The Verge is a place where you can consider the future. So are movies. In Yesterday’s Future, we revisit a movie about the future and consider the things it tells us about today, tomorrow, and yesterday.
The movie: Rollerball (the 1975 original, not the 2002 remake)
The future: Corporate nations and their supercomputers rule humanity, shaping digitized historical records to their liking. The masses are pacified by watching rollerball, a professional sport that’s like football played on a roller derby loop with motorcycles. Rollerball players have a glamorous existence: fans idolize them, executives envy them, and they’re provided lavish homes, beautiful wives or girlfriends, and fancy TVs with extra screens that show smaller, differently angled shots of whatever they’re watching. In return for all this, they let corporations control their lives.
Jonathan E. (played by James Caan) is the greatest rollerballer in history, but his corporate sponsors think his fame makes him too powerful. They ask him to retire, and when he refuses, they try to kill him by making rollerball increasingly dangerous. Naturally, since this is a science fiction dystopia, it turns out fans love the resulting bloodbaths.
The past: The ‘70s produced a glut of high-concept dystopian movies about consumerism and the dark side of mass culture; beyond Rollerball, it’s a category that includes Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, ZPG, and even the infamous Zardoz. They’re all loosely about futures where comfort and civilization come at the expense of individual freedom and the natural world, and Rollerball is no exception — in what is by far the film’s weirdest scene, a bunch of socialites drunkenly blow up trees with laser guns.
Rollerball also draws on a long-running fascination with ultraviolent sci-fi sports. Based on a 1973 short story, it was released the same year as Roger Corman’s satirical Death Race 2000, which has a strikingly similar premise. And it would be followed by films like 1987’s The Running Man, where a police state maintains power through a game show. Incidentally, Rollerball’s terrible 2002 remake doesn’t include any of these themes — it’s about a small extreme sports league in present-day Eastern Europe.
The present: Rollerball was remarkably bad at predicting the future, and in some ways, that’s more interesting than a generically “timely” commentary on how violence and corporations are evil.
Rollerball imagines the ultimate capitalist society (which various sources suggest is set in 2018, although I haven’t found firm evidence of this) as a brand-free, almost communist monoculture where companies have bland names like “the Energy Corporation” and operate as a single, peaceful global conglomerate. Professional sports are designed to “demonstrate the futility of individual effort.” Rollerball teams have no mascots or monikers beyond their city’s name, and fans all dress in nearly identical T-shirts color-coded by city. In this world, individualism is such a threat that owning the greatest athlete in known history is a horrible liability.
It’s an oddly innocent, distinctly pre-cyberpunk vision that vastly underestimated how well companies could co-opt and repackage freedom and rebellion. In our real 21st century, the relationship between freedom, individualism, and capitalism has turned out to be incredibly complicated. Oppression is sold by glitzy superstar figureheads, while corporations earn good PR by fighting authoritarian laws, policing political leaders, and reining in renegade celebrities. Some real Jonathan E. analogs use their cults of personality to raise money and advocate social change; others turn their followers into vicious troll armies. Far from enforcing impersonal sameness, a real Energy Corporation would probably build a different brand for every hyper-niche subculture and run a snarky Twitter feed.
It’s also far less cynical than other future-bloodsport movies like The Running Man or The Hunger Games, where pop culture is nothing but staged, chaotic mind-numbing violence. Rollerball is surprisingly compelling for a fictional sport; it’s sort of convoluted and impractical, but at least designed with consistent and interesting rules.
New York Times critic Vincent Canby pointed out Rollerball’s crypto-utopian strain back in 1975, complaining that “it’s as if Mr. Jewison, and William Harrison, who wrote the screenplay, really believed that things like war, poverty and disease could be so easily wiped away” by authoritarianism:
All science fiction can be roughly divided into two types of nightmares. In the first the world has gone through a nuclear holocaust and civilization has reverted to a neo-Stone Age. In the second, of which “Rollerball” is an elaborate and very silly example, all of mankind’s problems have been solved but at the terrible price of individual freedom.
This is not wrong. Nearly 45 years later, though, Rollerball does seem like an unintentionally chilling commentary on our present. Because in 2020, we’ve avoided the dystopian future it warned us about — and simply discovered another type of nightmare.
Rollerball is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video and Vudu.