By Brad Laidman | February 8, 2002

“Ladies and Gentlemen our corporate anthem.”
Remember “Roller Derby.” What the hell was going on there? It was like a step below wrestling in class and there was even that Raquel Welch movie Kansas City Bombers about it. What was the object of Roller Derby? How did you score? Was there a score? Who were the dominant teams? Did anyone know? Essentially all these man and women would skate around on an oval rink, talk smack, and beat the hell out of each other. I think they were sort of racing, and they used to form these long chains and rapidly fling one of the team members forward for again some reason I could never in my life figure out.
“Rollerball,” sport of the future is essentially Roller Derby with motorcycles and spiked gloves. At least here there is a cone goal that the jai lai mittened skaters try to toss a huge silver ball into. When they aren’t scoring though there are plenty of cheap shots and injured players for TV’s to broadcast around the world. They don’t even stop the action to bring guys off in stretchers. Forget the XFL. How has this movie been around for twenty five years without being optioned by the WWF’s Vince McMahon for a future made for TV league?
“Rollerball” is essentially Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World with skating gladiators and hey what could be better than that? The whole world is run by some huge corporation, all the history books have been summarized and destroyed, there is no poverty and sickness and many luxuries abound. Everybody gets to stay opiated on these little pills that look just like tins of Altoids. Of course this is a horrible situation, I can’t exactly say for sure why, but that went for Brave New World as well. It has something to do with holding on to your individuality and free destiny. I used to agree with this stuff, but these days I figure I’d rather have the drugs, the women, and the good life. How can Freedom compare to that? This future world must be bad because they have eliminated Rock musicand there is this cheesy irritating omnipresent organ music which is only matched in volume by the number of TV sets everyone has.
James Caan plays Jonathon E., the Michæl Jordan of “Rollerball.” Apparently the people upstairs use Rollerball as a way of showing the masses that individual effort is a bad and worthless thing. When Jonathan becomes too good, they want him to retire or better even yet to be beaten. So they keep changing the rules. Ultimately it all comes down to one final championship game. The new rules are no substitution, no time limit, no penalties. Essentially they just have to kill each other until just one team is left. Guess who is left standing as the modern messiah? I’m not sure if his victory is to signify one desperate heroic act of an individual or the beginning of some revolution, but it sure is violent and entertaining. This is a Norman Jewison film so you are probably supposed to be appalled at the mindless violence, but even he can’t think anybody ever watched the film that way. Admit it, if this sport were on TV tomorrow, you would watch it.
It’s weird how athletes looked on film in the 70s versus nowadays. Their idea of buff was Nick Nolte in North Dallas Forty or James Caan here. Compare that to Lawrence Taylor and the monsters that are around these days. It almost makes the old guys look silly.
“Rollerball”‘s view of the future has aged a bit and isn’t anywhere near as interesting as “Blade Runner,” but it seems pretty prescient about violence, corporations, and TV. My biggest problem with Rollerball isn’t it’s silly anti-utopianism, it’s in the ending. Two guys against James Caan and for some reason they attack him one at a time. I have never understood why and probably never will.

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  1. christco says:

    This is one of those lousy reviews that tells us way more about the reviewer than it does the movie. Interesting that you chose Lawrence Taylor as your example of modern-day athletic buffness, considering he retired 9 years before you wrote this piece and his rookie season was only 5 years after this film was released. I think it’s pretty obvious that the film was using violence to show explicitly why violence is bad, but I guess you’re one of those people that watches football to see someone get hurt, or auto racing to see crashes. I hope you didn’t get paid for this, because if you did, I want an application. I could write a better review than this sitting on the shitter.

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