Reflections on "Rollerball"
(1975, directed by Norman Jewison, starring James Caan)
A video presentation of this material is available here.
In the early to mid twenty-first century, Rollerball is a game which has replaced war and which provides an outlet for feelings of aggression and violence, and which, most importantly, is designed to show that no individual is greater than the whole. Team work is essential with each player accepting his place and working toward the greater good.
Life in general has become ordered and comfortable - the only price citizens are asked to pay is that they should accept without question executive decisions. Society is managed by a series of corporations, run by anonymous, wealthy and extremely powerful suited executives who put up a facade of acceptability, respect and dignity to cover control and corruption.
Jonathan E (James Caan) has lasted longer than any other player in the sport. His career has spanned ten years during which he has established many records and, crucially, something of a following as a cult hero.
Jonathan is pressed to retire and he doesn't understand why, so he resists and uncovers some unpleasant truths about society and the way it is run.
Men are seen as fairly high-minded, asexual, power-hungry conformists who are afraid to disagree or make waves, while women are by and large reduced to the status of playthings for whom relationships are "assignments", constituting an essential element of control and manipulation by corporate society.
Jonathan is the responsibility of Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman), and their conversations are charged with menace and eventually threat, subtle to begin with, but quite unsubtle as desperation sets in because Jonathan is seen as a threat whose actions emphasise the importance of the individual, and who is seen as having a potential influence that could challenge that of corporate society.
There is a considerable contrast between the pace and style of the scenes within the rollerball dome and those outwith it. Often criticised as dull and "boring", these "society" scenes are nonetheless absolutely essential to the import of the piece and to truly understanding it. These scenes are deliberately sterile and dull, contrasting with the action and excitement of rollerball, and giving the audience a taste of barren and dreary corporate existence.
The dull but dangerous reality of corporate society is brilliantly captured in the interview between Bartholomew and Jonathan after the first match. As Jonathan enters the comfortable but uninspiring "office", he touches the decorative strands descending from the ceiling, only to discover that what may appear harmless can, in fact, be quite dangerous as he cuts his finger. In many ways, the discussion that follows sums up the tone of the film, with Jonathan resisting politely but firmly while Bartholomew appears reasonable but is determined. Of course, the disagreement will carry over into action in the rollerball dome.
The greatest pressure on Jonathan to conform will come in the shape of deadly rule changes to the game, until in the end it becomes a barely disguised assassination attempt. Since no individual is to be seen as greater than the game, the game must destroy him.
Along the way, there are several other criticisms of the way in which life may develop under a corporate umbrella. With his ex wife's visit, Jonathan realises she is no longer the person he loved, but even more importantly, he realises the extent to which the individual has lost his or her freedom. He discovers that there are no longer any books, and that all information from books, which might allow individuals to gain knowledge and form a view at odds with that of corporate society, is stored centrally in a computer which has become "subjective", or perhaps overwhelmed with information, and so cannot discriminate adequately to give a clear answer to a simple question. Of course, there is also the destruction of trees which indicates a decadent society devoted to business and pleasure showing scant appreciation of nature and beauty.
When it comes to the last game, the corporations underestimate Jonathan, and man's need for a hero or a role-model, leading inexorably to the cult of the individual and the potential breakdown of corporate society as they see it.
Rather ironically, their aim would probably have eventually been fulfilled without their efforts to ensure the outcome, and indeed it is exactly because of their paranoid efforts that Jonathan becomes an even greater hero and threatens their order.
Rollerball (remake, 2002, directed by John McTiernan, starring Chris Klein)
This version of "Rollerball" is youthful, exuberant and polished. It is also chaotic, shallow and inconsistent even within itself.
The scale and import of the original are gone. Rollerball has now become a game to attract huge television audiences and consequently to attract advertisers and money.
It is actually tiring to watch this version as we jump from one action scene to another, but without the advantage of seeing character growth, plot development or purpose.
Even the rollerball dome is over elaborate and complex. There is plenty of action, but it is hard to tell the teams apart, far less tell who is winning or feel involved in any way.
At first I thought this might have been done deliberately, in contrast to when a player was hurt and some genuine interest might develop. Unfortunately there was something of a build-up to nothing as characters were not affected beyond a few seconds.
This production actually seemed camp, so devoid was it of discipline and any serious intent.
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