Before the advent of Star Wars, 1970’s-era Hollywood took a roll of the dice on making unusual and serious science fiction fare.  Rollerball is an intriguing relic from that era, a film that represents the good points and the bad points of 1970’s-era Hollywood’s dalliance with serious sci-fi.  It’s as pretentious as it is ambitious and, if you view it from the right vantage point, that is part of the fun.

Rollerball was adapted by William Harrison from a short story he wrote for Esquire magazine.  The story takes place in a future where governments have been replaced by corporations that see to the needs of everyone.  To keep the masses distracted from corporate affairs, they have created rollerball, a sort of mega-sport that combines football, rugby, roller derby and motorcycles into a unique bone-crunching spectacle.  Jonathan E. (James Caan), the key player on the Houston team, is the undisputed star of the game and he enjoys the wealthy, macho lifestyle it provides.

However, the corporate powers that be have decided it is time for a change.  Houston corporate head Bartholomew (John Houseman) asks Jonathan to retire, promising a comfortable future when he steps aside.  However, the idea of such a change is hard for Jonathan, who loves the game.  He also never got over a corporate man using his power to take away Jonathan’s wife, Ella (Maud Adams).  Jonathan defies his sponsors and stays in.  The corporate heads respond by stripping away game rules to make the sport bloodier and lethal for its participants.  Everything comes down to a final game that will determine Jonathan’s fate as well as the extent of the corporation’s might.

Rollerball has been criticized in many quarters for being gloomy and pretentious… and honestly, it is.  Harrison’s script is more focused on futuristic trappings than plot or character development, both of which are surprisingly thin for a two-hour film.  It also suffers from some misjudged scenes in the second half that slow the film down, like a visit to a computer center that is played for Dr. Strangelove-style humor that clashes with the rest of the film’s tone and a reunion between Jonathan and Ella that goes nowhere dramatically.

As a result, the actors have a limited amount to work.  James Caan plays against type as an oft-inarticulate character, offering a solid if oddly muted performance.  John Houseman, on the other hand, is ideally suited to his role as a cold-blooded corporate type and brings a poetic ring to even the most pretentious speech about his corporation’s sense of manifest destiny.  Look out also for a scene-stealing turn from John Beck as Moonpie, Jonathan’s down-home, endearingly primal teammate.

Director Norman Jewison tries to have it both ways with his content, criticizing the film’s sport as a cheap, violent ploy to distract the masses while also shooting and cutting said violent spectacle in a way that is so exciting it overpowers the thin drama.   As a result, the rhythm between the film’s two worlds – on the track and off the track – is never balanced in a convincing way either by the writing or the filmmaking.  Jewison also digs into his work with a heavy hand, blatantly aping Kubrick-styled sterility in portraying the film’s world and piling on somber classical music on the soundtrack.

However, none of this means Rollerball isn’t worth watching.  For starters, the action in the film is fantastic.  The film uses rollerball sequences for the beginning, middle and end of the film and each is a grabber.  A big part of the credit here goes to Max Kleven, who served as stunt coordinator and 2nd unit director.  The team he used for the rollerball sequences is a veritable who’s who of 1970’s Hollywood stuntmen, including such names as Craig Baxley, Dar Robinson and Dick Warlock.  The combined efforts of this team sells the bone-crunching excitement of the game, which conveys an important part of the film’s message – an unspoken reason that Jonathan fights to stay in the game because it’s the only time he really feels alive and is free to do as he pleases.

The other, oft-ignored reason to see this film is Jewison’s direction, which is impressively stylish whether he is shooting the game or the off-track sequences.  As with many 1970’s sci-fi films, there’s a distinct retro-1970’s tinge to the set design and costumes but the minimalist look sells the impersonal, barren quality that Harrison and Jewison were obviously shooting for.  Jewison brings an intense sense of style to the proceedings, often using zooms to dramatically push in during dialogue exchanges, and the luxurious lensing by Richard Kline achieves a look that is luxurious and chilly all at once.

In fact, the best non-sports sequence in Rollerball is an extended party sequence where Jewison and Kline throw out all the art-film stops.  The camera snakes its way through a decadent array of meetings between corporate people, sports players and their female playthings while Jewison cues us in to the tension and repressed emotions bubbling under the surface.  It culminates in a big argument between Caan and Houseman about Caan’s desire to stay in the game that is intercut with hungover partygoers indulging in a nasty form of amusement – the use of a laser gun to destroy trees, thus causing them to burst into flames.

If the idea of such a scene intrigues you, chances are you’ll be fascinated by Rollerball because this scene is a microcosm of the film itself: over-the-top, extremely literal in its symbolism… yet oddly hypnotic thanks to its sleek design.  Both the scene and the entire film overreach in a thematically unfocused way but they do so with gusto and a bravura sense of style.  That’s often what makes 1970’s dystopian sci-fi so appealing to those of a certain mindset (Your Humble Reviewer is guilty as charged) and that’s why Rollerball is still worth watching for the cult movie buff.