Running time: 125 min.
Release date: June 25, 1975
Rollerball comes on the heels of another dystopian futuristic violent sports film, Death Race 2000. Both films feature a central character that is adored by crowds of fans, but where Death Race's Frankenstein was a witty character in a fun film, James Caan's Jonathan E. is rather stoic and quietly defiant in a film that is torn in two different directions: the raucous, violent world of rollerball and the private world of Jonathan E., who seeks answers to questions that no one ever asked. Where the hyperkinetic game of rollerball gives the film its finer moments, it is the dramatic element of the film that is missing energy and prevents the film from completely working.
In the "not too distant future", the world is a corporate state across the globe with various corporate entities responsible for certain aspects of society, such as energy, transportation, luxury, housing, communication and food. Wars are a thing of the past and the global corporations have devised the game of rollerball as a substitute for all team sports and warfare. Used to entertain billions of people around the world, Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), the head of the Energy Corporation (based out of Houston), states that the game has a distinct social purpose, but never reveals what that purpose is until much later. The star player of the Houston team is Jonathan E. (Caan) and he is so popular that he is about to get his own multivision special for television, where Bartholomew demands that Jonathan announce his retirement from the game without any explanation as to why he must retire. There is a subplot with Jonathan asking for his former wife, Ella (Maud Adams), who was taken from him and given to an executive, and being forced into retirement is just one more thing that Jonathan feels is the tipping point for his refusal to give in to corporate demands. The games are then suddenly ordered to drop their rules, leading to one violent game after another, in the hope that Jonathan will retire or possibly be killed during a game. The actual game action is easy to follow and delve into brutally chaotic messes, with crowds cheering on everything. The issue with the story comes when rollerball is not being played out on-screen. Jonathan's futile search for answers is also futile for the viewer in terms of pacing and energy. The scenes of Jonathan in his private life are rather lifeless, in stark contrast to the manic energy displayed in the rollerball arena.
Norman Jewison capably handles the action scenes, depicting rollerball as a structured (at first) and fast-paced game with massive amounts of moving parts, but is easily able to frame the action in a way that the viewer can understand how the game is played. His dystopia is filled with much the same furnishings and architecture that is found in our current world, with some unique differences involving television and a computer named Zero that supposedly has all of history contained in its databanks, which is contained in one of the sillier scenes in the film. The screenplay is by William Harrison, based on his own short story Roller Ball Murder. Harrison's screenplay really doesn't delve terribly deep into this corporate-controlled world and the non-rollerball scenes fall flat and bloat the film's two hour running time.
James Caan's performance as Jonathan E. is either brilliantly understated or horribly underacted. Caan seems to enjoy the action scenes quite a bit but the more dramatic moments of the film have him rather laconic and dim-witted. John Houseman provides a little more bite in his performance as Bartholomew. There is seething disdain for the game and its star player teeming under his dignified poise. John Beck as Moonpie, Jonathan's friend and teammate, is another solid performance and deserves recognition.
One more noteworthy element of the film is its score. The use of classical music attempts to provide a dignified air to the violent proceedings as well as helping to establish tone and atmosphere for some of the scenes. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor appears during the opening sequence as composer André Previn takes a piece that is normally associated with Gothic works and uses it unironically to build to the violence about to unfold and the bloodthirsty crowd that awaits it.
Rollerball is a film with some great ideas that are not fully developed. The action scenes work where the dramatic scenes fail. Trim some of the drama down and the pacing may pick up, however Harrison's screenplay fails to deliver the ideas brought forth. James Caan's performance matches the dull and lifeless story but at the same time he seems at home amidst the chaos of rollerball. Norman Jewison is able to frame the kinetic action capably but seems uninspired outside of the arena. Call Rollerball a draw.