Bread and Rollercircuses
Remake fever surges on apace in Hollywood: in the last twelve months we've seen the new Planet of the Apes and the new Ocean's Eleven, and a new version of The Time Machine was reviewed only last week by my worryingly talented rival Jedi Jade. And a few weeks ago American audiences were treated to the new Rollerball - the original, 1975 version of which I thought I would look at this week.
Rollerball is set in the near future, when nation states have become defunct and a few all-powerful corporations rule the world. Poverty and war have been banished and the violent impulses of the population are given vent in the form of a gladiatorial new sport, Rollerball, a mixture of American football, motorbiking, roller-disco, and kicking people in. The greatest player in the history of the game is Jonathan E (James Caan), star performer for the world champions. But his fame is making him a hero, an example of individual achievement that his corporate-minded masters cannot permit to continue. Jonathan's employer, Bartholomew (John Houseman) decrees it is time for him to step down - but he is neither shy nor willing to retire, and the organisers of the game are forced to try and arrange his removal - by any means necessary...
But this isn't the head-banging action movie you might expect. It clearly has aspirations to be a serious, thoughtful, mature drama - something indicated by the choice of an adagio by (I think) Bach as the main musical theme. Unfortunately this ambition reaches the screen in the form of a succession of painfully slow, grindingly heavy-handed scenes as Caan broods a lot and ponders the state of the world. There's very little humour and all the female characters are a) Caan's successive girlfriends and b) criminally underwritten. Allusions to the decadence of the Roman Empire are hammered home without wit or subtlety. In the past I've written critically of the dumbing down effect of Star Wars on the big-budget SF movie, but I suppose there's something to be said for the cinema of raw spectacle and emotion if this sort of thing is the alternative.
The only time Rollerball really comes to life is in the actual arena sequences, which get progressively more violent as the film goes on. But they're not that special, and their main point of interest nowadays is that they're all done 'as real' without a special effect in sight. Even here, though, there's a problem, as director Norman Jewison's clear intention to make a point about the brutalising effect of violent sports on players and spectators is hugely undercut by the fact that the violent sports sequences are far and away the best bits of his film.
Technically, things are solid rather than spectacular, the film taking place in one of those spotless and moulded-from-plastic futures seemingly beloved of early 70s SF film set designers. It was filmed in Europe, explaining the presence in the cast of familiar-faced emigrés from North America like Shane 'Thunderbirds' Rimmer and Angus Star Wars MacInnes, alongside British stalwarts like Burt 'Hey Little Hen' Kwouk and Sir Ralph Richardson (who clearly hasn't a clue what he's talking about). Caan is okay in the lead role, managing the neat trick of looking macho in roller-boots, although he's rather subdued when not on the track. The most natural performance, though, comes from John Beck as Caan's psycho team-mate.
Rollerball's culty reputation is probably the sole reason for the remake, and it's telling that the new version seems to have ditched all the highbrow posturing in favour of more action. As it is, the original film succeeds only in terms of the violence it's intended to condemn. And its vision of the future is pretty ropey, too: a world ruled by global corporations, with the population kept happy by stage-managed violent spectacle? As if. I'm off to McDonalds before the WWF starts.