Sunday, April 21, 2024

70's Sci-FI Watch: Rollerball (1975)

the image that looked back at you from every video rental shop in America in the 1980's

Watched:  04/20/2024
Format:  Amazon
Viewing:  First
Director:  Norman Jewison
Selection:  Me

I very much recall the 1980's and wandering the sci-fi aisles of video rental stores where we never, ever rented Rollerball (1975).  When you'd bring up the movie with someone of age to have seen it in theaters, mostly they hadn't.  So all we had to go on was a box which was Jimmy Caan with a spiked glove.  And if we wanted movies about sci-fi athletes, which we really didn't, we'd watch Solarbabies.  It was a different and stupid time.

But, yeah, we just never picked it up, even when the film was remade in 2002 by John McTiernan (from my reading, the remake is more or less a completely different movie that happens to include the same sport).  

Parts of the movie are exactly what I'd expect.  It's sort of The Kansas City Bomber, but they added a whole bunch of kooky stuff to Roller Derby to make it violent.  Motorcycles, a big metal ball, spiked gloves... stuff like that.  The game is played in a future world where the corporations have taken over, completely.  Cities now exist to serve specific corporate interests.  

Example:  the team we're following is Houston, which is an Energy town, and, man, is that uncomfortably close to the truth.

It's not dissimilar to plenty of other sci-fi set-ups, where a wealthy elite sit at the top pulling the strings, and everyone else is happy with the world they're in, but our hero stumbles onto the plan/ evil machinations of the elite.  The problem with Rollerderby is that, actually, aside from our lead character's life, everyone else seems fine?  I mean, I don't love the world they present, and people are dying playing this goofy game, but...  literally everyone else in this movie is playing along.  There's no Fahrenheit 451 group of folks quietly or loudly resisting.  There's no masses starving and miserable like Soylent Green.  I don't like the idea of a corporation providing me with a new girlfriend every six months, but no one seems pretty bent out of shape with it, no matter how weird or dehumanizing.

If there's poverty or people in bad condition, we never see it.  We have no idea what the world looks like outside of the arenas and board rooms and parties.  It's a deeply incomplete picture of the world, but from what we can see... maybe these corporations figured it out?

James Caan plays Jonathan E, the best player on the best team (Houston!  Wearing Astros orange), and despite the fact he's still at the top of his game, he's asked to retire.  He's being given no real options, and asked not to resist, but he's not sure why anyone would ask him.  And so he does the absolute bare minimum to find out what's going on.

Why Caan doesn't want to take the retirement and go enjoy a new girlfriend every six months is alluded to (he's still reasonably upset his wife was taken away, which is such a mid-century dystopian idea, it's kind of refreshing).  But continuing to play gets him kind of nothing.  And it's not clear why he can't be bought, paid off, or be fired by the team who would then just cover up the circumstances.  It's just weird how un-managed this plot is.

The stated goal of writer Harrison and producer/ director Norman Jewison was to shed a light on contact sports as "bad".  But.  Movies always suggest a taste for blood in sport that I just don't think actually exists.  If you want to see a football stadium with nearly 100,000 people attending get incredibly quiet, see a player not get up.  Then watch how the audience reacts.  People do not turn into howling maniacs for injuries in real life - they do that for action movies and pro-wrestling (which is arguably athletic theater).  And, even in wrestling, if someone were actually carted off, I'm certain the audience would get real respectful real fast.  

Further, the idea that Rollerball was created by executives to show that individual achievement is an illusion in comparison to the collective will of a team:  sports?  Really?  There's never been a team to play that didn't show how one person can elevate everyone else, no matter how terrible the team.  The only sports I can think of that are about a collective are pretty much things like synchronized swimming, where the idea that you're a collective is in the name of the sport.  

You definitely get the idea that the folks behind this were the sorts of people who use terms like "sportsball".  But also they seem to be of a mind that things like sports have no comparison to other activities when it comes to leadership and stars.  Which is...  not true.

The movie ducks and weaves between being too much rollerball and plodding character scenes.  James Caan is asked to play a guy who is tough on the rink, but kind of soft minded and confused off, and he just doesn't have many places to go as an actor - and he may actually be miscast here.  Caan does best when he's able to have a lot going on behind his eyes.  Everyone else is fine - kind of protoytypical 1970's movie dummies.  But John Houseman is in this, and he's very John Houseman as a corporate exec who maybe seems like he's not that bad, when you really think about it.  And he has a sidekick in Richard LaParmentier, who I actually met once and he was way nicer and funnier than he needed to be.

The bit that really stuck out as an unlikely candidate of having a pretty good view of the future was the way information is managed, especially in the age of AI.  All of the books have been transcribed/ scanned, and one can go to the library to read a synopsis of the book.  But everything has been put into an AI that will pull the information for you.  But wouldn't you know it...  the AI is starting to fail.  Maybe it has blockers in there to keep out key information, or it may be that the AI is just broken when asked to process all this info.  Not that, ha ha, AI is currently hallucinating entries, refusing to bring up information, etc...  

But, wow, did we not see the internet coming.  

It's not often I watch a sci-fi movie and just can't let myself buy the premise, but that happened to me here.  A new and kind of violent sport I can buy, even the society pitched.  But the central conflict that exposes things just doesn't add up, nor does the movie show why this is actually a problem any more than any other model for society.  Because if the idea that team owners treat athletes as disposable commodities is novel to you, we should have a sidebar conversation.

Norman Jewison is responsible for legit movie classics.  I don't want to speculate too much on what happened here, but this seemed to be a well intentioned swing and a miss.

I am curious about the remake, which sounds horribly misguided.  


Stuart said...

That is a completely badass poster though.

The League said...

The poster is *great*. No doubt. And the design of the film itself really leans into some interesting futurism that still seems buyable. If only they'd leaned that hard into the script...