Monday 14 January 2008

Rollerball (1975) Norman Jewison

I remember Rollerball from my schooldays. It came onto TV and all the kids in my class (4A, I believe: it's amazing what details certain things dredge up) were talking about it. It was like forbidden fruit. I didn't get to see it then, but saw it later and enjoyed. By then I'd read William Harrison's short story that it was based on. Now, it's many years on and times have changed. I wonder if kids today talk about the 2002 remake like it was forbidden fruit. Somehow I doubt it. I saw the remake a few years ago and while it wasn't a patch on the original it wasn't as bad as people claimed. It didn't scream forbidden fruit though.

Now I also have a little more pertinent background too, and that's well beyond just having a clue who Norman Jewison is. I haven't been to a roller derby match (game?) yet but I have met some of the girls and, let me tell you, they're not the little sissies that I had some vague uneducated idea that they were. Those are some tough ladies for sure and I could easily believe them playing rollerball at professional level.

Rollerball is a violent hybrid game: the players hurtle round an angled track but some are on skates and some are on motorbikes. They wear armour and spiked gloves and violence is expected. The ultimate aim is to throw a metal ball into the opposing team's goal. The sport is a serious one, so there's a serious attempt to make it believable by having what must be fifteen minutes of gameplay right off the bat. It's well designed and looks good, however unscarred the players might be. Then, after some introduction to plot concepts, we get into a training session for new recruits and find out some strategy.

What's really interesting to me, as it is with most old science fiction films that have an level of seriousness, is how accurate it got its futuristic thinking, especially from a standpoint of 33 years down the road. It gets certain things right here. Everything is corporate run, after the Corporate Wars, including the game and even the cities. James Caan plays Jonathan E, the biggest star of the biggest team, Houston, and they're owned by the Energy Corporation. They even play the corporate hymn before the games rather than a national anthem. Much of the plot here has to do with what corporations are going to do, and how they dominate and abuse their power, especially given that nobody knows who the executive directorate really are. It all rings scarily true and that doesn't bode well for our real future. Even the concept of burning trees as a playful game for the rich has intriguing connotations.

There's plenty that looks bad though, not least the dated 'futuristic' font used everywhere, as it was in every other science fiction show of the era. You know the one. The computer systems are horrendously pessimistic, of course, and were outstripped within a few years of the film's release, though Zero is intriguing. The TVs look happily big, though not quite big enough, but computer terminals look tiny and primitive. There's the idea that the TV of the future, multivision, takes ten years for the biggest star in the game to get his own retrospective show, and we're even told that it's the first time it's ever happened for a rollerball player. In an age of reality TV and multiple dedicated sports channels, that's just ludicrous.

Nearly as ludicrous is the idea that what seems to be an American sport is played at the highest levels by non-American teams. Ever since day one, American sports are rarely played by other countries who can rarely compete with their American opponents. Japan and Cuba may be getting there in baseball, the old USSR had regular Olympic battles at ice hockey, but who can really compete in basketball or American football. Nobody. And if rollerball is American, nobody else would be any good and they wouldn't care. If it's not, then the Americans wouldn't be any good. That's what the last half century has taught us.

The real plot starts to unfold a third of the way in. The executives at Energy want Jonathan E to retire. He doesn't want to and starts to rock the boat, which isn't a good idea given that executives are used to getting what they want. They designed the game to ensure that nobody becomes a star at the level that Jonathan has achieved. The violence is there to stop anyone surviving that long. They even stole away Jonathan's wife, which he hasn't forgiven yet. Women seem to be nothing but corporate whores here, given to men like assignments. The executives are definitely the puppeteers and the players the puppets. When Jonathan E bucks them they pull their strings.

And after all that I've hardly mentioned the actors. James Caan is Jonathan E and he's solid, both as a violent sports star and an unlikely rebel. I remembered Moonpie, his friend and Houston teammate, played equally by John Beck and his huge chin. Jonathan's wife Ella is played by Maud Adams, who doesn't get a huge amount of screen time but is decent. There are others I recognise, including Robert Ito (Sam from Quincy, ME), Burt Kwouk (Kato from the Pink Panther movies) and an excellent Ralph Richardson as a librarian in Geneva.

Most obvious though, after Caan and Beck's chin, is John Houseman as Bartholomew, the executive we see most of. He's excellent at being a concerned and congratulatory boss to the team but doesn't care a whit about any of it because it's all about power. Houseman co-founded the Mercury Players with Orson Welles so it's hardly surprising he knew something about arrogance. Most memorable of all though is the game itself, which is brutal enough to earn the ratings it received around the world. Director Norman Jewison made it from an anti-violent perspective and was horrified to find that after its release people wanted to actually play it.

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