning for which the game was designed, then he must lose. I hope you agree with my reasoning.

The relative reasonability is Rollerball’s best card, certainly more so than the game itself; it’s violent, visceral, and superficially engaging, but I can’t for the life of me figure out the rules. It’s only comprehensible in relative terms, relative being another futuristic free for all in Salute of the Jugger. Unsurprisingly, coming in the streamlined ’80s, The Running Man’s televised killing and torture would at least be clearly motivated. 

Rollerball’s peer group were generally more overt in their themes. Logan’s Run (the following year) offered an apparently clean-cut utopia, but the downside was the particularly rude snuffing out of anyone over 30. Not for Norman Jewison and screenwriter William Harrison (adapting his short story Roller Ball Murder) the stark nihilism of THX 1138 or the suffocating eco-terror of Soylent Green. And while Jewison was clearly influenced – the modernist/brutalist architecture and classical music – by Kubrick, Rollerball lacks the acuteness of A Clockwork Orange’s “There’s something very wrong with society”: the only obvious thing wrong with it has been corralled into the global sport. 

Bread and circuses are mentioned, and characters do recline to eat, but the movie’s 2018 isn’t characterised by wars, totalitarian regimes, political strife or slavery – “Now everyone has all the comforts, you know that. No poverty, no sickness. No needs and many luxuries” – and, as such, its makers might be attempting to identify the game with something approaching soma, opium for the masses (we see an actual drug that appears to induce a degree of blithe euphoria, or perhaps amour, with surprisingly tasteful sense/empathy highs as dance partners become one through touching fingers and foreheads). 

The only trouble is that we’re privy to this society’s mechanics through one of the Elite, or near enough. Jonathan E (James Caan) may sound a little – surely intentionally – like Joseph K, and he may be bewildered by the plotting around him, but he is far from the little man. Just how this society functions in terms of the average joe is never made very clear. All we’re shown, aside from players and executives, are the women who service them. 

The most obvious example is Jonathan’s former wife Ella (Maud Adams), whom he believes was taken by an exec on a whim. She corrects him on this crutch – “It was the game, Johnny. I mean, it was so important to you. It was as if I wasn’t even there. The play, there was nothing else” – which is not to say his belief doesn’t carry a certain feudal truth, that the Elite do have that power. Also to be considered is simple practicality, however. The women in Jonathan’s immediate world – Mackie (Pamela Hensley), Daphne (Barbara Tentham) – evidently operate on a transactional basis, and for the sake of argument, we’ll assume this kind of escort is acting willingly; there is at least a woman on the executive board, so as otherwise one-sided as their presentation is, it doesn’t seem that this society is purpose built on inequality. That being the case, Ella may also have come from that transactional world. She certainly sees her life on a submissively practical level, to Jonathan’s ultimate disillusionment (“But comfort is freedom. It always has been”).

Bartholomew: Jonathan, let’s think this through together. You know how the game serves us. It has a definite social purpose. Nations are bankrupt, gone. None of that tribal warfare any more. Even the corporate wars are a thing of the past.

In that respect, Rollerball is offering a clear parallel with western-world comforts and distractions. The game may as well be any distracting mass-media enterprise coordinated by actual elite controllers. The extremes aren’t as entrenched in either direction, however (hence, no poverty, no nations). Is there full employment? It’s difficult to tell. What we undoubtedly have is the mantra that “Corporate society takes care of everything”. Globally. This is globalism at its most strident. Indeed, when you break it down, given all the details we don’t know, our firmest facts are that there were corporate wars, suggestive of classical capitalism/competition being shorn off at the roots. 

Bartholomew: Corporate society was an inevitable destiny, a material dream world. Everything man touched became attainable.

This left “the majors and their executives. Transport, food, communication, housing, luxury, energy. A few of us making decisions on a global basis for the common good”. So six sectors, production and supply designated on a city basis, and each country/ zone/ landmass presumably has its own five production centres: “Chicago’s still the Food City, but what about Indianapolis? Whatever happened to that town?” Which suggests towns that aren’t one of the five have inevitably expired because there’s no use for them, which in turn would logically suggest people (if they’re all employed in these sectors) are centred on megacities (except for the Elite and those treated like the Elite). But none of this is clarified. The function of the good citizen is simply to submit to the corporate structure. Whether or not this includes being productive (working) is left moot.

This begins to sound very much like the kind of thing the WEF has (had) in mind. When you add to that the stridently obfuscating attitude towards history, whereby it is either classified or negligently erased, the parallel seems even more apt. How better to engineer a transcultural, transnational, transgender society than by omitting/ rewriting/ revising the past? Rollerball offers a nod to the vagueness of our own official history, that it may not be the bedrock we have been led to believe, when Ralph Richardson’s librarian opines, of the computer erasing the thirteenth century, “Not much in the century – just Dante and a few corrupt popes. But it’s so distracting and annoying” (it’s interesting to have a bastion of acting in this kind of role – Richardson is utterly inimitable, and it’s amusing to see such contrasting performance styles as his and Caan’s sharing a scene – as it very much fits with Edward G Robinson and Peter Ustinov being called upon in Soylent Green and Logan’s Run respectively).

The WEF comparison also extends to other elements. Not so much the “You will own nothing and be happy” as stealth communism under the guise of corporate function (it does have “Economic” in its name, after all). The monolithic nature of Rollerball’s six-armed corporate behemoth, one that prizes the team above the individual – such that, when an individual arises, he must be quashed, in the name of that team – couldn’t be starker. This is eruditely explained in a post on the Moviechat (formerly IMDB) forum, where a response clarifies that, rather than a Plato-defined oligarchy, Rollerball offers a tyranny (“analogous to the Marxian dialectical progression of history”). 

Ostensibly, however, its emphasis on the individual’s freedoms is a neo-Marxist one (excepting that social equality always comes first in utilitarian terms). However, Jonathan’s objectives are really close to Randian, objectivist ones (most demonstrably, laissez-faire capitalism is extinct in this corporate global state). One might posit that a reason objectivism is generally unpopular among the establishment is that it disempowers statist notions in the polarising Hegelian sense (I should stress that I am less seeking to validate objectivism than emphasise the pervasive application of the Hegelian dialectic).

It might be argued that, in terms of the rigours of the system, the executive simply aren’t very canny. The game will inevitably foster the cult of personality since it allows individual identification. It’s a system that permits the concept of merit because the public can see the privilege of the players. Even the executive think that way, as Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman) admits in his pep talk: “You know what those executives dream about, out there behind their desks? They dream they’re great rollerballers. They dream they’re Jonathan. They have muscles. They bash in faces”. To underline this, his aide (Richard LeParmetier, Admiral Motti in Star Wars, of collar-tug fame) is openly cheering Jonathan during the final match.

Whether the crowd’s response signals the death knell of the system is open to debate. The exec may be afraid of him, but how motivated are the people, outside of arena antics? How many would simply concur with Ella, that “all they want is a kind of incidental control over just a part of our lives. They have control economically and politically, but they also provide”. It makes for an easier life. Or as Moonpie (John Beck) would say “What do you want books for, Johnny?” What Rollerball points to, by its absence, is more particularly a form of spiritual stagnation, more even than individual autonomy. The inclination and the permission to search or question or consider. It’s surely the most analogous aspect to our own society: once that has been syphoned off, anything else is surely fait accompli.

Bartholomew: Stupid game, after all. Awful game. You ought to be glad to be out of it.

The “horrible social spectacle” of the game – Bartholomew clearly doesn’t agree with the content of his pep talk – was echoed, rather disingenuously, in Jewison saying he was contacted by promoters who wanted rights to Rollerball; that is, the game itself (honestly, this sounds on the apocryphal side, but I guess, maybe). After all, didn’t he make the movie to illustrate the “sickness and insanity of contact sports and their allure”? It’s actually quite possible Jewison was that naïve, given some of his heart-on-sleeve efforts, but really, making an anti-sports movie that engages with the exhilaration of sport is as self-defeating as making an exciting anti-war movie (which 99 percent of them are). Of course the audience is going to respond enthusiastically, just as Jonathan declares “I love this game”, and a celebratory reel shows his most ferocious knockdowns of opponents in all their “glory”. I’d go as far as saying the movie doesn’t earn his disgust and restraint at the final moment, when he stops himself from killing the New York biker.

On the sport side then, one might reasonably argue Rollerball is a bit of a botch. And given the abundant opportunity, it’s perhaps surprising there’s no satirical edge here; the McTiernan remake was wholly awful, but one thing that might have made such a venture worthwhile would have been for a Verhoeven to tackle it with the gleeful evisceration seen in Starship Troopers and Robocop. 

Nevertheless, as a conspiracy movie, it delivers successfully; it’s a sly note that the point where the hero usually gets answers is entirely punctured because the computer itself is useless as an exposition machine (in a sense, it does answer, but not with the history lesson Jonathan wants). And as a future vision, it’s well tended by Caan; he was a good fit for this, as he was nothing if not a physical performer, he knew to play Jonathan as dazed and none-too-bright. Anyone brighter certainly wouldn’t have gone about things with his lack of subtlety (he’s unreconstituted too, as his treatment of Daphne illustrates).

Bartholomew: You’re bargaining for the right to stay in a horrible social spectacle. It has its purposes. You’ve served those purposes brilliantly. Why argue when you can quit? And you say you want to know why decisions are made. Your future comfort is assured. You don’t need to know! Why argue about decisions you’re not powerful enough to make for yourself?

Indeed, Rollerball’s “future now” approach to 2018 means it has aged pretty well, with only the popularity of roller skates really dating it. It shrewdly avoids grandly visible signposts pointing out the corrupt society, which means everyone but Jonathan going along with the state of play makes a lot of sense. Time Out’s Chris Petit suggested “The script grapples with notions of freedom and privilege, but finally remains too oblique to throw much light on our own society or on our possible future”. There’s something to this. On one level, Rollerball is far from sophisticated. But on another, it’s surprisingly sharp.

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