In 2018, the world is run by a small handful of large corporations. War, regulation and government have all been eliminated. The upper executive class enjoys all the wealth and technology while everyone else enjoys ultra-violent entertainment made to distract them. No, I’m not describing the not-too-distant future. I’m talking about Rollerball, a sci-fi movie from the sort-of-distant past of 1975 that deserves to be updated.
In the film, rollerball is the most popular sport in the world. It is essentially roller derby but with motorcycles and lots of violence. A metal ball gets shot onto the track at about 200 mph. Two squads, each with seven skaters and three motorcycles, compete for possession of the ball. A player must skate once around the track while holding the ball in plain sight before they are able to score. Their teammates serve as blockers that defend them from the opposing team. The game is full contact. Each player wears a helmet, pads and gloves covered with metal spikes. Injuries, even fatalities, are common.
James Caan stars as Johnathan E, captain of the Houston Squad, current Rollerball World Champions, sponsored by the ominously-named Energy Corporation. Johnathan is the most popular player in the sport, which is why he’s blindsided by the corporation’s order that he retire immediately. Johnathan refuses, partly because he resents the corporation’s ultimate authority, and partly because he just doesn’t want to retire. As he continues to play, rules and safeguards are eliminated by the executives, hoping that Johnathan becomes a casualty.
Adapted from the short story, “Roller Ball Murder,” the movie is a missed opportunity. Made in a pre-Star Wars Hollywood, the film tells its story like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. Caan plays an average American everyman stuck in a nightmare version The Future just similar enough to modern 1975 to be believable. When Johnathan finally learns that he must retire so rollerball can remain an anonymous bloodsport that reinforces the corporate culture’s “nobody is special, we are all expendable” message to the masses, the result is kind of a letdown. The movie shouldn’t be blamed for putting so much weight into a reveal that feels intellectually tame by modern 2017 standards. But it should be blamed for having too narrow a focus. Besides one of Johnathan’s teammates, a large bruiser named Moonpie, we don’t get a feel for any other rollerball player’s personality. Nor do we see or experience much of the future beyond sports arenas, office buildings, locker rooms and upper-middle class homes.
HBO, get on this shit. You love sports (Hard Knocks) and weird vintage sci-fi (Westworld). This is exactly the type of idea best suited for longform television over movies. (The less said about the 2002 remake, the better. Even though it stars LL Cool J and Rebecca Romijn Stamos. But seriously, don’t go there.)
Billionaires, make this sport a reality. It’s football/NASCAR/hockey all rolled into one. Big, loud, high-energy and you probably get to see a crash. I’d paid good money to see that.