The best science-fiction films of the early ’70s provided sharp social commentary in addition to whiz-bang visuals. For instance, Rollerball is ostensibly an action movie about a futuristic game that combines gladiatorial violence with high-speed athleticism, but it’s also a treatise on the insidiousness of corporate influence and the manner in which vacuous entertainment narcotizes the public.
Set in what was then the near future, 2018, the picture imagines that the nations of Earth have been replaced by a handful of corporations responsible for providing key services, notably the Energy Corporation of Houston, Texas. The corporations have eliminated famine and war, but they’re also eradicating free will. To keep the masses in check, the Corporations invented Rollerball, a kind of hyper-violent roller derby; players move around a circular track on skates or on motorcycles, bashing each other senseless as they try to jam a metal ball into a scoring slot.
The game’s biggest star is Houston’s Jonathan E. (James Caan), but his bosses, including Energy titan Bartholemew (John Houseman), perceive Jonathan’s popularity as a threat. “The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort,” Bartholemew muses at one point. Bartholemew and his cronies try to ply Jonathan with money and women, but when he refuses to go quietly, they change game rules in order to allow opponents to kill him during a brutal match between the Houston team and the samurai-styled squad from Tokyo.
Given this slight plot, it’s impressive that Rollerball remains interesting from start to finish. Director Norman Jewison, midway through one of the most eclectic careers in Hollywood history, does a masterful job of parceling the Rollerball scenes—we get a bloody taste at the beginning, and never return to the rink except when necessary for narrative purposes. Furthermore, once Jewison begins a game sequence, he pounds the audience with relentless cuts and movement that simulate the ferocity of the game itself.
Scenes taking place outside the rink are menacing and quiet, with Caan displaying sensitivity that contrasts the bloodlust he evinces on the battlefield. Houseman personifies an ugly type of blueblooded superiority, while an eclectic group of character players fill out the rest of the cast. John Beck is intense as Caan’s teammate, Moonpie; Moses Gunn lends gravitas as an anguished coach; and Pamela Hensley provides allure as a kept woman opportunistically moving from one star player to the next. Best of all is one-scene wonder Ralph Richardson, who plays a daffy librarian eager to help Jonathan investigate the evil designs of the corporations.
This being a sci-fi picture, the visuals are of paramount importance, and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s images never disappoint: His haze filters and long lenses give the picture otherworldly coldness. Rollerball’s characterizations aren’t particularly deep—perhaps because writer William Harrison drew from the slight source material of his own short story, “Roller Ball Murder”—but careful direction, solid performances, and vivid action make the picture quite exciting.