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"Rollerball" Review: The Deadly Cycle of Consumerism

Updated on June 6, 2021
Sam Shepards profile image

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interests are science fiction and zombie movies. I also enjoy pessimistic and survival films a lot.

You have to give Rollerball credit. Although time has taken its toll, this dystopian sci-fi sports film, a mixture of genres that surely sounds like a trainwreck, remains an interesting and relevant piece.

Directed by Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, Moonstruck) and written by William Harrison, Rollerball happens in the year 2018, in a world where neoliberal capitalism has achieved its terrifying utopia by suppressing any form of public government.

In this world, corporations control all aspects of life: roads, electricity, food, water and entertainment. In the best style of the Orwellian Ministry of truth, every literary, hemerographic and bibliographic record has been "reviewed" and channeled through a single source of information. In this way, corporations have erased the historical memory of society, turning it into what they call "A material dream world".

The "catch" is clear. In this system with a "kind of incidental control over just part of our lives" (as one of the characters says) where there are no longer large-scale war conflicts, individualities don't exist.

Citizens must obey the private decisions of "the executives". From jobs to family members, they decide everything on the population. Freedom is wildly relativized as just living comfortably, consuming without any creative impulses.

Rollerball is the people's new controlled opium. Teams of skaters (and some bikers) representing each nation (which are controlled by different corporations) face each other on a small velodrome.

The goal is to score the most points with a softball-sized steel sphere in a magnetic hole. It's a violent, fast-paced game that frequently results in the death of the participants.

Jonathan E. (James Caan) is a veteran player from the Houston team with a unique longevity career. An absolute dominator of almost all statistics, he is undoubtedly one of the most famous men in the world. But Jonathan E. is an invention of corporations, which made different decisions throughout his life to take him to that point.

For example, at the beginning of his sports career, an executive basically snatched his wife Ella (Maud Adams), without any explanation. In this world, power is not questioned, only obeyed.

Even though he lives with all commodities and amenities, Jonathan is deeply unhappy. The only time he forgets his sorrow is during rollerball, where his individuality stands out. And that is precisely the reason why Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), chairman of the Energy Corporation, suddenly notifies him that he has to announce his retirement.

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In the end, rollerball was, in the words of Mr. Bartholomew, "a game created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort." The idea of Jonathan winning the rollerball championship and beating every stat is a dangerous blow to that corporate ideology. But Jonathan doesn't know this. Confused and outraged, he starts a crusade to try to understand the reasons behind that executive decision.

Rollerball derails horrendously at the end, with a sudden, clumsy and absurd resolution that doesn't assume the revolution that apparently wants to start. But until that moment, this movie has already achieved something incredible. It was able to generate a debate about consumerism and the terrifying utopia of neoliberalism through a team of rollerskaters led by a Jewfro-styled James Caan.

I really want to give it more than 3 on 5, but we've seen too many higher-quality corporate dystopias since rollerball. It's a mediocre entry in the genre now.

Movie Details

Title: Rollerball

Release Year: 1975

Director(s): Norman Jewison

Writer(s): William Harrison

Actors: James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, a.o.

Runtime: 2 hours 5 minutes

Language: English

3 stars for Rollerball

© 2019 Sam Shepards

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