Since the earliest science fiction movies were made, viewers have been treated to pictures and ideas of what the future holds for us. Some are in other universes created in someone's imagination, but then there is those movies that are just a presentation of what Earth and its population will look like down the road. Now, some 30 and 40 years later it's interesting to look at these movies because many were based in the first quarter of the 21st century, like Soylent Green, Death Race 2000, and even to a certain extent Planet of the Apes. So how 'off' were some of these movies thinking about what the future holds for us? Not too far in some cases.
Take 1975's Rollerball which is set in 2018 when there are no more countries, just corporations who rule cities around the world. To help control the population, the corporations have developed a game called Rollerball, an odd combination of basketball, roller derby, football, and hand-to-hand combat with motorcycles thrown in for good measure, which appeals to the masses and gives them something to not only root for and support, but to get some of their bloodlust out and flowing.
Leading the defending champion Houston team, superstar and 10-year veteran Jonathan E (James Caan) is the face of the sport and known all around the world for his play. But just a few games away from another championship, Jonathan is approached by RCI Energy's CEO, Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), with a proposition. All the CEOs want him to retire and leave the game behind with no reason or excuse given. The rollerball superstar bristles at the thought, he loves the game he's become a star in and doesn't want to leave, but of course it's not that simple. The corporation CEOs want and need him out and are prepared to do whatever it takes to get Jonathan to leave, even if that means changing the rules of the game to make it even more dangerous.
Right off the bat, I was impressed with the creation of the game of rollerball. Sports movies typically have an advantage right away because viewers are familiar with the game being presented. That way, if the sports scenes are handled well, it's easier to suck the viewer in. But with rollerball, there's no background, no previous knowledge so we're forced to pick it up on the fly. Simply put, the game is something else. Three main sequences -- 3 different games as Houston battles Madrid, Tokyo, and New York -- highlight the story and instantly sucked me in. Imagine gladiators on roller skates. The games start off brutal enough, but are taken to a whole new level once the rules are changed. Here's SPOILERS a cool fanmade video highlighting some of the games.
With some obvious variations, one way or another these futuristic sci-fi movies present a dystopian society. This 2018 society doesn't so look bad, but everyday life is completely controlled by these corporations, everything from reading books to watching television (certain people are given "privileges"). Like 1984, there's a sense of Big Brother all over Rollerball's story. That sense of impending doom grows as Jonathan refuses to retire. He becomes paranoid, questioning to what point the corporations will take it? All of that worry and unease builds to the championship game where there are no penalties and no substitutions. The ending itself (check it out HERE) is the perfect finale, a sequence done with little dialogue as the game unfolds.
When I reviewed Thief late last summer, I revealed my man-crush on James Caan, one of my favorite actors around. Alongside The Godfather and maybe even the TV show Las Vegas, Rollerball is probably Caan's most well-known role and for good reason. His Jonathan E. is Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, and Walter Payton rolled into one. He's a sports star playing a game he loves, just trying to figure out why the powers that be want him out. It's a great performance and one that dominates the movie. With a small but key part, Houseman is incredibly intimidating as Bartholomew, Houston's CEO. Other key supporting parts include scene-stealing John Beck as Moonpie, Jonathan's teammate (think of a hit man on skates), Moses Gunn as Clete, a former rollerball coach, Maud Adams as Ella, Jonathan's ex-wife, and Ralph Richardson as the Librarian.
An iconic movie from the 1970s but for all the right reasons. It's an action movie with a message, a deeper sense of the story other than just athletes on skates beating the crap out of each other. The Rollerball sequences are great, surprisingly captivating, and it is all aided by some strong casting, especially Caan in the lead.
Rollerball <----trailer (1975): *** 1/2 /****