Blood sport has been and always will be the stuff of dystopian worlds and even crueler legend. They exist to entertain the most extreme of public eyes and satiate the primal blood thirst we all hold within ourselves despite how domesticated we allow ourselves to become. The powers that look on are nothing but corrupt and highly executive in the most abused definition of the word. In short, blood sports are more than just sports with an emphasis on the blood-letting. They are the product of dehumanization; flipping man into play thing. Blood sports are ultimately organized, as popular fiction and world history have shown us, as a style of public entertainment masqueraded as something more. Norman Jewison’s 1975 short story-turned-feature-length film, Rollerball, is the embodiment of how dark and loveless blood sports inherently are beyond the playing grounds.
Like contemporary American sports, blood sports beg for an all-star poster boy to scream your lungs out to. Jonathan E., played understatedly by James Caan, is that very all-star posterboy for Rollerball. Caan portrays himself as the type of popular athlete who’s a relentless gladiator on the field, but a reserved figure uninterested in the glitz of his glamorized work. This type of athlete is one we all know a bit too well: a contradictive personality that tends to bore the public yet humanizes the player who becomes deified by the same crowd who shouts his name. While in the contemporary world of sports, there are many poster stars, but in the world of Rollerball, it is Jonathan E. who is the one and only, in which there is logical reasoning for this.
The executive powers and worldly organizers responsible for the sport of rollerball are the very same entities who have replaced government with corporations. Violence is no longer a universal struggle as war and conflict are a thing of the past. The forcibly passive population is satisfied only by this single sport. The ruling parties are equally uniform and expect their athletes to be the same. This is where Jonathan E. becomes the center of attention and the center of a bigger problem. While he brings sporty justification to a legion of submissive onlookers, he represents a spirit of individualism that corporations are so intent to abolish.
The destruction of individualism is the underlying current of Rollerball that makes it more than just an exhibition of roaring motorcycles, iron cannonballs, whirlwind whiplash and bruised up brawlers. It is an envisioned universe where books are impossible to navigate, public figures are assigned temporary lovers, and on-court deaths are a regular statistic. Being pressured into retirement by Mr. Bartholomew, the evil, corporate face of this new world, Jonathon is given everything to leave but has nothing to come home to. What unfolds further is a struggle of symbolism rather than a bout of career choices.
Rollerball is by no means a heady film, but its themes are to be considered. Living in current times that are terrifyingly reminiscent of the corporate world that the film predicts, Norman Jewison’s cinematic work remains thematically relevant today. Strike the 2002 remake from your memory, for those who remember it, because it meant nothing, if not serving as a complete contradiction to the 1975 version. This Rollerball keeps it human, pulpy, exciting and entirely dystopian.