The Verge is a place where you can consider the future. So do movies. In the Future, revisit a movie about the future and consider what it tells us about today, tomorrow, and yesterday.
The movie: Rollerball (the original 1975, not the 2002 remake)
The future: Corporate nations and their supercomputers control humanity, shaping the historical records as they wish. The masses are humiliated by watching rollerball, a professional football-like sport played on a roller derby loop with motorcycles. Rollerball players have an amazing existence: they make fans, they envy executives, and they give them a happy home, a beautiful wife or girlfriend, and fancy TVs with extra screens showing of smaller, different angles of whatever they are watching. In exchange for all this, they let corporations take control of their lives.
Jonathan E. (played by James Caan) is the greatest rollerballer in history, but his corporate supporters think his fame makes him very powerful. They asked him to retire, and when he refused, they tried to kill him by making the danger even more dangerous. Naturally, because it is a science fiction dystopia, it turns out fans love the resulting blood.
The past: The ’70s produced a glut of highly conceptual dystopian films about consumerism and the dark side of mass culture; beyond Rollerball, this is a category included Soylent Green, Logan runs, ZPG, and even the scandal Zardoz. They are all about futures where comfort and civilization are at the expense of individual freedom and the natural world, and Rollerball is no exception – in what is far from the film’s bizarre scene, a group of drunken socialists explode full of laser guns.
Rollerball also has a longstanding fascination with ultraviolent sci-fi sports. Based on a short story in 1973, it was released the same year as satirical by Roger Corman Death Eaters 2000, with a remarkably similar premise. And films like 1987 will follow Running man, where a state police maintains power through a game show. Unintentional, RollerballThe awful remake of 2002 did not include any of these themes – it was about a small extreme sports league in present-day Europe.
The current: Rollerball is not good at predicting the future, and in some ways, more interesting than a general “up to date” commentary on how violence and corporations are bad.
Rollerball thinks of the final capitalist society (which various sources suggest is set in 2018, though I have not found solid evidence of it) as a brandless, almost communist monoculture in which companies have names of the bland such as “Energy Energy” and operates as a single, peaceful global conglomerate. Professional sports are designed to “demonstrate the futility of individual effort.” Rollerball teams have no mascots or moniker beyond their city name, and all fans dress up in almost identical T-shirts coded by the city. In this world, individualism is such a threat that ownership of the greatest athlete in known history is a terrible responsibility.
It is a peculiarly innocent, unique pre-cyberpunk vision that has largely been suspended by how well companies choose to regain independence and rebellion. In our true 21st century, the relationship between freedom, individualism, and capitalism has become incredibly complex. The oppression is being sold by glitzy superstar figureheads, as corporations earn good PR by opposing authority laws, policing political leaders, and reining in celebrities. Some true Jonathan E. analogs use their personality cults to raise money and promote social change; others make them followers of the vicious troops. Far from enforcing personal similarities, a true Energy Corporation will probably build a different brand for each hyper-niche subculture and run a snarky Twitter feed.
It is less rugged than other future-bloodsport movies like Running man o The Hunger Games, where pop culture is nothing more than staged, tumultuous violence. Rollerball is surprisingly compelling for a fictional sport; it’s kind of convoluted and impractical, but at least designed with consistent and interesting rules.
New York Times critic Vincent Canby mentioned RollerballThe crypto-utopian pilot returned in 1975, complaining that “like Mr. Jewison, and William Harrison, who wrote the screenplay, really believed that things like war, poverty and disease could be easily eliminated” by authoritarianism:
All science fiction can be divided into two types of nightmares. At first the world went through a nuclear holocaust and civilization dates back to a Neo-Stone Age. In the second, where “Rollerball” is a complex and very stupid example, all of humanity’s problems are solved but at the terrible price of individual liberty.
It’s not wrong. Nearly 45 years later, though Rollerball seems like an accidental chilling commentary on our present. Because in 2020, we were avoiding the dystopian future we warned it about – and just discovered another kind of nightmare.
Rollerball available to rent on Amazon Prime Video and Vudu.