Rollerball is a 1975 American dystopian sports science fiction action film, which Norman Jewison directed from a screenplay by William Harrison, who adapted his own short story, "Roller Ball Murder", which had first appeared in the September 1973 issue of Esquire. 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. Recognizing their contribution to the film's many crucial action sequences, Rollerball was the first major Hollywood production to give screen credit to its stunt performers.
A 2002 remake was released, directed by John McTiernan, the director of Die Hard, and starring Chris Klein, Jean Reno, and LL Cool J. The remake received universally negative responses from critics; its approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 3%.
In the film, the world of 2018 (referred to in the tagline as "the not too distant future") 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. According to the tagline, in this world, "wars will no longer exist. But there will be... Rollerball."
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 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 its 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 explain 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. He gives advice to a group of up-and-coming Rollerball players, emphasizing the importance of skill and technique. Later, he tries to access some books from a library, but to his disappointment, he 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 a 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 (Robert Ito) 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) in a persistent vegetative state and 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's meeting reveals why they are demanding Jonathan's retirement: Rollerball was conceived not merely to satisfy man's bloodlust, but to demonstrate the futility of individualism. Jonathan's singular talent and longevity in the sport defeats the intended purpose of Rollerball. Before the match, Jonathan is visited by his ex-wife, Ella, who reveals that she has a son with her new husband and that the corporations had told her to visit him in an effort to convince him to retire.
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!" They do so first in a whisper, and then their voices gradually grow 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 film 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.
The film was shot at the Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle as arena, the then-new BMW Headquarters and Museum buildings in Munich, Germany, appearing as the headquarters buildings of Energy Corporation and at the Olympiapark, Munich. A number of scenes were also filmed at Fawley Power Station, near Southampton (UK).
The film is noteworthy for its use of classical music for establishing atmosphere, particularly Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which is heard (performed on an organ) during the opening sequence and again during the credits, the Adagio in G minor by Albinoni/Giazotto, and the Largo from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5.
The film earned $6.2 million in theatrical rentals at the North American box office.
Variety praised the film, calling the lead performances "uniformly tops."
By contrast, Vincent Canby was unimpressed, and his review stated:
"All science-fiction can be roughly divided into two types of nightmares. In the first the world has gone through a nuclear holocaust and civilization has reverted to a neo-Stone Age. In the second, of which ââ'âRollerballââ'â is an elaborate and very silly example, all of mankind's problems have been solved but at the terrible price of individual freedom.... The only way science-fiction of this sort makes sense is as a comment on the society for which it's intended, and the only way ââ'âRollerballââ'â would have made sense is a satire of our national preoccupation with televised professional sports, particularly weekend football. Yet ââ'âRollerballââ'â isn't a satire. It's not funny at all and, not being funny, it becomes, instead, frivolous."
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."
On the other hand, Jay Cocks of Time Magazine posted a negative review of the film, saying that Caan looked "unconvinced and uncomfortable" as Jonathan E.
The film currently has a 67% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
American Film Institute lists
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills â" Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers â" Nominated
- AFI's 10 Top 10 â" Nominated Science Fiction Film
In 1977, Caan himself rated the film 8 out of 10 saying he "couldn't do much with the character."
In popular culture
- IJK Software based its Commodore 64 game Rocketball (1985) on Rollerball.
- In the cyberpunk manga Battle Angel Alita, "Motorball" is a popular, bloody sport based on Rollerball.
- 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 at the Internet Movie Database
- Rollerball at the TCM Movie Database
- The Evolution of Rollerball at japenet.net â" A Summary of Rules of Rollerball from Book to Films.