Norman Jewison’s 1975 adaptation of William Harrison’s short story Roller Ball Murder is something of a diamond in the rough. Though I’ve always thought it to be a great 20th century dystopia, the film lacks the pacing and punch of its literary counterpart. With a 125 minute runtime, Rollerball is very much a film told in five acts where three would likely suffice. Even on my DVD edition, the audio balancing is a disaster; though I have to wonder how much of my manic volume management is due to James Caan’s tendency to mumble rather than the technology used to make the movie nearly 40 years ago.
Regardless of its technical defects, the messages and prognostications of Jewison’s film, whose script was written by Harrison, himself, seem as though they were crafted for our contemporary world. Here’s a few which stood out after my most recent viewing.
Corporate government takes over after the financial failure of nation states.
In one of the movie’s many expository dirges, we learn that a conglomeration of six corporations rule the world. These entities replaced a bankrupt triad of supra-nations, who had led the world into various ideological conflicts. Though there’s not much to the scene where this tidbit is revealed, it’s a poignant message for this world where corporations are people, at least in the United States, and debt in the Eurozone, which just happens to be a supranational institution, has financial analysts exploring the implications of a nation defaulting on its debt.
The fundamental question of the post-modern state is one of freedom versus comfort.
When Jonathan (James Caan) is reunited with his wife, Ella (Maud Adams), she is framed as the rational mouth piece for corporate rule. Therein she states the entire history of humanity to be an organized struggle against poverty. The corporations’ solution to this struggle is a Rosseauian social contract of sorts; whereby all citizens of the world give up the freedom to question management decisions and in doing so give up nothing as all give equally toward the greater good. Jonathan’s counterpoint is that the luxuries afforded to all by corporate rule are nothing more than a cheap payoff for the more valuable right to ask “Why?”.
While Jonathan’s message is meant as a call to action, it’s hard not to look at a post 9/11 world and see how we have sacrificed freedom for comfort. Our digital life, something meant to connect us, is just as easily used by governments to monitor and profile. We buy iPads and other gadgets produced in conditions beneath human dignity, and in doing so offer tacit approval to trade and labour practices which keep people as virtual thralls.
Women are second class citizens.
Among elite Rollerball champions and corporate executives, women are commodities. Jonathan’s wife was appropriated from him when she caught the attention of an executive within the Energy Corporation. Thereafter Jonathan takes comfort in various women who are assigned to him as long-term companions. When he wants a new one, he need only give the existing woman her walking papers.
This idea of male dominance within Rollerball’s world is further reinforced during a party sequence. While the men all wear tuxedos, the women are so scantily clad, at least for the mid 70s, that it might as well be an episode of Game of Thrones. During the party men are seen moving from one woman to the next with all the deliberation one would expect to see at a Roman orgy. Though the sex is implied, the evidence is unshakable. Within an alpha-male business world, pretty women are luxuries to be passed around like so many recreational drugs.
While the movie never specifies how women are unmade as people, I expect it might begin with things like private corporations gaming benefits to defund access to reproductive healthcare.
Governments don’t need to lie when people are stupid.
Though Rollerball hints at some level of Orwellian historical management vis-a-vis the dangers of digitization and the timeless sanctity of print books, it never dives too deeply into those waters. Instead the movie locks on to a more fundamental idea: people are stupid. During the aforementioned party sequence, the camera pans across a number of conversations. One in particular sees two well to do people discussing the “fact” that all Rollerball players are androids, not flesh and blood humans. It’s at once a justification for increasing the violence in the game, an othering of the actual players, and a brilliant insight on modern group think.
Witness another world where access to limitless information has not led to a smarter population, but a more gullible one.
The greater good is best served by mediocrity; wherein the individual should never become greater than the whole.
This idea drives the film’s central conflict. Jonathan has become bigger than Rollerball and thus bigger than the corporations. Fans take to writing Jonathan’s name on shirts which previously and uniformly read “Rollerball”, absent any team affiliation. Even Rollerball players don’t wear their names on their uniforms, simply their assigned number. The danger of Jonathan’s success is not that one man could lead a revolution, but that he might encourage others to try to be better than they ought to be.
What happens then when society is too slow to react to an influx of people rising to a station where there is not enough room for all in attendance? What is the solution when there are not enough jobs to go around? Does a meritocracy triumph? Or do connections and nepotism decide who finds a place in society? In either outcome highly skilled people are left slinging coffee at Starbucks. Dare we wonder if Rollerball’s approach is a viable third way? Is it better to marginalize the outliers of excellence than fill the ranks of those merely “above average” with delusions of greatness?
Though somewhat plodding when not in the arena, Rolleball raises issues which continue to resonate with our society. It’s also brilliant in its ability to invent a new sport and teach people how it’s played without any meaningful dialogue from the key players. But that is a post for another day.