The dystopian sports allegory has been a subgenre of science fiction films since the 1970s. These films usually take place in a not-too distant future where deadly games are presented in a world not unlike the waning days of Ancient Rome, where gladiatorial matches kept the public distracted and docile enough for caesars to maintain their holds on power. These films range from the broadly satirical (“Death Race 2000,” “The Running Man”) to the achingly po-faced (“The Hunger Games” series), but the one that arguably pushed this subgenre into mainstream popularity was Norman Jewison’s “Rollerball” (1975).
Note: These dystopias were built around the ruling philosophy epitomized by the Roman poet-satirist Juvenal in 100 A.D; “Give them bread and circuses and they never revolt.”
For full disclosure, I wasn’t too into sports as a kid (more of a sci-fi/horror nerd), though I certainly get the appeal of attending a live game; enthusiastically rooting for a favorite team or player while soaking in the adrenaline-fueled atmosphere of the crowd. Even though I grew up watching nearly every dystopian sci-fi flick that I could in those pre-“Star Wars” days (I remember seeing “Westworld,” and “Soylent Green” on a double-feature at the age of seven), I somehow missed, or perhaps avoided seeing “Rollerball.”
Given the movie’s ripple effect into the present, with a new “Hunger Games” movie (“The Ballad of Songbirds”) debuting this week, I finally decided to see the film that arguably started it all 48 years ago. Let the games begin…
Set in the ‘future’ of 2018, “Rollerball” opens to an empty arena, with various crew rushing to staff the central pit, as the crowd files in for an upcoming match of the titular game. Rollerball is a bizarre, full-contact mashup of roller-derby, motocross, hockey and basketball. In this alternate 2018, world leaders have been eliminated, and all-powerful corporate CEOs have taken their places. And these powerful new demigods are every bit as greedy and selfish as corporate CEOs of our own universe.
The Energy Corporation, a global amalgamate led by Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), oversees the Rollerball games much in the way ancient caesars would dispassionately observe gladiatorial matches. Energy runs the Houston team, led by Jonathan E (James Caan), the handsome, ten-year veteran of the sport whose rising popularity is making Energy nervous. Rollerball has become a phenomenon, with team captain Jonathan as its face. The opening of the movie sees Houston defeating visiting team Madrid to the roar of the crowds, after a grueling match.
Note: To paraphrase Ray Bradbury, these dystopian scenarios weren’t meant to predict the future; they were meant to show us possible futures to avoid. Sadly, as we see with unchecked corporate greed and its impact on climate change, some of these doomsday scenarios are coming to pass.
After their victory, the Houston team members shower and relax in their locker room, where they’re met by Mr. Bartholomew, who’s come to make Jonathan an offer to star in a TV special which would focus on his colorful career. Bartholomew then suggests that Jonathan consider taking a lavish retirement offer from Energy. Jonathan’s hulking teammate and best friend, Moonpie (John Beck) says he would take the offer, but Jonathan is noncommittal, since he really enjoys playing the sport.
Note: Mega-powerful corporations controlling the fates of athletes in professional sports…are we sure this is science fiction? Actor John Houseman (1902-1988) was a widely respected radio, stage, film and TV veteran, who was also a cofounder and producer of Orson Welles’ famed “Mercury Theatre” radio troupe, whose 1938 broadcast of “War of the Worlds” caused considerable panic when it was mistaken for an actual news broadcast in some parts of the United States.
Later, we see Jonathan and Moonpie walking into the looming towers of Energy HQ, as Jonathan is invited to visit Bartholomew personally. Entering the CEO’s blissful, almost divine office, Jonathan finds the older man surrounded by hanging shards of decorative glass. Jonathan accidentally cuts a finger on a shard as he enters Bartholomew’s private space within. Bartholomew reiterates his generous earlier offer, only to find that Jonathan remains unswayed. One incentive that might persuade Jonathan to retire would be the return of his former live-in companion, Ella (Maud Adams), with whom he’s still in love. Bartholomew reminds him she was given to an Energy executive instead, and that executives enjoy the power and privilege to take whatever they want, including women. The meeting ends. Jonathan leaves. Neither man budges.
Note: The space in the center of Bartholomew’s almost heavenly office is surrounded by shards of sharp glass on which Jonathan cuts himself as he enters—a subtle reminder of the older man’s danger.
Jonathan returns home via helicopter to his new housemate, Mackey (Pamela Hensley); a sultry young woman who accepts her humiliating role as corporate property. She and Jonathan are less a couple and more of an arranged partnership, since Jonathan’s heart still belongs to ‘the one that got away’ (or was taken away). The couple is hosting Jonathan’s former coach/mentor, Cletus (Moses Gunn), who is now an executive at Energy. Jonathan later confides in Cletus that he feels a looming threat from Energy, and Cletus promises to find out whatever he can for his old friend.
Note: Much like the “furniture” women of 1973’s “Soylent Green,” the women of “Rollerball” are seen as equally powerless, despite the growing feminist movement at the time the film was made. Sadly, that dystopian forecast has also become partly true, as many American women saw their reproductive options severely curtailed in 2022 with the overthrow of Roe vs. Wade by the Supreme Court. It’s an unprecedented loss, as women in roughly half of the United States no longer have a freedom they’ve enjoyed since 1973.
We then see Jonathan and his sidekick Moonpie indulging Jonathan’s curiosity about history and books, as they head to an Energy library. Once there, the librarian informs Jonathan that all physical books have been electronically encoded and censored by Energy. While the shortsighted Moonpie is easily distracted by the impressive architecture and pretty clerks, Jonathan is disturbed by the fact that all of the books in their original texts have simply been erased.
Note: Rollerball jock Jonathan’s sudden “Fahrenheit 451”-like curiosity about books seems to come almost out of nowhere, and feels a bit out of character for a guy who clobbers people on skates and motorcycles for a living. However, the movie’s notion of books being digitally transcribed is on the nose, as are its warnings about censorship; another disturbing real-life parallel to our own world, with increasing numbers of school and community libraries banning books in certain parts of the United States.
After the detour to Energy’s library, Jonathan returns home to find a new housemate named Daphne (Barbara Trentham). Daphne is also the Energy ‘journalist’ who’s going to interview Jonathan for his upcoming special where he’s supposed to announce his retirement. Recognizing that Daphne is just another tool from Bartholomew’s toolbox, Jonathan expresses little interest in her. Later on, we see Daphne in a TV studio conducting the interview with Jonathan, who slips her drugs during a break, before going off-script. Jonathan ignores the teleprompter, and refuses to announce his retirement. The taping is a disaster for Energy, but a minor victory for Jonathan, who’s beginning to hone a sense of rebellion within this corporate empire.
Note: Director Norman Jewison (b. 1926) directed two of my favorite musicals (1971’s “Fiddler on the Roof” and 1973’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”), and has a clear knack for tackling multiple genres; from heavy-hitting dramas like “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) and “Agnes of God” (1985) to lighthearted comedies like “Moonstruck” (1967). “Rollerball” is the director’s only foray into science fiction.
Meanwhile, Houston is preparing for an upcoming game against Tokyo, whose players are renowned for their unorthodox playing styles, which include martial arts. Coach Rusty (Shane Rimmer) brings in a new strategy coach (Robert Ito) familiar with the Tokyo team to better prepare Houston for the match. The Houston-Tokyo game will have two new rules; no penalties will be called, and limited substitutions for injured players. These new caveats were ordered by Energy in the secret hope of killing off their dissident player, Jonathan. Arrogant Moonpie expresses a racist disdain for both the strategy coach and Team Tokyo, whom he casually dismisses as ‘little’ people. Coach Rusty is frustrated by his team’s arrogance.
Note: Modern audiences might be understandably put off by the casual stereotyping displayed towards Japanese people in the film, which is similar to what was seen in the 1967 James Bond film, “You Only Live Twice.” Viewer beware.
In anticipation of the Tokyo game and Jonathan’s presumed retirement, a swank party is held. Footage of Jonathan’s career plays on TVs throughout the house, as various high profile executives, athletes and beautiful women file in, including Jonathan’s recent ex-housemate, Mackey. Mackey is now rematched with someone else, though she’s understandably bitter at Jonathan for allowing her to be given away. The old man Bartholomew makes the scene as well, with some ‘party favors’ on his arms. During the party, Cletus asks to speak with Jonathan alone. In the study, Cletus tells Jonathan that there is an active conspiracy against him. Unfortunately, Cletus is not privy to the details.
Note: The late Moses Gunn (1929-1993) was a memorable character actor who played “Bumpy Jonas” in two of the three “Shaft” movies (“Shaft” “Shaft’s Big Score”). He had many other TV and movie roles as well, including William Peter Blatty’s “The Ninth Configuration” (1980) and “The NeverEnding Story” (1984).
Bartholomew later calls the persistently defiant Jonathan for one last attempt at a bribe, but to no avail. Bartholomew tries to explain to Jonathan that the game was created to illustrate the futility of individuality, not to celebrate it. Energy fears that Jonathan’s hero status is potentially dangerous. In Energy’s corporate-run nation-state, there’s no room for heroes or celebrities. Jonathan refuses to budge; he’s determined to play in Tokyo, as well as the upcoming championship game against New York.
Note: Normally, I wouldn’t chide a 1970s movie for bad fashion choices, but some of the costumes at the party (and throughout the film) are truly hideous, with James Caan’s bizarre ‘futuristic’ tuxedo looking like he stole it from a dead matador. Equally tacky are the beige, zip-down leisure suits that some of Team Houston wear in their off-duty hours. I’m sure costume designer Julie Harris was following the wishes of director Jewison, but the clothes in the film are almost distractingly tasteless—even for a 1970s film.
A somewhat paranoid Jonathan (the price of his awakening) begins to lash out at Energy’s paid eyes and ears, even assaulting his current live-in concubine/press-agent Daphne by cutting her across the cheek with his spiked Rollerball glove. He wants her gone when he returns from Tokyo.
Note: This very ugly scene, in which the powerful athlete overpowers and disfigures a much smaller woman, was very tough to watch; even in context of the time and the story’s dystopian setting. Once again, viewer beware.
The Houston team flies to Tokyo, and Jonathan decides to fly with them instead of the private jet offered to him by Energy. Jonathan knows Energy could simply arrange for an ‘accidental’ crash. Once in Tokyo, Jonathan and his team enjoy the fruits of their visit, including adoring fans and a bathhouse massage with an attractive young woman who’s all too eager to please the visiting American athletes.
Note: With the addition of a stereotypically submissive bathhouse masseuse, the Tokyo sequence leaves no cliché unturned. The scene in the bathhouse ends with Jonathan resting his head on the back of the masseuse—herself draped along the back of Moonpie, leaving a none-too subtle suggestion they might’ve engaged in a ménage à trois afterward.
The day of the game arrives. The teams stand at attention during the playing of their corporate anthems (replacing national anthems), with the bespectacled Tokyo captain delivering some serious stink-eye to his American counterparts. With no penalty calls allowed for the match, the game begins, and it quickly devolves into a chaotic blend of previously illegal moves and senseless battery, as both teams exploit the lack of penalties. Several Tokyo team members ambush the hulking Moonpie. They remove his helmet, and repeatedly pound the larger man in the back of the head with their spiked gloves before the bloodied American collapses to the deck. The match is eventually won by Houston, but at considerable cost.
After the game, Jonathan rushes to the hospital to visit his friend. Entering the room, he sees a gathering of doctors and nurses around the unconscious, open-eyed Moonpie, who is pronounced brain dead by the doctors; his heart and lungs operating mechanically. Since there is no next of kin, the responsibility for disconnecting Moonpie from life-support falls upon Jonathan, but Jonathan refuses to sign—ordering the doctor to keep Moonpie alive, even with no hope of recovery. The reluctant doctor complies.
Note: Another act of defiance, as Jonathan refuses the sign the termination order, just as he’d previously (and repeatedly) refused Energy’s offer of a lavish retirement settlement. It’s hard to say if Jonathan’s defiance stems from a paranoid distrust of the doctors, or if it’s simply defiance for its own sake, since Moonpie clearly has no chance of recovery.
Having had just about enough of Jonathan’s defiance and increasing popularity with fans of the sport, Bartholomew meets via video conference call with other heads of other worldwide corporations that run the world. They all agree that Jonathan’s burgeoning individuality is in direct conflict with the game, making him a potentially dangerous focal point for would-be revolutionaries. Deciding they need to kill him within the game itself, the other corporate heads all agree that the upcoming championship game with New York will have no penalties, limited substitutions for injured players and no time limit—allowing the game to go on as long as it takes to achieve their objective of killing Jonathan.
Note: The bank of CRT monitors during Bartholomew’s video conference call look like a crude prototype of a current Zoom call, which became exceptionally popular during the recent COVID pandemic. My high school teacher wife conducted classes from our home using Zoom calls to create a virtual classroom. One of the many little predictions of this film that eventually came to pass, though not quite the way the movie imagined them.
In his unrelated side quest to learn what happened to books and history, Jonathan makes his way to Geneva, Switzerland, in the hopes of gaining access to the repository of all knowledge. Once there, he meets an eccentric librarian (Ralph Richardson), who confesses that they’ve recently ‘lost’ all 13th century history due to a computer error (!). The librarian then takes Jonathan to meet “Zero”; the central supercomputer with a liquid memory system. Zero then begins to malfunction, repeatedly exalting the all-powerful corporations during its electronic nervous breakdown…
Note: This scene with the supercomputer Zero feels like it belongs in a an episode of Star Trek instead of this film, which already has plenty of other interesting ideas to explore. I half-expected Captain Kirk to beam down and convince the computer to blow itself up. This interesting, yet unnecessary subplot is the stuff deleted scenes are made of.
Jonathan returns home to find an unexpected visitor; his ex-housemate Ella (Maud Adams), with whom he’s still in love. They go for a long walk in the woods together, where Jonathan learns Ella now has a son with her new housemate. Returning to the house, they sleep together before Jonathan realizes she’s been sent by Energy to weaken his resistance, as he hears Bartholomew’s words coming from her mouth. As much as Jonathan once loved Ella, he deletes a video he made of them together and walks away, realizing she’s nothing than a corporate prostitute doing her masters’ bidding…
Note: Swedish-born Maud Adams was a former model before entering acting. She appeared briefly as a fashion model (not exactly a big stretch) in the opening sequence of 1970’s “Boys in the Band,” before becoming a two-time Bond movie veteran with1974’s “The Man with the Golden Gun,” and later playing the title role of 1983’s “Octopussy.”
The day of the championship game against New York arrives, and Jonathan stands with his teammates as the corporate anthem plays once again. Realizing this is a no-rules gladiatorial fight to the death, Jonathan goes full-out; ruthlessly attacking rival players before they can kill him. As the bodies pile up on the track, Jonathan emerges as the sole survivor of the Houston team. With only two New York players remaining, Jonathan slaughters a skater (right in front of Bartholomew’s box seat) to steal the ball from him.
Note: The actor playing Bartholomew’s unnamed assistant is Richard LeParmentier (1946-2013). Richard LeParmentier (credited as ‘Rick’ LeParmentier) is better known for his short but memorable role as “Admiral Motti,” the first person to be ‘force-choked’ onscreen by Darth Vader in 1977’s “Star Wars” (aka “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”). I had the pleasure of meeting LeParmentier in person at San Diego Comic Con in 2012, only a year before his unfortunate passing.
With the ball in hand, Jonathan then knocks a motorcyclist player off his bike and raises the ball to smash his head in… but stops short of delivering the fatal blow. He then takes the ball, as the crowd roars his name in unison, and scores the only point of this blood-soaked match. The battered, bleeding warrior then turns his wrath to the Energy executives, who rise from their seats to leave. The final image is an extreme closeup of Jonathan’s enraged eyes, as the credits roll.
Note: The movie ends on the cusp of a potentially violent revolt. Will Jonathan take the revolution to upper management? Would the crowd follow him instead of Energy executives at that point, or were they just lost in the game? The movie’s ending follows that old entertainment adage; always leave them wanting more.
“Rollerball” (2002): The Do-Over
For full disclosure, I’ve not seen the 2002 “Rollerball” remake, directed by John McTiernan (“Die Hard”), which starred Chris Klein (“American Pie”), Rebecca Romijn (“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds”) and LL Cool J (“Deep Blue Sea”).
I’ll leave you with the above trailer, and perhaps you’ll see why I’m not willing to invest 97 minutes of my remaining time on this planet in order to watch it.
Summing It Up
Written by William Harrison (from his short story “Roller Ball Murder”) and directed by genre-hopping filmmaker Norman Jewison, “Rollerball” is one of those odd-duck movies that I don’t quite love and don’t exactly hate, either. Seeing it anew through a post-2018 lens, it certainly got quite a few things right, such as the disturbingly symbiotic relationship between corporate America and major league sports, as well as the ongoing exploitation of athletes, who too often compromise longterm health (or even their lives) for fame and short-term riches. Comedian Chris Rock put it best when he said, “Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal) is rich; the white guy signing his check is wealthy.”
There are also some effective performances in the film, with the late James Caan (“The Godfather,” “Alien Nation”) well-cast as “Jonathan E,” the Energy Corporation’s rebellious star athlete. Also enjoyed Moses Gunn as Jonathan’s sympathetic coach/mentor, “Cletus.” Esteemed veteran actor John Houseman as “Bartholomew” pours on the villainy with little room for subtlety. Maud Adams (two-time Bond movie veteran) is given a brief yet pivotal role as “Ella,” the woman taken away from Johnathan. Pamela Hensley (“Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”) is solid as drug-addled housemate “Mackie,” and John Beck (“Audrey Rose,” “Sleeper”) steals a number of scenes as Jonathan’s brutish, ill-fated bestie, “Moonpie.”
The pacing of the movie is very problematic. As the Rollerball sequences become increasingly violent and chaotic, the moments between them become increasingly dull and navel-gazing. An intriguing sci-fi idea of a central computer running everything is touched upon (with a wasted Ralph Richardson cameo), as is Jonathan’s nascent curiosity for real books and history (à la Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”), but these intriguing ideas don’t really achieve fruition within the story. There is also the odd choice of Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” as the main credits and end title music. Those heavy pipe organs are far more fitting for a Halloween party than a sci-fi sports flick, and their use in the film feels like an ersatz-Stanley Kubrick move. On the plus side, the cinematography of Douglas Slocombe (“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) is absolutely top-notch.
Overall, there is a lot of ambition behind the ideas of “Rollerball,” as well as some disturbingly on-the-nose forecasting in this subgenre-birthing piece of nihilistic 1970s sci-fi. Far from a perfect film, but certainly worth a look for the curious.
Where to Watch
1975’s “Rollerball” is available to stream for free on PlutoTV and Tubi, as well as digital AmazonPrime rental/purchases. I watched a free HD streaming copy (without ads) on my YouTube premium account. Both the 1975 original and the 2002 remake are also available to purchase on DVD/BluRay from Amazon and/or eBay (prices vary by seller). The remake is also available to stream on MGM+.