Gosh, Rollerball is a mediocre movie.
I came to this realization after giving the Norman Jewison-helmed sci-fi flick yet another chance on Turner Classic Movies last night. It confirmed all my previous assessments: that it’s pretentious, tiresome and not as introspective as it thinks it is. The blame can partly fall on the script–which documents a future society in which corporations rule the world and sanction the violent, eponymous arena game–but it also features a lethargic performance by the usually reliable James Caan, slow-paced direction by Jewison (no, shots of people turning their heads to stare at the protagonist menacingly are not a substitute for character development) and dubious social commentary … most lamentably evidenced by a scene in which a posse of doltish partygoers representing, I assume, our worst inner voices, commit arboricide with the help of a rather powerful gun.
OK, I get it. Humans are bad. We like wars and killing trees. Fine.
We also like quality filmmaking–and Rollerball doesn’t cut it. The main problem, however, is that it could’ve been so much better, like so many other serious 1970s sci-fi flicks. Logan’s Run, A Boy and His Dog, Soylent Green … science fiction really had a lot to say in that era, but a scarce few films then aced the sniff test. I wish the folks behind them had taken the time to streamline the scripts, make the messaging less heavy-handed, kept the preaching to a minimum. Forbidden Planet‘s a benchmark. So is Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. Spare, concise screenplays, quick-flowing dialogue, tense direction. That’s all you want in a good sci-fi movie, and you don’t find that a lot in the “golden” age of the 1970s. Ideas are almost commonplace. Execution isn’t.
So why is that? I know that period heralded an age of cinematic risks, and many of the non-sci-fi films then exemplified that. Yet with the exception of pictures such as Fantastic Planet and A Clockwork Orange, many of these flicks don’t live up to their expectations. Yes, I know the 1970s also saw the debuts of Alien and Star Wars, but those are less like “message” movies than old-fashioned, leave-your-thinking-at-the-door entertainment.
Rollerball, at its core, is a message movie. And it doesn’t work. Does that mean sci-fi should be devoid of messages altogether–that it should stick to what it does best? (Read: lasers.)
I don’t think so. But it’s something I’ll ponder next time I watch one of these futuristic “man-must” movies. Man must do this, man must do that.
Man must make better science fiction films, methinks.