Written by William Harrison
Directed by Norman Jewison
By this time in his career, Norman Jewison was making an eclectic variety of films, never tying himself to a single genre. With Rollerball, he tackles science fiction, and while having a solid concept, the execution is incredibly poorly done. The story is so muddled & meandering with characters & conflicts so poorly defined that the film just collapses about thirty minutes in and never recovers. That’s a shame because there is certainly something here that could have been made into an interesting nightmare utopia type of film. Jewison and his collaborators just never seem to find those threads to tie it all together.
At some point in the future, all nations have collapsed, and the world is run by a conglomerate of corporations, each massive organization in charge of one aspect of existence. There’s the Food Corporation, Leisure, and Energy, among others. Energy is located in Houston, an implied mega-city sprawling beyond the boundaries we know today. The most popular sport in this brave new world is Rollerball, a violent combination of roller derby and football with motorcycles. Players are regularly gravely injured, and in extreme cases, some die. The biggest Rollerball star is Jonathan E (James Caan), who plays for Houston and has a career spanning a decade. Jonathan is called to Energy HQ, where he meets with the executive, Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), who tells the athlete it is time for him to retire, and this decision has been made for him. Jonathan doesn’t want to leave the sport and engages in a deadly back and forth with the people who run his society.
This sounds like a great concept, and there’s an effort to inject a paranoid conspiracy and tension into the story. However, it all falls flat because we never get a strong sense of who Jonathan E is or who is really up against. Everyone in the story remains a frustrating enigma that just keeps the film from ever developing. Many scenes clearly have high production value, but they do nothing to help us learn & understand a thing about these characters.
The picture even makes the future society it presents confoundingly obtuse. A science-fiction movie should at the very least get its worldbuilding right. We’re told that the corporations have eliminated all the past suffering so that every human being has a home, food, education, etc., but we don’t really see people outside of the Rollerball community. There are brief mentions of the many wars that led to these changes, and it becomes clear that Jonathan and the people of his generation have not been taught about the past. Maybe that would make a good plot point for him to pursue? Jonathan learning the dark secret behind Rollerball’s creation and that maybe society is not as utopian for everyone? Nope. The movie just sort of vaguely hints at some history and then moves on, uninterested in exploring that idea.
The moments where the film becomes interesting are those Rollerball matches which are full of increasingly gorier violence. Jewison has said the film is partially about the barbarism he saw in contact sports, which often leave players permanently injured or worse. There is a subplot where Jonathan’s only friend, a defender on his team, becomes paralyzed and goes into a coma. The story gives us a moment where Jonathan is conflicted over terminating his friend’s life or keeping him in hospice. The movie could really explore this or use that to expand on other parts of the story, but it just sort of happens. Then Jonathan goes on to other things.
I am not sure where exactly things went wrong. The screenplay by William Harrison was adapted from his own short story, and this was his first foray into film. I suspect he just didn’t have a strong understanding of pacing and plot in a film context instead of literature. As a result, we get a movie that is emotionally cold and thematically confusing. It’s a shame because I really wanted to like this movie and for it to live up to the 1970s science fiction pedigree a lot of other pictures have.