Sunday, 4 April 2021

Rollerball

 


The Brave And The Rolled

Rollerballl
UK/Canada/USA 1975
Directed by Norman Jewison

Rollerballl
USA/Germany/Japan 2002
Directed by John McTiernan
German Ultimate Edition Blu Ray/UHD Zone B


Warning: Some spoilers.

So I wanted to see both versions of Rollerball again in some nice Blu Ray editions and I managed to get a used/very good and complete version of the wonderful German Ultimate 5 Disc Edition of the films, with oodles of extras, not to mention multiple booklets, posters, lobby cards and a limited edition certificate, for roughly the price of what it would have cost to buy the two films separately at full price elsewhere. Which I thought was a good deal and, also, I’d have to say I agree with a lot of people who reviewed this edition or did unboxing videos that, yeah, it’s pretty much one of the nicest Blu Ray box sets I’ve ever seen. A big, orange cloth bound thing with embossed black vinyl (or some such material) on it. Truly a beautiful objet d'art of the golden age of Blu Ray. I’m really pleased to have this one.

I also, actually, quickly read the original seven page short story, Roller Ball Murder, before I set out to write this review, so I could see where these films are coming from. This was written by William Harrison who also wrote the screenplay of the first movie, expanding out his ideas of the original account but also giving the movie a lot more of an interesting through line in terms of just what the story is about, I feel. Also, I wanted to highlight that, although the ‘almost a prequel’ reboot of the 2002 version changed things quite a lot, it still retained one of the basic premises of the plot, the whole ‘bread and circuses’ mentality of the people in control. The difference being that, in the first film, it’s used solely to pacify the global society of the future whereas, in the second, it’s being used to gain a market share in the ratings so a much smaller group of thuggish ‘businessmen’ can profit from the financial rewards. I should probably mention here that, although the first version is a classic and my personal favourite of the two, I also loved the second go around and I think it’s been unfairly treated from when it first came out and has not been re-evaluated in the way I hoped it would (I think I saw it about three times on its initial cinema run).

The original movie is set in what was then the not too distant future of... 2018. It’s got a very strong start with an empty Rollerball rink, circular in this version, which is in half darkness while Bach’s Toccata And Fugue In D Minor plays out over the credits while the crew of technicians start to ready the arena for the upcoming game and the audience and players begin to turn up. Then, after the playing of the ‘corporate anthem’ where the players stand to attention, we are pitched straight into the first of the three ‘action-game’ scenes of the movie. We have a brilliant James Caan as main protagonist and Rollerball champion Jonathan E, the wonderful John Beck as his friend and fellow player Moonpie and John Houseman as the owner of the team, corporation man Bartholomew. We also have a wonderful supporting cast such as Maud Adams as Jonathan E’s ex-wife (who he is hankering after), Pamela Hensley as one of the many ‘girls’ provided for short periods to the top players as their ‘live in’ sexual companion (think of the ‘furniture’ women of the rich and powerful in Soylent Green) and also a couple of very familiar character actors in the forms of Shane Rimmer and Burt Kwouk.

The opening game sets up the violent sport where steel balls fired onto the pitch at speeds of 200mph (so you don’t catch them until they’ve lost a little speed or they’ll rip your arm off) and two teams, consisting of a number of roller skaters and three motorbike riders each, try to take possession of the ball to score points in the special goal stations, bashing up opposing players as best they can. It’s a violent sport and a violent film. And, when I say that, I don’t mean to say that it’s really in any way gory because, well, it’s not really. But it isn’t comic book violence either... it’s violence with consequence and despite the minimal amount of gore it feels brutal and a much more adult take on the act of violence. Rollerball belongs to a special subset of early 1970s science fiction films which started to get made with prevalent adult attitudes before Star Wars came along and changed both the style and the audiences these things were pitched at. Films like Planet Of The Apes, The Omega Man, The Ultimate Warrior, Westworld, Soylent Green and Logan’s Run.

The music is important in its absence because there’s not much in it and apart from one ‘party scene’, it’s all classical music when it is used. Unlike the reboot, the games themselves are left unscored and I think it works really well because the director uses the sound design, such as the roar of the crowd and the chaos of the game... to highlight certain moments. For instance, he’ll dial the noisy, ambient sound of the track right down in volume to make a point of a specific moment sometimes and, it almost acts in a similar way to one of the functions of film music... although there are few movies which can really get away with this. He also uses the music to ‘bookend in’ certain sections of the movie. So, for instance, once the first game is played we have a debriefing of the men by Bartholomew in the changing room and then Jonathan E and Moonpie going through hordes of cheering fans as they go home. It’s only then that we get a withheld, finishing burst of the Bach music from before the game to round the scene off, as if to say to the audience that the first, introductory section is now over and now you can find out what the film is really about.

What it is about is the concept that many decades ago there were the ‘corporate wars’ and the world is now run by one big corporation. This corporation has managed to eradicate the history of the planet by destroying all books and having their historical secrets held by computers only the privileged (aka rich corporate men) can access and even that information is mostly classified. When Jonathan E tries to find some information about the history of these dark times so he can figure out what is going on with all the interest in him (I’ll get to it in a minute), the computer refuses and makes the human curator of the big computer of mankind’s knowledge, Ralph Richardson, very angry in the process. Almost as angry as he is from finding out that the computer has also ‘accidentally’ wiped out all knowledge of the 13th Century.

We have a massive population where the rich few can have wild parties and, in a very telling scene, go out and burn trees with futuristic laser guns as a drunken leisure pursuit, showing they have absolutely no empathy with the planet they live on, while the people running the planet give them their bread and circuses game of the violent outlet they need... Rollerball. This is a game designed to keep people watching and to see the hopelessness of free, individual expression and thinking and... here’s where Jonathan E’s problems begin. And also where Caan does an amazing job because he slowly transforms from brutal, violent sports player to a thinking, human soul with a conscience... unlike the version of the character in the original short story, it has to be said.

And this is because the corporation heads, including Bartholomew, want Jonathan E to retire. He doesn’t come to the realisation of why until much later but it’s because Jonathan has become bigger than the sport he is playing. A folk hero who people cheer and so, the corporation puts a special multiscreen TV show on Jonathan on air in which he’s supposed to announce his retirement (all the people of the future have  a multiscreen TV set up of simultaneous broadcast of screens augmenting each other, one big screen and three smaller ones above it). However, Jonathan is reluctant to and so the company change the rules on the next game to give it limited substitutions and no penalties, in the hopes that somebody will put Jonathan E out of action in the arena (and they get close). Instead, on the second of the three big matches shown in the film, Moonpie gets seriously wounded and ends up brain dead on a respirator. When Jonathan refuses to sign a waiver to take him off life support, which is sometime after the ‘accident’ has happened, we get a shot of the fading sequence of lights used in the game to denote the loss of a player from the field as a visual metaphor to make clear to the audience that, although technically still alive, another player has been sacrificed to the corporation.

There’s a nice moment or two where we see unruly hooliganism from the spectators as they get worked up by violence and the unswerving loyalty to their favourite players in the sport and, although it’s barely touched upon, it is there and it does kind of show exactly the kind of thing the corporation are working hard to avoid but, in some ways, exacerbating in their constant rule changes to make sure nobody stays in the sport long enough to get good at it and become a figure of inspiration.

And the film meanders along (in the best way) with beautiful shot compositions and smooth, flowing camera movement, where Jewison uses big blocks of screen and verticals to distribute the actors in space, until we get to the last game where, just like the last game in the 2002 version, the rules are changed so that there are absolutely no penalties, no substitutions (so when a team loses a player then that’s it, they’re a player down each time) and more or less no time limits.. which means that eventually, everybody in that game will be injured or killed until you’re down to one or two people. Of course, Jonathan ends up as the only man standing and, after his battered body walks up to the goal station and plonks the ball in, demonstrating that he’s survived and is effectively bigger than the system, the crowd start to chant his name and we are left with a chilling freeze frame of him rollerskating around the arena as the end credits roll to a reprise of the Bach music. It’s a very seventies ending but also, like a lot of those, a very effective and powerful one. A clever slice of science fiction which is deservedly a classic.

And then we have the attempted reboot.

Now, I have to say, it’s not the masterpiece that the original movie was but, that’s okay, it’s still an interesting movie and I can tell you it works really well when seen on a big cinema screen. The main difference is director John McTiernan is now aiming for a different aged audience. The first Rollerball still had quite an adult audience and the expected response was therefore a more sophisticated one. This second version needs everything to be over explained and underlined more but, it’s still quite a cool movie in many ways.

This one is set in the ‘near future’ and stars Chris Klein as main protagonist Jonathan Cross and, after we see him take part in an illegal downhill racer style competition, his friend Marcus, played by L. L. Cool J, offers to have him join him in Russia to get in on the ground level of a new game developing called Rollerball, on which people are betting huge amounts of money and which is a ‘people’s sport’, starting in the local mining town. So instead of a historical corporation, it’s basically the Russian mafia, headed by Jean Reno as Alexis Petrovich, who are trying to get their television ratings higher from the game to get more money. Caught in the middle are Jonathan, Marcus and Jonathan’s biker player girlfriend Aurora, played by Rebecca Romijn.

Another important character is the US commentator played by... I’m sorry, I can’t find him on the IMDB listing for this movie. He looks a little like John Candy but I know it isn’t him and he’s actually an interesting character because he’s our way in to the emotional tone of the constant rule changes which the owners are coming up with to take out the players... not for the suppression of individuality as in the first version but, because they soon realise the more violent and fatal the game is, the higher the ratings. So various manufactured accidents start to happen. There’s a great moment where Cross realises his head is on the chopping block, so to speak, when he sees five cameras are trained on him in the arena, tipping him off to duck before he get taken out.

Klein is excellent as Jonathan Cross although, it has to be said, I’ve always thought that he was just imitating Keanu Reeves in this movie. As it happens, I just read as I was writing this that Keanu Reeves was originally wanted to head up this movie. So it’s like the director tried to clone him and came up with Klein. He does do a good job here, though.   

And, yeah, it’s a choppy film. This is one of those movies where the shots are very short but, because it’s emulating what you see on TV a lot of the time, this kinda works to its advantage. In fact, there are various multimedia shot choices edited in and out rapidly as the show progresses, where the quality of the image will just change as it uses things like broadcast TV transmissions of the game and even security camera footage from scene to scene. We’re living in the time of ‘the media is the message’ and the film does tend to embrace that to some extent. And, another shout out to the ‘MTV generation’ is the fact that these incredibly violent games, played on a much more elaborate figure 8/infinity loop track and with added ramps, have bands playing live music in the stadium for the crowds as the action unfolds.

The soundtrack itself has one or two nice songs on it and also a brilliant score from Eric Serra, who composed music for quite a lot of Luc Besson’s movies back in the day (and back again with him recently). It’s not as hard hitting as the original and it also has a lot more elaborate team costumes which, is kinda what you’d expect from the hoopla surrounding these kinds of events with teens these days. It also has these long catcher’s poles which are actually mentioned in the original short story but which never made it into the first movie.

Jean Reno’s a bit over the top but, you know, that’s okay... he’s Jean Reno and he’s meant to be. He makes a really good villain. The whole ensemble cast is pretty good on this actually but, like I said earlier, it’s very much a ‘cinema experience’ kind of movie rather than a home video set up sort of film. I don’t have much more to say about it other than what I’ve already covered... it’s not as subtle and far from challenging material but it’s big and loud and the many hand held camera shots utilised throughout don’t really harm the experience. A nice attempt and doing something slightly different with the material and it’s a shame it’s not better recognised, I think. It’s not essential viewing like the first Rollerball but, if you’ve seen that then maybe don’t be afraid to give this one a visit sometime, you might actually like it. I still do.

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