Standard Issue writers are revisiting a film/book/TV series to see if it’s stood the test of time. Forty years after its release, Hannah Dunleavy watches future predictor Rollerball and asks, are we nearly there yet?
Rated or dated: It’s easy to watch films that predicted the future with the benefit of being there, laugh heartily at the computers the size of whole rooms and shout smugly, “Where’s the internet, dudes? Didn’t think of that, did you?”
Yes, Rollerball’s all browns and oranges, chest hair, wide lapels and casual drug taking. Its elite training centre has worse gym equipment than most car boot sales. Its televisions are a triumph of quantity over quality. And there’s only one font – albeit a really funky one – in the whole world. So far, so 1970s, right?
Even its central premise – that one man cannot be allowed to get bigger than ‘the state’ – isn’t revolutionary. It had been used before, in Spartacus. And, you know, the Bible. And would be used again, in Gladiator. And, you know, The X Factor.
Because there you have it. Watching in 2015, I think Rollerball’s vision of where our culture is heading might be bang on the money. Multinational corporations rule the world, keeping the general population in their place by controlling supplies of energy and offering, in return, bread and (Rollerball) circuses.
It’s hard not to look at the ecstatic crowds, screaming and cheering and not see that strange mass of humanity that hangs outside the Big Brother house. Like any reality TV contestant, a Rollerball star’s fame is short-lived (although they generally suffer a real death) and any allegiance the audience has is just as transient. They are in it for the horror, the crashes, the sheer thrill of it all. And next time, there will be someone new, trying for their moment of glory.
The rollerballers themselves are a pretty close match to some of the worst excesses of 21st-century sport. Yes, they’re talented and bold, but they’re also spoiled and arrogant and they spend their time off in their massive homes, tinkering with gadgets and the women that hang off each arm, or visiting “luxury centres” with their “privilege cards”.
And yes, the film does fail to foresee any kind of mobile communication or home computing and that we’ll still say “yes” rather than “affirmative”– but it does predict the digitisation of books and offers “liquid computer” Zero, which answers any question you ask it. A bit like Siri. But with an exceptionally sinister voice.
At the centre of it all is Jonathan E (James Caan), captain and star of the Houston team and one of the most insular and low-key heroes a film has ever offered us. Well, as low-key as you can be in a shirt open to the waist. When his team reach the final, Jonathan doesn’t even give a speech, he just silently skates out of the tunnel and onto the track.
Caan has said he really didn’t know what to do with the role, but he’s actually rather striking as a man who’s been raised to be subservient but is starting to question – albeit not especially vocally – why he should be. On this viewing, I was also really struck by how much this reminds me of what Casey Affleck does, so if they ever remake it again – they did in 2002 (I WILL NEVER WATCH IT) – that’s my top tip. But, maybe leave it be.
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.