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Movie Review: Rollerball

Going to the movies with my buddies was a favorite pastime as a teenager. Most of these movies were forgettable, but one got permanently lodged in my mind: Rollerball!

For 1975, Rollerball was quite violent. While the violent images might have indeed been the catalyst to keep this movie in my cerebral folds, I often referred back to Rollerball when trying to understand a society going bad. 

Rollerball is a futuristic professional sport. Similar to roller derby, two teams of skaters jostle each other around a track to score points and win the game. But there is a lot more violence in this sport than the roller derby of the 1970s: severe injury and death were common in the rollerball arena. This sport is hugely popular in this future time—and perhaps even the focal point of many citizens’ lives. Rollerball stars are wealthy and popular and always get the girls.

How the society got to this point is an underlying theme of this movie. The “boring parts” are actually quite philosophical, probably not that interesting to the average teenager. It seems there was a bit of a civil war over much of the world. What stopped the fighting were corporate interests that somehow gained control over national governments. The corporations developed treaties amongst themselves for territory and economic rights. Nations and provinces were abandoned. The corporations believed that they were the real providers of peace and prosperity of this new world order. And they sought to maintain that order, which meant sacrificing individual freedom.

Each corporation had its own rollerball team. And that is how, outwardly, they competed against each other. But inwardly, the corporations used rollerball to placate citizens under its control. Rollerball was an important diversion from the real machinations of the corporations.

The career of a rollerball player was short-lived. There was just too much violence for a star, regardless of talent and ability, to survive this game for more than a few years. Players routinely became injured or killed. The smarter ones got out of the game early enough to retire very wealthy. Yesterday’s stars were soon forgotten.

Except for Jonathan E.

Jonathon is a very talented rollerball star. He has survived many rollerball battles, obviously beating the odds by staying alive and healthy. He has many “kills” under his belt. He has reached an age exceptional for a rollerball player. And he loves the game.

Jonathon’s corporation wants him to retire—despite Jonathon being instrumental in leading the team to the world championship. It seems the public is starting to see Jonathon as a cult figure. And corporations fear big celebrities and how they could upset the social order created by the corporations. The corporation uses all sorts of tactics to force Jonathon to retire, but he doesn’t.

After the last game of the movie, Jonathon is the last player surviving a deadly rollerball game. As he skates his victory lap, the crowd yells: JON-A-THON! JON-A-THON! JON-A-THON!

It took me about 30 years to run across that movie again. Amazingly, I remembered most of it. And I understood it a lot better.

With so many life priorities given to professional sport, are we not already in a rollerball world?

Published in Writerbeat 2017

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