In “the not too distant future” the world exists as a global corporate state where the ‘executive classes’ control every aspect of our lives. Sport is outlawed apart from one, the ultra-violent Rollerball (like Roller-derby, but with a ball and death), designed by the corporations to show the futility of individual effort.
Houston’s star player Johnny E (Caan) is the most popular competitor in the sports history, recognised and adored the world over. Becoming too popular for the liking of the major corporations they order him to retire. When he refuses he challenges the supreme powers who control this global corporation state.
Rollerball is the sort of anti-violence movie that promotes its agenda by being ultra-violent; the actual Rollerball scenes are brutally visceral, bone-crunching and exciting, but these are never stylised or glorified or romanticised, the competitors aren’t portrayed as noble warriors. The violence would, you imagine, just disturb or disgust given a bigger budget and made more graphic to account for modern desensitised audiences and Rollerball is all the more unsettling and better for it.
It’s a shame that the rest of the film is so indifferent. The script is entirely forgettable and contains several pointless plot elements. At one point Johnny E visits a supercomputer, home to all of the world’s accumulated knowledge. He asks it a question and it refuses to answer. This strand ends there, leaving the thought that if it was worth making a point about the dangers of one source controlling the world’s information it was worth making better than that. Elsewhere the anti-capitalist sentiments are heavy-handed and blunt and everything outside of the Rollerball arena feels drawn out.
Likewise the performances are inoffensive but nothing to build a reputation on. Caan looks like a global sports superstar in the rink or giving guidance to the rookies but looks bored at home or in meetings with the sinister controller of Houston’s Team, Mr. Bartholomew (Houseman).
The Verdict: A flawed classic, Rollerball combines visceral and exciting action sequences with otherwise completely forgettable drama. Sounds ripe for a remake, but the 2002 John McTiernan version was universally derided.