FANTASIA OBSCURA: The Past Warns Us About the Dangers of Sports in the Future

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you play the game, and sometimes, the game plays you.

Rollerball (1975)

Distributed by: United Artists
Directed by: Norman Jewison

As we’ve seen, there have been films, more than one, where the filmmakers make guesses about what we would find in our time (their future) that turn out to be remarkably accurate.

This one may well be the most prescient:

Our film opens just before Houston, a city managed by the Energy Conglomerate, faces Madrid in a game of rollerball. We watch the field crew and coaching staff take their positions in the center of the round track as Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” plays, serving as the main composition theme for the film.

The game is soon underway, a contest involving a metal ball fired onto the rim of the track at 120 miles an hour, which the teams have to pick up and throw into a metal cone to score. As all but three team members are on roller skates, the rest on motorbikes, it’s a game of constant motion, with players taking both offense and defense depending on possession of the ball. Blocking is allowed, even encouraged, thus infusing each game with elements of football, hockey, lacrosse, roller derby, and jai alai.

Which means we watch a spectacle of pain and hurt inflicted on the Madrid team by league-leading Houston, mainly delivered by Moonpie (John Beck) and led by record scorer Jonathan E (James Caan). Houston goes on to a win heading into the playoffs and receives a glowing after-game appreciation by Energy’s executive overseeing the team, Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman, in only his second major role after transitioning from producing to acting):

When Jonathan gets to his meeting with Mr. Bartholomew, the boss tells him that it’s time to retire from the game. Jonathan, a veteran of the game for 10 years, can’t get why he’s being asked to leave. He thought that by doing everything he was asked to, including letting his wife Ella (Maud Adams) leave him for a corporate executive, he’d found a place for life.

He demurs on retiring, getting involved instead in preparations for their next match against Tokyo. As the rules committee (the corporate overlords) decided to limit substitutions and do away with many penalties before the match, the team receives a briefing from a strategy coach (Robert Ito) that Moonpie can’t help disrupting:

Unfortunately, he should have listened: While Houston wins and Jonathan scores, the rest of the team takes a savage beating, with Moonpie ending up brain dead at the end of the match. Which leaves Jonathan, his closest companion, responsible for making end-of-life decisions for him, while Energy Corporation has to make decisions about Jonathan:

A brief word about the film’s setting: Many accounts of the film state that the story takes place in 2018, a date that is never mentioned once on film or in the screenplay. As best as can be surmised, reports of the date came from press materials provided by the studio that circulated as the film was released, something intimated at in Vincent Canby’s review for the movie for the New York Times. The materials may likely have referenced the source for the screenplay, William Harrison’s short story “Roller Ball Murder,” which through that story sets itself in that period.

The world as of that date is an interesting one: Leading up to the present, all countries went bankrupt and dissolved, leaving major corporations to take on governance and management. After what were known as the Corporate Wars, vast armed conflicts and breaking poverty were eliminated, with corporations willing to provide all comforts in exchange for a free hand in running things.

It’s a world where corporate governance is strengthened through the spectacle of rollerball, a sport with a worldwide audience. You may as well watch that, as many books are digitized yet hard to find, to the consternation of the head librarian (Ralph Richardson) trying to manage the world database. And if you aren’t really feeling it, there are little pills being offered like mints to help keep your mind at ease.

And it’s not an entirely alien environment in our present. Extensive corporate lobbying has pretty well shifted governance from the legislature to the boardroom, which has as a side effect a noticeable decline in armed conflicts and an overall rise in standards of living. Information is supposed to be easier to find thanks to Google, although there have been corporate efforts to restrict knowledge. Those little white pills being passed out seem too familiar to us these days.

And as for the sports, it’s not hard to find the obvious stand-in here.

There are even parallels one can find in the plot. Moonpie’s fate speaks strongly to us as we deal with the large incidence of CTE among football players, and the insistence that the game is greater than the players, leading to the effort to remove Jonathan E from the game, certainly suggests the Colin Kaepernick situation, if one is so inclined. For those who can’t take that line of reasoning, the Tom Brady “Deflategate” incident could also serve as a reflection from the film.

There’s the question, of course, as to whether there’s a reason to watch the film other than for seeing how pretty spot-on it was in predicting the future. The story is filled with characters it can be hard to warm up to, although compared with those in other sports-themed films that decade like North Dallas Forty and Semi-Tough they could almost have played ball in Knute Rockne All American. (The fact that Caan brings a lot of his Brian Piccolo from his TV movie Brian’s Song can be seen as either a plus or minus to taste.) The fact that for all the benefits that this corporatocracy promises, it’s a place no one seems real happy to be, can make the film difficult to watch.

If you’re one of those people who anxiously waits for the car chase (or in this case, the car crash), then the film will keep you enthralled. Jewison’s shooting and editing of the three games depicted, each one bloodier than the last, is taut and well-paced. Although he gets a lot out of the non-sports shots he makes, using West German buildings as stand-ins for Houston in the future, he seems to have realized that the main draw for the film was going to be the action set pieces, even though he claimed the film was anti-violence. Whether this says something about his inability to make his message clear, or our natural inclinations not to care when we get blood spectacles before us, is a topic for another piece.

(Whatever his intent, the work he did could not have been possible without the cast who played the games for the camera. As a result of their work, Rollerball becomes the first major studio production to give the stunt crew on screen credits for all members who worked on the film.)

With all its merits and flaws, Rollerball still manages to say something to a later generation about the time they find themselves in. There’s much to be gleaned from seeing a depiction of a world where corporate interests are responsible for presenting to a worldwide audience a game that takes a heavy toll on its players as it asks us not to question its methods.

If there is a bright spot in this shadow representation of our time, it’s that in their version of 2018, there’s nothing analogous to fantasy football to deal with…


NEXT TIME: Bell, book, and candle will not save you from the monster Vincent Price plays in this film…

About James Ryan 134 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…