July’s Sci-Fi Theatre: Rollerball

Last year, we met the excellent Graham Ainsley and learned of his labour of love, The Space Merchants: an online shop selling secondhand copies of classic SF books, magazines, artwork, etc.  You should go there and check it out. Now. Don’t worry, we’ll wait until you get back.

All done?  Nice. So, it turns out that The Space Merchants runs a monthly SF film club: Sci-Fi Theatre, which . . . well, why don’t we let them explain it . . .


Even a plant, uh, feels something

– watching the original 1975 Rollerball

Science Fiction Theatre is a small, independent sci-fi film club. The nice people at Time Out have called us “London’s leading sci-fi film club”. May have something to do with us being the only one, but hey, we’ll take it. We’ve put on eight films to date, and next week we’re showing the original Rollerball. We’ve been looking forward to this one for a while.

The seventies was a cracking period for science fiction film. Ignoring Star Trek and Star Wars (easily done at SFT, we’ll be honest), it started with A Clockwork Orange and ended with Alien. Those two alone give the decade a gold star. Before Shatner and Lucas did their thing though, there was an enjoyably dystopian little cluster of films. Silent Running in 1972. Soylent Green and Westworld in 1973, Logan’s Run in 1976 and of course, Norman Jewison’s Rollerball in 1975.

Whether it was a post-Vietnam despondency or a fear of looming Reaganomics, the mood in all of these is decidedly pessimistic. What’s humanity got coming for it? Starships and laser-swords? Not quite. Here we’ve got subservience to technology, totalitarian rule and environmental catastrophe to look forward to, with only rampant vanity and media fuelled consumerism to soften the blow. We’ve seen them described them as “message-y”, which fits. The message is invariably a doomed one.

Rollerball is a perfect example of this post-apocalyptic, dystopian mean streak. In a world where politics has failed, a hegemony of transnational corporations run the whole planet. Big business has solved the problems of war, poverty and unrest at the expense of personal freedom. The cartels make all the decisions, while the masses enjoy a docile, enforced peace of TV, consumer satisfaction and ultraviolent sport. Real bread and circuses stuff. And the sport of rollerball is set up as the ultimate circus. Corporate backed, cathartic violence to channel an entire planet’s worth of animal nature into smooth, predictable social control.

All set up perfectly, of course, for a hero – James Caan’s Jonathan E. – to challenge the system by fighting for individual identity and free will in opposition to the business elites. You know the drill.

The appeal of Rollerball isn’t in the detail of this future history, though. Sure, the social commentary is amusing in a heavy handed way, but as world-building goes, the story is never really fully formed. There’s a checklist of dystopian themes here, all only partially explored. How did the corporations take over? Why are women treated so badly? What does the super-computer ‘Zero’ do? Rather than make you switch off though, this lack of detail adds to a strangely pleasant, unsettling feel to the film. The violence of the sport itself doesn’t stick in the mind. At the time it no doubt garnered attention but it ages badly. What sticks now is just this general, sometimes directionless sense of something gone awry.

Is Jonathan E. a hero? Sometimes. On the rollerball track, for sure. He also shouts down the Executives and longs for his one true love. Tick, tick, tick. At other times though, he’s sombre and aimless. Unguided. When he’s asked by a doctor to turn off his fellow rollerballer Moonpie’s life support, there’s no real moment of realisation or resolve. What you get is mumbled, half-formed discontent. “But even, uh, a plant… uh, feels something”. This isn’t an articulate resistance to the system. This is a confused, well-meaning global celebrity who’s got a feeling quite a lot of things aren’t right with his life. A dystopian science fiction mid-life crisis. Poor Jonathan.

The film’s finest moment is like something out of the European avant-garde and a million miles away from the bike and ball scenes that get most of the attention. Well-to-do guests at a lavish dinner party end the evening by walking through the grounds incinerating trees with a small, handheld atomic gun. Are these the manipulative corporate executives revelling to excess? Or are they playing their part as privileged members of the duped masses, the real power brokers hidden from view? Is this casual violence? Vacuous leisure? Disregard for life? It’s not clear, and whether it’s luck or design, this unsettles. In a nice way.

The SFT Rollerball poster, designed by Max Oginni
The SFT Rollerball poster, designed by Max Oginni

Rollerball is a satire on big business, mass media, and violent sport. It’s also a tale of a hero fighting the system, and of the free individual versus an all-seeing illuminati. It never focuses on any of these long enough for one to take hold, but that’s why it works. It’s a general, all-purpose dystopia.

Science Fiction Theatre is a London-based monthly film club run by The Space Merchants, purveyors of classic sf in all its guises. Rollerball will be screened at The Duke of Wellington, N1 4BL, on Thursday 17th July at 7pm. Tickets are available here.

P.S. In the short story the film is based on (William Harrison’s ‘Roller Ball Murder’) Jonathan’s anger is a touch more focused and explicit. It includes one of the finest lines we’ve ever read in science fiction. “Everything will happen. They’ll change the rules until we skate on a slick of blood, we all know that”. Harrison adapted the story for the screen himself – why didn’t he keep that in? Anyway, it’s a tight little piece. Definitely worth a read. Mindwebs did an audio version too.