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Film / Rollerball

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"The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort. And the game must do its work. The Energy Corporation has done all it can, and if a champion defeats the meaning for which the game was designed, then he must lose. I hope you agree with my reasoning."

Rollerball is a 1975 dystopian sci-fi/action film directed by Norman Jewison and starring James Caan. William Harrison adapted the screenplay from his own short story, "Roller Ball Murder".

The story is set 20 Minutes into the Future, when everything is controlled by Mega Corps that keep the unwashed masses happy the best way they know how: full contact Blood Sport!

The sport, Rollerball, is like Roller Derby on speed. Players come and go (usually violently), as the sport is meant to suppress individuality. That changes when our hero, Jonathan E (Caan), becomes a Rollerball star and refuses to retire. The executives don't like that and start making changes to the game in an effort to kill Jonathan.

There's also a 2002 remake, directed by John McTiernan (who disowned it because of massive Executive Meddling) and starring Chris Klein as Jonathan, which features twice the blood, as well as Paul Heyman as a game announcer.


For the video pinball game from HAL Laboratory, click here.

This film provides examples of:

  • Artistic License – Politics: A dystopian corporation-led society would likely result in the opposite of what the film depicts. Rather than a society filled with luxury at the cost of stunted freedom, it would more likely be a society where you can do nearly whatever you want with no laws or enforcement to stop you, with the downside being rampant poverty due to the excessive hoarding of wealth.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The Tokyo fans are supposed to be chanting "Ganbare Tokyo!" (頑張れ 東京; roughly meaning "Hang in there, Tokyo"). While the phrase is grammatically correct and perfectly appropriate to the context, it's pronunciation is nigh-incomprehensible to a native speaker. The actual word is pronounced ɡã̠mba̠ɾe̞, with an 'e' as an 'set', however the extras pronounce it closer to 'gun-bear'.
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  • Ball Cannon: Used to launch a game ball onto the track. One launched ball smashes the head of an unfortunate Tokyo player who ends up unconscious with his head in the launching track.
  • Battle Chant:
    • When star player Jonathan E scores the winning goal in the final game, despite rules changes meant to destroy him, the crowd begins chanting his name in a building crescendo. This portends a social revolution in which the corporate masters lose control of their formerly docile populace.
    • Subverted earlier — as they walk out into the ring, Jonathan's team give their standard chant, while the opposing team chant, "JONATHAN'S DEAD!"
  • Berserk Button: Through most of the movie, Bartholomew is amazingly calm and reasonable when dealing with Jonathan, until he pointedly suggests that Jonathan can be made to quit the game. When Jonathan answers that Bartholomew can't make him do anything, the executive shouts, "Don't tell me that! DON'T EVER SAY THAT!"
  • Bittersweet Ending: Jonathan has survived and become a hero, and it is implied that this victory is a portent of a successful insurrection, but he wins at a horrible cost. He's the sole survivor, all his teammates - and the opposing team - dead or badly injured, winning a game in an arena littered with corpses. Truly, the price of freedom is high.
  • Blood Sport:
    • Rollerball, of course. (Quickly turning into a Deadly Game as the story progresses.)
    • Much more pronounced in the original short story, where the primary goal of the game was murder. In the movie, murder was added into the later games to show how desperate the higher ups had become in their efforts to prevent Jonathan's victory.
  • Bread and Circuses: The purpose of the sport is to provide the masses with a controlled outlet for their bloodlust, while also suppressing any desires for individuality.
  • Cataclysm Backstory: We learn very little about the Corporate Wars that toppled the world's governments. About all we do hear is Cletus' comment that they were "naaasty".
  • Cloudcuckoolander: The librarian (played by Ralph Richardson) who programs Zero, and, it appears, Zero, itself.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Each corporation has a house color which everything associated with them, including Rollerball teams, are covered in. Three are made clear through their teams, with Energy (Houston) being orange, Food (Madrid) green and Luxury (Tokyo) yellow. Two more, purple and white, are shown as identifying colors over their executives in Bartholomew's teleconference but not given names.
  • Corporate Warfare: The Corporate Wars are mentioned as a Great Offscreen War, but when Jonathan tries to find out more details he gets stymied.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Corporate society may have eliminated freedom and individuality, but it has also eliminated hunger and poverty.
  • Deadly Game: We hear that the record number of deaths during a match is nine, and that was before the rule changes introduced during the film.
  • Dystopia: It's noted that, some time in the past, the "Corporate Wars" resulted in the overthrow of national governments. The resulting corporate-controlled society has given people all manner of comforts, but at the cost of the people's freedom.
  • Extreme Sports Plot: In a World… where Corporate Warfare is waged through a sport and provides Bread and Circuses, the man who plays it better can be a very visible symbol of obedience or rebellion.
  • Fictional Sport: Rollerball.
  • The Film of the Book: The film is an adaptation of "Roller Ball Murder" by William Harrison.
  • Finish Him!: In the Houston-New York game at the end, Jonathan tackles the last New York player and is about to smash his head in with the ball. After a moment, he instead gets up, goes over to the goal, and jams the ball in for the winning score.
  • Foreshadowing: Moonpie is contemptuous of the Japanese players' short stature, though he's warned that even small opponents can cream a big guy three-on-one. Three guesses how Moonpie gets clobbered in the Houston/Tokyo game.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: During the matches, we get brief glimpses of what is probably the Houston program: an orange field, with a white circle with a black logo in the centre. Compare with the flag of Nazi Germany: a red field, with a white circle with a black logo in the centre.
  • Freeze-Frame Ending: The film concludes with the crowd chanting "Jonathan!" as The Hero takes a victory lap. The camera freezes on the face of the man who refused to be beaten as the credits appear in succession.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Three Tokyo players gang up on Moonpie, pull off his helmet, and hit him in the back of the head hard enough to cause brain death. Jonathan retaliates by getting Blue to help trap one of the players, then pulling off the man's helmet and delivering the same type of blow.
  • Luxurious Liquor: The post-game revelers wear ball gowns and dinner jackets, and sip champagne from proper flutes, before spilling onto the lawn to obliterate a stand of trees with an incendiary pistol. Ah, how elegantly decadent.
  • Make Games, Not War: The narration claims that war no longer exists, and that Rollerball (which is very violent even if it's a game) has replaced it.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Jonathan is afraid of this at one point, refusing to go on a helicopter. It's later revealed that the corporation has rejected the idea as it's important that Jonathan die during the game, in order to demonstrate the futility of individual effort.
  • Master Computer: "Zero", which now stores all of human history after the corporations digitized the books. (They've lost the files for the 13th century somewhere...) It goes into a meltdown when Jonathan asks it a question that the corporations don't want it to answer.
  • Memento MacGuffin: A home movie Jonathan keeps of better times with his wife and his coach. He pointedly erases it in her face when she returns to try to persuade him to quit.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: At first, Mackie doesn't mind shooting up the trees. But, after the other party-goers have gleefully shot the rest of them, she's clearly upset over the act.
  • Ominous Pipe Organ: The corporate anthems. Also, the intro music.
  • One Nation Under Copyright: "Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for our corporate anthem."
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: While there are some original compositions, some of the music in the movie is from the baroque/classical era.
  • Revenge: Jonathan is partly motivated by resentment over his wife being taken from him by an executive. Ironically, by the time his wife is returned to him, he's not interested in giving up the game; he actually rejects her for cooperating with the corporation's efforts.
  • Screw This, I'm Out of Here!: During the last game, the New York team's exec orders one of his players back out onto the track. The player responds by taking off his helmet and throwing it to the floor.
  • Tough Spikes and Studs: Many players have chrome studs on their gloves, especially those that carry the rollerball. These are made visible when, under the rules, Jonathan E holds the ball aloft to indicate that he has possession. Jonathan also uses these studded gloves on the woman sent to discourage him from participating further in the sport. He scratches her cheek with them to underscore that he will not be cowed into the shadows of retirement.
  • Treacherous Advisor:
    • Bartholomew, who initially gives Jonathan almost fatherly advice to quit the game, is soon plotting to have him killed when that advice is rejected.
    • Averted in the case of Cletus, Jonathan's friend who's a former player and current executive. He's powerless to interfere with the corporations' actions against Jonathan, but gives him some helpful information about dealing with them.
  • Trophy Wife: Jonathan had a trophy wife bestowed on him for his success, but he really did care for her. Then she was taken away from him and given to an executive. This seems to be completely normal behavior in that verse.
  • Unspecified Apocalypse: The Corporate Wars. Even more "unspecified" because all files have been deliberately made secret by the corporations and as a result Jonathan's attempt to get them makes the Master Computer in charge of the files go berserk.
  • We Will Have Euthanasia in the Future: When Moonpie is left brain dead by his injuries, the attending doctor urges Jonathan to sign off on stopping treatment (and possibly actually killing him). Jonathan pointedly refuses to do so, even after being told that hospital rules require it.
  • Win One for the Gipper: Subverted. Before the final game against New York, Jonathan skates into the locker room where the rest of the Houston team is waiting. Nothing is said. They just stare at each other, since they all know the odds are none of them will survive the game.
  • Wham Line: "Nobody's gonna win this game?" "Game?! This wasn't meant to be a game. NEVER."
  • Zeerust:
    • Liquid-state computing and pistol-sized plasma blasters, yet their skaters never progressed from quads to blades? (The movie was made in 1975. In-line skates had been invented by then, but were practically unknown to the public until they were openly distributed in 1981, six years after this film's debut.)
    • Roller Derby is skated nearly exclusively on quads (which are, in fact, specified in every code of the sport). So what would have been Zeerust in the 80s and 90s is not so much anymore (never mind that the rules of roller derby have evolved away from a Professional Wrestling style spectacle and toward genuine athletic competition).
    • Zero itself also qualifies. A room-sized computer with giant rotary tape drives, the history of the 13th Century misplaced because a tape roll got lost?
      • The tape-drive computers are indicated to be outdated, containing information to be transferred to Zero. Zero, itself, is an advanced, futuristic computer using "fluidic" memory systems.

The 2002 remake has examples of:

  • Bloodier and Gorier: This version is far more violent than the original.
  • Fictional Sport: Once again, Rollerball. We get a brief gist of the most important rules before the announcer says that the rest don't matter and they're written in Russian, anyway.
  • Hotter and Sexier: The film ramps up the fan-service in contrast to the original, introducing female players into the teams and showing a lot of skin during the locker-room scenes.
  • If It Bleeds, It Leads: Rollerball is already an "extreme" sport that is practiced in Eastern Europe because other nations consider it too crazy to make it mainstream, but it turns out that all of the murder and mayhem that happens before (and in some way after) Jonathan starts to rebel is deliberately ordered by the Big Bad to increase the broadcast ratings.
  • Jump Cut: Several of them. Hell, there are two jump cuts at the same time in one scene near the end of the movie!
  • Lighter and Softer: Extra gore aside, the remake drops the dystopian setting of the original, resulting in what is basically a standard sports movie with more violence.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: Unlike the original, the remake basically takes place in modern day.
  • Sequel Goes Foreign: The remake takes place somewhere in Eastern Europe (the announcer says that the rulebook is written in Russian) because Rollerball is considered too violent for mainstream audiences. It is quickly revealed that this is partially the point.