Rewatching Rollerball in 2019

The 1975 cult classic would be just another action movie, if it weren’t trying to be about something.

Men chase each other in roller skates.
James Caan on the set of Rollerball.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

On Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., Future Tense and Devoney Looser will host a screening of Rollerball in D.C. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

In the year 2018, in the cult-classic film Rollerball (1975), nations have gone bankrupt. Corporations rule a world of docile, vapid customer-citizens who are constantly surveilled. They’re fed happy pills, bought off with small luxuries, and distracted with a perilous, gladiatorlike roller sport (with motorcycles!).

While elements of it feel ridiculous now, the film, directed by Norman Jewison, struck a chord. Rollerball’s popularity spawned the hard-core, porn-on-skates spinoff, Rollerbabies (1976). In 2002, it got its first remake, a deserved flop. Yet it is the 1975 version that endures, starring James Caan, Moses Gunn, and a lot of other men in black leather pants and white disco suits, with music by André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra.

I’ve always loved this movie and not only because of its artful shots of Hollywood hunks’ haunches. As a childhood speedskater who spent off-seasons on roller skates, I relished Rollerball’s ferocious pageantry on wheels. (I also enjoyed roller romances like Kansas City Bomber (1972) and Xanadu (1980), which may not lead you to trust me as a film critic.) In the years since, my love for the movie has only grown, as I’ve become an English professor, a middle-aged roller derby player, and, now, faculty adviser to Arizona State University’s roller derby team. That means roller derby has actually become a part of my official, professorial duties, despite its sounding like something you’d see only in the movies.

In Rollerball, the world is divided into stratified social classes: the have-it-all executives, pulling the strings; the pampered but short-lived celebrity athletes, kept in the dark; and the have-just-enough working classes. (The working class seems to consist almost solely of tuxedoed bartenders.) The population is concentrated in six corporate city-states: Transport, Food, Communication, Housing, Luxury, and Energy, each with its own rollerball team. The corporations share a computer that is supposed to be storing classified versions of every known document, yet it has inadvertently lost all record of the 13th century. As my teenage son said, on hearing this summary, “So it’s a lot like going back to feudalism, only with corporations in charge?”

Rollerball would be just another action movie, if it weren’t trying to be about something.
The film tries to make you squirm—a lot—for what you started out thinking you were just going to enjoy watching. For that reason, it holds up to a reviewing, in spite of its insidious racism and sexism. One of the film’s earliest critics, the Los Angeles Times’ Gordon Hearne, rightly slammed its World War II–derived anti-Asian stereotypes and its token white female corporate executive among chattel women. These features made Hearne wonder whether Rollerball was really “a valid criticism of society” or “merely exploitive.” Hindsight may suggest that the film was successful—and has endured—because it’s both.

Many critics wished the film had been more satirical or funny. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby was especially dismissive, offering this salvo: “If a man’s science-fiction is a measure of his imagination, then Norman Jewison’s is about the size of a six-pack of beer and a large bag of pretzels.” (Because I was raised in the beer-and-pretzels set—and still like beer and pretzels—I bristle at Canby’s implication that science fiction is best served up to a Kubrick-loving, Champagne-and-caviar crowd.) But watching Rollerball today, I find it difficult to conclude that what’s missing is comedy. There’s little humor now in watching millions of people cede personal information to manipulative corporate overlords. What might make you laugh until you cry is that the film would have you believe that corporations succeeded, where nations failed, in ridding the world of poverty and war.

Other parts of the film take on important new meanings today. When the camera lingers on the faces of athletes, standing at bored attention during the playing of the “corporate anthem,” it’s more than a little moving. Eventually, we realize players are sizing each other up before a match in which several will die. We watch knowing that they live in a world in which protest has been quashed.

Eventually, calm corporate evildoer Mr. Bartholomew (played by the brilliant John Houseman) reveals that corporations designed Rollerball to demonstrate the futility of individual effort. Humanity’s hope is reawakened by the survival against the odds of its almost-woke star athlete, Caan, as “Jonathan E.” When someone tells Jonathan, “Brutal game last night!” he replies, “Oh, thank you.”

But then Jonathan begins to question authority. When he’s ordered to retire, he refuses. (The film shines an interesting light on ageism in sport culture.) He manages to please the crowd not by killing but by sparing a life, revealing the brutal futility of the game and political system. The film implies that Jonathan may have awakened the masses to the machinations of its corrupt rule-makers.

It’s fun to fantasize about which politicians or business leaders you’d have sit together in a theater watching Rollerball. My shortlist would include Betsy DeVos, Rupert Murdoch, and the Sackler family. What’s amazing is that Rollerball’s filmmakers actually got to carry out the fantasy. A prerelease screening was held in D.C. As the Washington Post’s coverage put it, “If the political powers got any message at all last night it might be to see what they can do about getting the 21st century to turn out some other way.”

The attendees were mostly Democratic, white, and male, among them Sens. Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Edmund Muskie, Mike Mansfield, and Alan Cranston, and Reps. George Mahon and Al Ullman, some of whom brought wives. A few Republicans showed up, too, including Robert Hartmann from the White House and Reps. Charles E. Wiggins and Herman Schneebeli. (Kennedy family scion Eunice Shriver, investigative journalist Jack Anderson, and humorist Art Buchwald were also there.) Their responses are fascinating. Mansfield is said to have asked about the setting of Rollerball.

“When is this film supposed to take place?” he wondered.

Jewison answered, “I don’t know, senator, maybe 30 or 40 years in the future.”

Mansfield then replied, “I think it’s already here.”

The film seems to have moved the politicians. Humphrey declared, “That’s a rough one.” Then he turned quickly jovial and added, “I want to fight somebody.” Hartmann said he just “sat there in the chair,” holding on tightly. Muskie declared he’d rather stick to golf. It’s hard to tell whether that response misses the point of the film entirely or understands it perfectly well.

The film obviously—unfortunately, tragically—got a few things right about global capitalism. Yet Rollerball was wrong about plenty, too. It surely would have surprised audiences then that roller sports would come to be dominated by women. Exhibit A: the Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association, a nonprofit organization with 450 leagues on six continents. (Other leagues and forms of roller derby would put the total far higher.)

The WFTDA International Championships will take place in Montréal over three days, beginning Friday. Ten teams came through playoffs to compete for the Hydra cup. Bouts will stream (some free and some not) on WFTDA TV. It promises to be a display of strength, empowerment, and teamwork by exceptional athletes, beholden neither to team owners nor to corporate overlords. That reality, too, has its difficulties, with few skaters making a living off of roller derby and most paying to play. And like other full-contact sports, roller derby grapples with its rule set and protocols for injury, including concussions. (I wish Rollerball had pushed us toward those questions far sooner.) Where roller derby is ahead is on gender. The WFTDA has a gender inclusion and anti-discrimination statement specifically naming transgender women, intersex women, and gender expansive participants. The organization is working on diversity and inclusion policies. Knowing this makes Rollerball’s locked-down, monocultural future look just a little further away.

But rewatching Rollerball now shouldn’t lull us into thinking problems are best solved by scrappy alternative sports or progressive star athletes. Sure, few of us were really in danger of thinking that. Who could believe that a television celebrity like Jonathan E, who’s spent his adult life awash in wealth and privilege, ruthlessly taking out enemies, with a new woman on his arm every so often, could prove a better ruler than corporate oligarchs?

Still, for the sake of a truly depressing argument, let’s say that we’re tied to a narrative that imagines a dismal global future in which power must remain in the hands of a few. Maybe putting someone like Jonathan E in charge doesn’t look quite so bad anymore. Caan’s Jonathan has many deficits, but he also has empathy. He doesn’t trust corporate propaganda. He wants to read books. It’s hard to believe there was a moment, not long ago, when those qualifications would have seemed far too low a science-fiction bar for a hero to clear in order to lead the world out of a dystopian morass. Yet here we are.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.