Despite what you may assume from the flood of recent titles like Nerve, The Hunger Games, and The Maze Runner, the future-murder sports dystopia flick is not a new invention. The stars of those YA action flicks might skew younger & more feminine than they used to, but there’s a long tradition of dystopian sci-fi sports movies that dates at least as far back as cult classic like Death Race 2000, The Running Man, Tron, and Logan’s Run. Unfortunately, the James Caan sports dystopia Rollerball isn’t exactly a forgotten gem of the genre. It’s an admirable contribution to the field, though, and it had the good fortune of arriving early enough in the deadly future-sports genre to escape accusations of being derivative. If released in 2016 with a Chloë Grace Moretz or an Elle Fanning in its lead role, Rollerball would be a bankable, but forgotten addition to an already-crowded field, but in 1975 it could still pass as an oddity & a novelty, one that’s – for better or for worse – a lot more gruff & macho than its genre has become in the decades since.
The most exciting aspect of Rollerball is, of course, its titular game. Like a deadly version of roller derby filtered through aspects of football, hockey, jai alai, and motocross, rollerball is a swirling tornado of roller skates, motorbikes, and beefy men aiming to break the neck of any competitor willing to block their path to the same goal that commands most professional sports: putting the ball in the hole. Director Norman Jewison (who is also responsible for Moonstruck, oddly enough), throws all of his weight into the staging & the cinematography of the scenes set in the rollerball arena. The film opens with ominous organs that playfully hover between stadium music & a horror score. Intensely lit players on roller skates & motorcycles whip around the arena, flashing spiked gloves & ridiculous facial hair. Rollerball was made in a time when roller derby felt like a brutal & futuristic sport. It’s since become somewhat of a retro relic, but it’s got its own legion of dedicated fans & players and the movie captures the excitement of those crowds, just with an extra layer of bloodlust piled on top. As such, it’s perfectly calibrated for cult film longevity, even if it’s outshone by far superior works like Death Race 2000 & Logan’s Run.
That’s why it’s somewhat of a shame that the rest of the film surrounding the fictional sport is so oddly subdued. James Caan is perfectly cast as a gruff, but aging sports star, recalling several mid-70s quarterbacks from the NFL. He’s seen as being too on top of his game, however, as the wealthy executives who won the international rollerball league urge him to retrieve & squash his massive fanbase. The world of Rollerball is vaguely defined, but features a monolithic organization of Corporations that have replaced world governments with insular profit sharing & traded in business-disrupting wards with, you guessed it, rollerball. The Energy Corporation, who owns the Houston team Caan’s protagonist leads to frequent victory, reminds their star player constantly and with grave seriousness that, “No player is greater than the game itself.” As a sport, rollerball was specifically designed to encourage being a team player & to downplay the significance of the lone hero, a sentiment & philosophy meant to keep The Corporation’s subjects complacent, Caan’s heroic sports star threatens to disrupt that complacency when he refuses to step out of the spotlight and the executives who run the show conspire to rig the game in in order to force him out with the in-the-arena violence. By the time this comes to a head, bodies are on fire & piled on the court, but Caan keeps skating on & putting the ball in the hole. I like the central idea of a bloodsport keeping the common people’s heroics in check by encouraging groupthink, but the film does a much more compelling job establishing that story in the rollerball arena than it does in the lavish boardrooms & penthouses that languidly eat up the other half of its bloated runtime.
There may never be a better time for a Rollerball remake. Not only are remakes in general a hot commodity, but if you recast Caan’s lead role with a female teen you’ll have instant YA profits waiting to pour in (although I suppose it might’ve been a better bet to get it greenlit around the time of the first Hunger Games film, seeing how Nerve unfortunately passed by with little fanfare this summer). Rollerball was already disastrously duplicated in the hellish cultural low point of the nu metal 00s, but the time was less ripe then. Throw some neon & electronica on those undeniably exciting & PG-13 violent roller derby sequences and you’d have a really fun summer blockbuster on your hands. The 1970s version we already have is a decent enough picture on their own, though, especially in its exhilarating scenes of futuristic murder sports. You might have to be an already-established fan of that kind of sci-fi dystopia to be won over by its ludicrous thrills; it’s not an exception within its genre, but more of a typified. It is a weird little action movie, though, one I probably should have watched a lot sooner than I did, given my affection for its highly specific subgenre.