Rated: 4.5 / 5
The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort.
This is a film that seems to be a cult classic at best, when it should really be an all-time classic. I find it puzzling how difficult it is to get a hold of this film in a physical format. It’s not impossible, and it’s affordable, but you have to go out of your way to do it. Any DVD version that got a release went quickly out of print. The only Blu-Ray versions tend to be “Limited Releases”. And it doesn’t exactly show up on television all that much, even though there is no sex, there is a brief amount of nudity (men’s asses in the showers), and the violence isn’t exactly excessive, especially when compared to films we get today. Hell, this movie is rated R, and PG-13 films get released today that have much more violence and foul language than this film does. Guess we’ve become desensitized to the violence. Ironic, given that this relates to one of several messages contained within the film. Both the being desensitized to violence, and the seeming hindering of historical knowledge. The messages within this film are more relevant today than they were when the film was made.
The film takes place in the future (by 1975’s standards of the future, which still couldn’t get away from the color orange). The future of 2018 from what I understand (I’m still waiting for this sport to happen). In this future, nations have gone bankrupt and been bought out by corporations. After this followed a period of Corporate Wars. Once this ended, nations no longer existed. Everything became corporate owned. Not by one corporation, but several. The corporations own and provide everything, from the music you listen to, the food you receive, the pills you take, the husband/wife/concubine you may want, the energy needed to power your televisions/lights/fires, the films/shows you watch, etc. It’s not altogether terrible, since they have eliminated war and poverty. But there is a catch.
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 its ever asked of anyone, ever, is not to interfere with management decisions.
In other words, no free will. Individualism is shunned. Everyone must follow corporate mandates. This is primarily exemplified by Jonathan (played by James Caan), who has the luxury of wives (or concubines). One of the many privileges Jonathan has thanks to his status as a rollerball player. However, the only wife he ever loved (though he has difficulty comprehending the concept of love; not so much a fault of the character so much as a by-product of the corporate teachings in society) was his first, Ella. But at some point they became separated. Initially it is believed that she went away because she was ordered to by a corporation. And whenever one goes, another comes as a replacement to keep Jonathan happy (as is the case with the other rollerball players). Jonathan goes through several concubines, but always reminisces about Ella, and wishes to have her back. Because it is only with her where the relationship felt real, where there was actually love. All the other concubines simply follow the corporations’ bidding, to make him happy any way they can. Because of this, Jonathan becomes disconnected, unable to have a real relationship, never able to find satisfaction with a significant other because of the artificial nature of the relationship.
Now normally, this would be the start and end of such a subject, portraying corporations as simple two dimensional villains, and society as one that deserves better, as does the protagonist. But the film is smart enough to know that things aren’t that simple, and thus adds another dimension to it all. Jonathan eventually reunites with Ella, and talks of how he wants to know if he still has those feelings within him that he had those years ago when he was with her. Eventually, he learns that she didn’t leave because the corporation asked her to. She left because she knew Jonathan loved being a player in rollerball more than he liked being with her. She didn’t feel she was getting enough attention, enough love from him. So she left him and married a corporate man, with a higher position than Jonathan could ever achieve. The corporations aren’t to blame for all of an individual’s faults. Knowing now that his disdain for corporations was misplaced, knowing how foolish he was, and that he needed to get over her, he finally lets her go. It becomes easier to do this for him not just because of this revelation, but also by seeing how she has become just like those other concubines: attempting to sway Jonathan to do the corporation’s bidding.
“It’s like people had a choice a long time ago between having all them nice things or freedom. Of course, they chose comfort.”
“But comfort is freedom. It always has been. The whole history of civilization is a struggle against poverty and need.”
“No! No… that’s not it. That’s never been it! Them privileges just buy us off.”
In addition to corporate control having a negative affect on relationships and contributing to the disconnect each person can feel, they also not only legalize, but outright encourage drug use. Mainly these white-pilled drugs which can cause people to “dream” (ie makes them feel good). This extends beyond the initial scene where this is introduced, transitioning from drinking healthy fruit juice, to taking a pill at the behest of the corporate head. Many others take this pill, in parties, in casual conversations, in various situations. A commonality, to help keep the happiness of society maintained when their lifestyle isn’t a healthy one.
You’re bargaining for the right to stay in a horrible social spectacle. It has its purposes. You’ve served those purposes brilliantly. Why argue when you can quit? And you say you want to know why decisions are made. You’re future comfort is assured. You don’t need to know! Why argue about decisions you’re not powerful enough to make for yourself?
The loss of free will, the loss of being able to make decisions yourself, to make the right and wrong choices, can ultimately cost one’s happiness. A happiness lost due to becoming disconnected. How can one feel connected to others, feel like they mean anything, when they aren’t allowed the luxury of making their own decisions? To compensate, there’s drugs, arranged relationships/marriages, corporate teachers that control what is taught, digital libraries with edited works (and sometimes the loss of works and history due to loss of computers, hard drives, or corrupted memory), among other things.
But most important of all, there is the sport rollerball. While corporations maintain society in this way for what they feel is society’s own good, they also do so to avoid warfare. But because humans have a liking for violence, there must be an outlet for that to satiate that desire. But they must do so in such a way as to avoid anything that would provide an individual for others to rally behind. Because passionate individuals are capable of rebelling, of inciting a rebellion, of leading a rebellion. They are capable of ruining what the corporations have built society to be: a faceless throng that is easily swayed, easily dominated, and incapable of thinking for themselves. And the last thing the corporations want is something that can promote the concept of individualism. Because if one individual goes against the will of a corporation, this can inspire others to do the same. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to control if it’s an individual many others admire. The more who admire the individual, the more influence the individual can have over the admirers. Like how mixed martial arts, boxing, or even professional wrestling can have an individual fighter who has a style, a skill, a charisma, a winning streak others can get behind and admire. To avoid this, a sport is needed that an individual is incapable of standing out in. A sport that requires team effort. A sport brutal enough to where most players have a life-span (let alone a career-span) of one, maybe two years, tops. So the corporations invented rollerball.
No player is greater than the game itself. Its a significant game, in a number of ways, the velocities of the ball, the awful physics of the track, and in the middle of it all: men – playing by an odd set of rules. Its not a game man is supposed to grow strong in, Jonathan.
However, they underestimate what an individual is capable of. Are humans not one of the most adaptive species on the planet capable of surviving against extreme measures? Are they not capable of miraculous feats? It is something the corporations failed to take into account (it’s far-fetched, all things considered, that they wouldn’t anticipate this, but just go with it). So when Jonathan manages to not only keep playing for 10 years, but also manages to become one of the best and most popular players in the world, the corporations take notice. Knowing the fame recognition fans have bestowed upon him, they determine it is too dangerous to their cause to simply eliminate him through some “accident” or “freak of nature incident”. No. They must either have him voluntarily retire, demonstrating that he isn’t as passionate about the sport as fans believe him to be, thus tarnishing his image. Or he is killed, or loses, in the game itself, which accomplishes the same task of tarnishing his image. Either way, the legend must die by showing that he is mortal, that he isn’t as grand as the throng believe him to be.
Jonathan refuses to retire, for reasons he initially can’t explain that he only chalks up to stubbornness. But he slowly but surely begins to gain some semblance of understanding the reason. Because he doesn’t like being told what to do. He is sick and tired of not having a say in his life, of doing what he wants, of sticking with what he loves. Because he doesn’t like the idea of following orders relating to turning his back on the one thing he has left in the world that brings him joy. Especially when he has lost all else. Especially when he doesn’t know of anything else to do, of any other choice to make, of any other purpose in life.
So in response, the corporations alter the rules of the game, eliminating penalties, among other things. Previously, while one could wind up killing an opponent in the ring, this only resulted in a penalty, taking them out of the game for a specified amount of time (no jailtime comes as a consequence). With no punishment to come as a result, the game devolves from being a competitive sport, to something that becomes more about personal vendettas fueled by personal hatred for members of the other team. Because if there won’t be consequences for their actions, and if they feel there must be a response, some sort of consequence, then they will carry it out themselves. It devolves from a game into senseless slaughter. And the crowd initially loves it. In fact, the hatred the teams feel against each other expands to the crowds despising each other for rooting for the team that is hurting their own team; and crowd infighting ensues.
This escalation of violence, and finding joy in it, is foreshadowed earlier at the executive party (initially thrown to announce Jonathan’s retirement, but wound up being a simple celebration of his career, because Jonathan refused to retire). At first, nearly everyone is invested, cheering, and salivating over the highlight reel of Jonathan’s accomplishments over the years in rollerball, with all the harm he inflicts upon others. Only one woman in the party walks out, saddened and horrified at the spectacle. As time goes on, everyone becomes bored at the spectacle. So certain party-goers decide to escalate things for the sake of excitement and entertainment. They take a gun, and use it to start blowing up trees, destroying nature (what is natural). Initially, one woman is ecstatic to be doing this. But soon after she fires her shots, her expression turns from joy to shock and horror, knowing that she is capable of doing such violence and enjoying it.
Likewise, Jonathan eventually comes to this realization in the final game. Inflicting harm because it’s part of the game, inflicting harm out of vengeance, inflicting harm out of survival, and inflicting harm because it’s part of our animalistic nature. But in the final moments of the film, he stops himself. He questions why he is doing this, wondering why he is still playing this game when it’s no longer for the reasons he previously played it for. It’s no longer a game anymore than he felt he was a part of the team. Before the final game began, he felt disconnected from the team, from the game itself, the one other thing in life he loved doing. And his team knew it too, the way they all focused their attention on him in the locker room prior to the game starting. He became bigger than the team. Bigger than the game.
Jonathan removes his helmet, signifying the death of his love for the game, the death of his passion for the game. Without any passion or joy left for the sport within him, Jonathan makes a final score, a gesture that is meaningless other than showcasing to the crowd how meaningless it all is. Likewise, the fans became disconnected from the game itself; no longer witnessing a sport spectacle; but a statement. They were witnessing the birth of a rebellion, the resurrection of individualism. When Jonathan begins skating around the ring and the chants begin, his passion is no longer for the game, but in rebelling against the corporations that killed his passion for the game, that attempt to eliminate passion altogether through the elimination of individualism.
What do you want books for? Look Johnny, if you wanna learn somethin’, just get a Corporate Teacher to come and teach it to ya’. Use yer Privilege Card.
This could very well be the best film ever made about the dangers of corporate rule. The best because it isn’t all that simplified about the subject matter. It doesn’t simply paint corporations as evil entities. On the contrary, their interests are understandable. Beyond greed (an element that isn’t addressed simply because they already have control of the world, greed is secondary to power at that point), it’s about dictating what is best for society. They deemed that what is best for society is complete control of society by eliminating individual freedom, which has the benefit of eliminating war and poverty. But it doesn’t eliminate personal suffering, an inevitable byproduct of the loss of free will. The only ones who could have no distaste for such a thing without the use of drugs, controlled relationships, and controlled forms of entertainment, are those who lie in a hospital bed alive but brain-dead. Because only those who are brain dead could think that living happily in such a world is possible. And we see much of this today. Elimination of inconvenient history. Elimination of identity (in today’s sense, that would be gender identity). Control of what is taught in schools by teachers hired by those who deem it more fit to make people think a certain way rather than teach them the facts so they can make up their own minds as to how they feel about them. Control of who and how we interact with one another (in today’s sense, control of social media fits just about as well as controlling society to an extent). Becoming reliant on what the rulers provide for us rather than what we can provide for ourselves. Elimination of choice and having a say in the matter because we don’t know what is best for us, because they know better than we do. And it will all inevitably lead to the same thing that has happened throughout history. Rebellion.
PS: On the note of edited/deleted works from a computer database, this has already been witnessed in our time. How Google has been caught changing the definition of various words. Or how the works of Ray Bradburry have been censored (ironic, given that one of his works warned of the dangers of censoring books).