Retro Movie Review: Rollerball


Rollerball started life as a short story by William Harrison called Roller Ball Murder.  This story, published around 1973 became the basis of the first Rollerball movie in 1975.  Rollball holds a special place of personal nostalgia because it was one of the first movie for adults that I remember watching (R-rated) and one of the first big scifi movies I remember seeing (there were other excellent movies before Rollerball, but I had yet to see them).

Rollerball is a strange story.  It’s set in the future where corporations have become governments and those corporations used sport to foster both loyalty to the corporation and, in the case of rollerball, prove that the individual is not important, only the group.  Rollerball accomplishes the latter because the game is designed to be extremely violent and players, then, would typically have a very short career.  However, Jonathan E. didn’t  fit the mold.

Jonathan E. survived and excelled at rollerball.  By surviving, he put the corporations in an awkward position.  They couldn’t just sack him; he was too popular.  So, they told him to retire.  However, the game was all he had left in life so he refused.  Thus the story become the conflict between the corporations that want him gone because he disrupted the purpose of the game and Jonathan, a relatively simple man, simply did not want to quit.

I’ve heard mixed reviews of James Caan’s portrayal of Jonathan E.  I think he played it fairly well since I think Jonathan’s character was that of an uncomplicated person struggling in a life where everything around him is full of schemes and machinations.  He’s a classic reluctant hero.

Overall, I still enjoy this film.  I like it’s setting (which turns out to be filmed in Germany), the music (classical score), and stark contrast of the incredible violence of the rollerball games and the  ”intellectual”  settings almost everywhere else while all of it being a bit insane.

In contrast, Rollerball 2002 was a disappointment.  It is totally possible to make a better movie than the original, but it just didn’t happen in this case (despite the star-heavy cast).  Instead of a futuristic (and arguably unrealistic) world of the original movie, this movie is set former Soviet  Union and the game itself is a centerpiece of business.  The game itself in hard to figure out - why are they going through that tunnel?  The overall plot seems more like a story about human trafficking - most players are poorly paid, and once they’re in they can’t get out. A few scenes in the movie appeared to emulate scenes from the original, but they simply didn’t have the power of the original.  I really didn’t care about anyone in the film, about the setting, or the game.

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