Science fiction is about the real world. That doesn’t mean it can’t be set on an alien planet, an alternate history, or an imagined future. It means that the story has a message about us. About society. About humanity. If that’s not there, it’s not science fiction.
The late 1960’s - 1970s had a great run of films that did exactly that. Planet of the Apes (the original). Soylent Green. Omega Man. Rollerball (the original), Logan’s Run, and many more.
… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses. —Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81
Imagine a world where corporations have taken over and replaced the government. The people are distracted, entertained, and kept submissive with a combination of lurid entertainment and mind-numbing drugs. Where billionaires run rampant, taking whatever they please.
That’s the world of Rollerball. Too far-fetched for you? Well, work with me for a moment here.
43 years in the future (2018), the world is run by corporations or, to be more precise, the few men that run the corporations.
I’ll let Bartholomew, who runs the Energy Corporation in Houston, explain as he speaks to Jonathan E., the most famous Rollerball player in the world.
“Jonathan, let’s think this through together. You know how the game serves us. It has a definite social purpose. Nations are bankrupt, gone. None of that tribal warfare anymore. Even the corporate wars are a thing of the past.”
“So now we have the majors and their executives. Transport, food, communication, housing, luxury, energy. A few of us making decisions on a global basis for the common good. The team is a unit. It plays with certain rhythms. So does an executive team, Jonathan. Now everyone has all the comforts, you know that. No poverty, no sickness. No needs and many luxuries, which you enjoy just as if you were in the executive class. Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks of anyone, all it has ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions.”
“The game” is Rollerball, a sport that’s a combination of American Football and Roller Derby. With motorcycles because, why not? The games are brutal and grow more lethal as the movie progresses. The spectators, however, are more terrifying than the game itself. Rollberball’s 2018 is a vicious, brutal time, where people cheer to gladiator games and gleefully burn down a grove of pines with an energy weapon after getting stoned at a party.
The powers that be want Jonathan to retire; he’s grown too big for the game. Rollerball’s world can’t have heroes. Even if that hero is just a guy that hits hard and can take a punch.
One of Energy Corporations’ executives decided he wanted Jonathan’s wife, and that was that. The billionaires (well, probably millionaires when this was written) get what they want. Jonathan went along, but he’s never gotten over losing her. As he considers retirement, he starts to question the system.
With John Houseman as Bartholomew and James Caan as Jonathan E., the story is engaging enough to keep you invested, and the ending might not be what you expect. But the movie does some marvelous worldbuilding at the same time.
John Houseman’s Bartholomew runs “Energy Corporation.” In Houston. I don’t think the word oil is uttered once in the entire film. Still, the movie was released during a recession that extended another five years (for real people, if not according to economists). The oil crisis of 1973 played a big part in the economic downturn, so they didn’t really need to say “oil” to get the point across.
The sets are fascinating. While many movies (and tv shows) from this era try to dazzle you with outlandish visions of the future, Rollerball is low-key. The future looks pretty mundane when it comes to fashion. There are a few creative uses of polyester, and the furniture looks rather uncomfortable but reasonable. Evolutionary. The exterior shots are of futuristic (by 70s standards) buildings like BMW headquarters, which is much more effective than the silkscreen backgrounds that many movies from this era used.
Of course, the technology looks primitive by today’s standards. No one in 1974 knew what was coming. Computers were still mainframes that you had to visit in glass rooms. Control panels were bewildering arrays of analog switches instead of smooth touchscreens that adjusted to the current context. But there’s an insightful scene about the principles of “garbage-in garbage-out” and the fragility of digital memory.
What makes the future the future in Rollerball is the people. Everyone pops pills, even Bartholomew, which offers one as a gift to one of the players. The parties are hedonistic displays of drug abuse and indiscreet trips to bedrooms. And the brutality. Wow. Every hard hit in Rollerball gets riotous cheers.
The spectacle of the games in Rollerball and Jonathan’s E. story make this movie worth a watch, but the worldbuilding makes it a science fiction movie.
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