Growing up with Rollerball
I’ve watched Rollerball (1975) at least a couple of times every decade since I first saw it on VHS in 1988. Before then, I had caught sporadic bursts of ultra-violence set to the contrasting strains of Toccata in D Minor and Adagio whenever the film was shown late at night on TV, and when my mum was unaware I was watching it.
It’s a great example of growing up with a film. We all have films that resonate with us on a personal level; films that we saw as impressionable teens and then revisited as allegedly wiser adults. With Rollerball, when I was younger it was all about skipping through the ‘boring corporate’ stuff and watching the games; reveling in the bone-crunching impacts, the frenetic energy and realism of the sport’s depiction.
In later years, as I grew out of my empathy-less youth, the party scenes laden with hollow bacchanalia and culminating in the tree burning scenes, and Moonpie’s inevitable yet devastating fate affected me deeply. Now, older, battle-scarred and tainted by the cynicism of modern living, it’s the corporate stranglehold on life that interests me, that and the knowing glances between every character in the film who seem to be working together to make Jonathan E fail.
It’s not just my reaction to the themes that has evolved, but also my appreciation for the filmmaking process. Norman Jewison’s approach to William Harrison’s original short story, “Roller Ball Murder” (originally published in Esquire, September 1973) was to be remarkably faithful, his one major change being to include the final game, which was excluded from the original.
In my opinion this was hugely important, as not only did it bookend the film with the titular game itself, but hammered home Jonathan E’s victory over the corporations; a victory for the individual that seems to be more desirable these days. The stark contrast between the bombastic games and the languorous downtime makes for a pacing that would frustrate modern audiences, and yet works for me as I grow older, needing a pause between bloody bursts of athletic violence.
Also, the cinematography by industry legend Douglas Slocombe has that charming 70s obsession with future infrastructure and orange and white furniture. The extended shots of futuristic buildings (The Audi Dome and BMW Building in Munich, and especially the League of Nations Building in Geneva) linger just a little too long on their imposing glass and concrete edifices, but this puts me in mind of the moments when I wander into a room and stare for a few seconds, wondering why I went in there.
For most of us, Rollerball is just another 70s dystopian flick in a sea of 70s dystopian flicks, but for me it’s a brilliant, brutal and deeply unsettling film that I’ll never tire of.
I’m looking forward to continuing to grow older together.
Neil Baker’s last article for us was How No Man’s Sky Has Reinvigorated a Gaming Generation (No, Not That One). He is an author, illustrator, outdoor educator and owner of April Moon Books (AprilMoonBooks.com). His most recent books include the science fiction anthology The Stars at my Door and A Picnic at the Mountains of Madness. He currently lives near Toronto with his family and is officially an old fart.
Rollerball is not very good, but I have a soft spot for movies whose visions of the future look like a day at the local community college.
For me, that film was The Long Ships, based (very, very, very, very, very loosely, if even that much) on the Frans Bengtsson novel, in which a group of Vikings ends up in Moorish Spain where they execute you by having you slide down a giant paper cutter blade thing.
I saw the movie airing on TV while visiting my grandparents out in California and bits of it always stuck in my head, although it wasn’t until many years later that I was actually able to use the power of the internet to figure out what the heck movie it was I was thinking of.