Rollerball (1975 film)
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Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Norman Jewison|
|Produced by||Norman Jewison|
|Written by||William Harrison|
Sir Ralph Richardson
|Music by||André Previn|
|Editing by||Antony Gibbs|
|Distributed by||United Artists|
|Running time||129 minutes|
United KingdomUnited States
|Box office||$30,000,000 $8,800,000 (rentals)|
Rollerball is a 1975 dystopian science fiction film directed by Norman Jewison from a screenplay by William Harrison, who adapted his own short story "Roller Ball Murder", which first appeared in 1973 in Esquire magazine. Although it had an American cast, a Canadian director, and was released by the American company United Artists, it was produced in London and Munich.
The Game 
In the film, the world of 2018 is a global corporate state, containing entities such as the Energy Corporation, a global energy monopoly based in Houston which deals with nominally-peer corporations controlling access to all transport, luxury, housing, communication, and food on a global basis.
The film's title is the name of a violent, globally popular sport around which the events of the film take place. It is similar to Roller Derby in that two teams clad in body armor skate on roller skates (some instead ride on motorcycles) around a banked, circular track. There, however, the similarity ends. The object of the game is to score points by the offensive team (the team in possession of the ball) throwing a softball-sized steel ball into the goal, which is a magnetic, cone-shaped area inset into the wall of the arena. The team without possession of the ball is defensive and acts to prevent scoring. It is a full-contact sport in which players have considerable leeway to attack opposing players in order to take or maintain possession of the ball and to score points (in the overpopulated world of the original short story, the object of the game is to kill off the other players). In addition, each team has three players who ride motorcycles to which teammates can latch on and be towed. The player in possession of the ball must hold it in plain view at all times.
Rollerball teams, named after the cities in which they are based, are owned by the various global corporations. Energy Corporation sponsors the Houston team. The game is a substitute for all current team sports and for warfare. While its ostensible purpose is entertainment, Mr. Bartholomew, a high-level executive of the Energy Corporation, describes it as a sport designed to show the futility of individual effort.
The film follows Jonathan E (James Caan), the veteran star of the Houston rollerball team. By virtue of his stellar performance over the years, Jonathan has become the most recognizable Rollerballer in history; everyone recognizes him on sight. This is problematic for the hegemonic corporations. After another impressive performance in Houston's victory over the Madrid team, Energy Corporation chairman Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman) announces that the corporation, running out of ways to reward their champion, will feature Jonathan in a "multivision" special devoted to his career.
Mr. Bartholomew later tells Jonathan that they want him to retire. He offers Jonathan a lavish retirement package, including special "privileges," if he announces his retirement on his televised special. Mr. Bartholomew emphasizes the benefits of corporate-run society and the importance of respecting executive decisions, but does not reveal why they want Jonathan to retire. It is revealed that Jonathan was married to Ella (Maud Adams), which ended when she was promised to an executive.
Jonathan struggles to understand why he needs to retire while relaxing at his ranch with his corporation-provided concubine. Jonathan gives advice to a group of up-and-coming Rollerball players, emphasizing the importance of skill and technique. He later tries to access some books from a library, but finds that the books have been classified, transcribed, and stored in one of the major corporate computer banks. Jonathan comforts himself at his ranch by watching video of his ex-wife, and finds that the corporation has sent him another concubine, Daphne.
For Jonathan, Rollerball soon degrades into senseless violence as the rules of upcoming games are made more dangerous in order to force Jonathan out one way or another. It is announced that the semi-final game versus the Tokyo team will be played with no penalties and limited player substitutions, yet Jonathan refuses to yield and intends to play in the game. Summoned to the filming of his televised special, he struggles with Daphne and the host. An instructor insists on teaching the Houston team how to counter the Tokyo team's unorthodox martial arts skills, but the team, brimming with confidence, drowns him out with chants of "Houston!" The brutality of the match claims the lives of several players, including Houston's lead biker, Blue, and leaves Jonathan's best friend and teammate Moonpie (John Beck) brain-dead. Jonathan defies a doctor in the Tokyo hospital, and insists on keeping Moonpie on life support and transporting him elsewhere to receive medical care.
The corporations hold an emergency meeting to discuss Jonathan's obstinate refusal to retire, and decide that the championship game against the New York team will be played without penalties, player substitutions, or a time-limit, in the hope that Jonathan, if he decides to participate, will be killed during the course of the game. The executives' meeting reveals why they are demanding Jonathan's retirement: Rollerball was conceived not merely to slake bloodlust, but to demonstrate the futility of individualism. Jonathan's singular talent and longevity in the sport defeats the intended purpose of Rollerball.
After much personal introspection, and further delving into the true nature of the corporations that run the world, Jonathan decides he is going to play in the game despite the obvious dangers. Naturally, the final game quickly loses all semblance of order as players are incapacitated or killed in short order. The crowd, raucous and energetic at the game's beginning, gradually become more and more subdued as the carnage builds and degrades to a gladiatorial "last man standing" event.
In the end, Jonathan is the last player on the Houston team. Two players remain from New York. After a violent struggle, Jonathan dispatches one of the players, gets the ball and grabs the last, helpless New York player. He looks like he is about to kill the final player as the world watches in complete silence.
With a moment's pause, Jonathan releases his opponent, slowly gets to his feet, and painfully makes his way to the goal, scoring the only point of the game, leaving the final score Houston 1, New York 0.
Immediately following this Jonathan then starts to freely skate around the track in silent victory, and the coaches and fans of both teams start chanting "Jon-a-than!", first in a whisper and then gradually getting louder and louder as Jonathan continues to circle the track.
Seeing his worst fears unfolding, Mr. Bartholomew hurries to exit the arena in blind panic, with the realization that Jonathan has essentially defeated the purpose of the game itself. As the cheering reaches a climax, the movie cuts to a sudden still of Jonathan, against the same music that opened the film, the Toccata from Bach's iconic Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
- James Caan as Jonathan E.
- John Houseman as Bartholomew
- Maud Adams as Ella
- John Beck as Moonpie
- Moses Gunn as Cletus
- Pamela Hensley as Mackie
- Barbara Trentham as Daphne
- John Normington as Executive
- Shane Rimmer as Rusty, Team Executive
- Burt Kwouk as Japanese Doctor
- Nancy Bleier as Girl In Library
- Richard LeParmentier as Bartholomew's Aide
- Robert Ito as Strategy Coach for Houston Team
- Sir Ralph Richardson as Librarian
Filming locations 
Among the filming locations used was the Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle as arena, the then-new BMW Headquarters and Museum buildings in Munich, Germany, appearing as the headquarter buildings of Energy Corporation and at the Olympiapark, Munich.
The film is noteworthy for its use of classical music for establishing atmosphere, particularly the Toccata from Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which is heard during the opening sequence and again during the film's climax, the Adagio in G minor by Albinoni/Giazotto, and the Largo from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5.
Reviews for the film have been mostly positive. Variety praised the film, calling the lead performances "uniformly tops." TV Guide gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, saying that "the performances of Caan and Richardson are excellent, and the rollerball sequences are fast-paced and interesting." James Rocchi of Netflix said in his review that "the combination of Roman Empire-styled decadence and violence mixed with a vision of a bizarre, loveless corporate future is evocative and unsettling."
The film currently has a 68% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A remake was released in 2002, directed by John McTiernan, the director of Die Hard, and starring L.L. Cool J, Chris Klein, and Jean Reno. The remake received universally negative responses from critics; its approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 3%.
American Film Institute Lists
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers - Nominated
- AFI's 10 Top 10 - Nominated Science Fiction Film
Historical significance 
Recognizing their contribution to the film's many crucial action sequences, Rollerball was the first major Hollywood production to give individual screen credit to stunt performers.
In popular culture 
- The short story was presented in audio form on the '70s American Sci-Fi radio program called Mindwebs.
- IJK Software based its Commodore 64 game Rocketball (1985) on Rollerball.
- The video game Speedball (1988), developed by the Bitmap Brothers for the Amiga and later ported to other systems, bears many similarities to Rollerball and includes specific references to the film, such as Jonathan E tapping his knuckles before the start of a game.
- In the videogame Rocky Legends, close to the arena in Times Square there is a theater with a large Rollerball billboard with the tagline (In the future...).
- In the cyberpunk manga Battle Angel Alita, Motorball is a popular, bloody sport based on Rollerball.
- The Devo Corporate Anthem music and video are a nod to the film. The band has described themselves as "the Warner Brothers Rollerball team."
- In episode 4 "Now You Coliseum, Now You Don't" of the 2008 British Animated television series the Chop Socky Chooks features the villain Dr. Wasabi capturing the story's protagonists, forcing them to play a game similar to Rollerball. The episode's plot is similar to the plot of the original Rollerball movie.
- The UK comedy show "The Goodies", used Rollerball as a premise for the episode "2001 & A Bit". As Rollerball was not exciting to the audience, they created a new version, called Rolleregg, a mix between Rollerball and an egg-and-spoon race.
- In the 1984 movie The Ice Pirates the characters are seen watching Rollerball (match sequences) as if a real sport.
- In the 2000 episode of The Simpsons, Bart to the Future, President Lisa Simpson is seen honoring the players of the Negro Leagues of Rollerball.
- In the episode "The Red Ball" of The Boondocks, the final scene of the kickball match is a nod to the final scene of Rollerball.
- The Australian stoner rock band Rollerball take their name from this movie.
- 1970s controversial UK weekly comic Action featured a story Death Game 1999 later titled Spinball. The game was very very similar to Rollerball - played on ice, with skaters and men on motorbikes
See also 
- Death Race 2000, a dystopian science-fiction sports film released two months before Rollerball
- Futuresport, a 1998 TV-movie with a similar premise.
- Rollerball, a 2002 remake.
- "Rollerball, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 22, 2012.
- "Rollerball (1975) Cast And Crew". MGM.com: Official website of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. © 2000-2007. Retrieved 2007-10-03.
- "Contents Lists / The Year's Best Science Fiction No. 7". Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections, Combined Edition, by William G. Contento. 2003. Retrieved 2007-10-01.
- Cook, David A. (2000), Lost illusions: American cinema in the shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979, History of the American cinema, Charles Harpole 9, Simon and Schuster, p. 243, ISBN 0-684-80463-8
- Booker, M. Keith (2010). Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Cinema. Scarecrow Press. p. 66. ISBN 0-8108-5570-4.
- Vaughn, Stephen (2006), Freedom and Entertainment: Rating the Movies in an Age of New Media, Cambridge University Press, p. 55, ISBN 0-521-85258-7
- Variety - Rollerball Review
- TV Guide - Rollerball
- Netflix - Rollerball review
- Time Magazine - Rollerball Review
- Rotten Tomatoes - Rollerball
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills Nominees
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees
- AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot
- Official Rollerball website
- Rollerball (1975) at the Internet Movie Database
- The Evolution of Rollerball – A Summary of Rules of Rollerball from Book to Films.
- A Rollerball Board game – A hex based simulation of a Rollerball game.
|Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film