History of the Future: Rollerball

Event Details

On August 16, 2023, ASU Center for Science and the Imagination partnered with Majestic Neighborhood Cinema Grill for a screening of Rollerball. This screening was part of a greater film series: The History of the Future, exploring gripping, cinematic visions of the future across the past five decades.

The film was introduced by Matt Bell. Read his introduction below.

Rollerball and the Future We’re Racing Towards

Matt Bell


Our movie tonight takes place in the far future of 2018, in a world where there are no ruling nations anymore, just corporations and their executives. These executives rule over access to everything a person might want, including food, housing, employment, credible information, sexual partners, and of course entry into their own elevated class. It’s a system of “a few of us making decisions on a global basis for the common good,” according to John Houseman’s Mr. Bartholomew, CEO of the Energy corporation. “Now everyone has all the comforts. No poverty, no sickness. No needs and many luxuries. All [the system] asks of anyone… is not to interfere with management decisions.”

Is this a good enough deal for the greater population? It’s hard to say. There isn’t a ton of outward discontent in the movie—no memorable protesters or activists, few worries expressed anywhere but in private. Maybe it is good enough. As Mr. Bartholomew explains: “Corporate society was an inevitable destiny, a material dream world. Everything man touched became attainable.” In addition to the executives’ promised consumerist egalitarianism, there are no longer any nationalistic wars; even the corporate wars that followed this world’s fall of nations have finally ended.

It is a time of peace and stability—it is a time of Rollerball.

Rollerball was filmed without CGI, and so its aesthetic vision of the future is often based in the latest and greatest hard reality available to the filmmakers of 1975: the high-rise that houses the Energy corporation is BMW’s current world headquarters, built in 1973; a basketball facility built for the 1972 Munich Olympics stands in for the film’s Houston arena; the Palace of Nations in Geneva, whose final expansion was completed in 1973, provides the exterior for a computer facility where totalitarian censorship meets up with an ambivalent AI that misplaces most of the 13th century, possibly suppressing it, possibly just not caring enough to preserve it.            

At least we don’t have AIs like that to worry about in our own timeline, right?

The game of Rollerball itself is roller derby transformed by spiked gloves and football helmets and body armor, by exhaust-spewing motorcycles and a shotput-size steel ball fired onto the track by a device that’s absolutely meant to look like the barrel of an enormous hunting rifle. Despite the violence and absurdity of the resulting spectacle, the movie doesn’t play it for laughs: if rollerball and rollerball stardom is a farce, it’s one presented with the greatest earnestness.

In that way too, tonight’s movie’s future is a lot like our present: what should be unthinkably absurd is often totally real and deadly serious.

While playing Rollerball, someone gets injured every few minutes; even before the rules change, it’s not rare for an athlete to die on the playing surface. So what? “It’s not a game a man is supposed to grow strong in,” we’re told. I’d say I’m generally a pacifist but that doesn’t mean I’m not still attracted to violent spectacle, on the screen or in my sports: for me, the Rollerball games you’re about to see do get more exciting as they get more violent. No one seems that bothered. In the same way that some (most? all?) NFL fans accept the increasingly demonstrable risk of long-term brain injury to their favorite players as an acceptable cost of their favorite game, no one in the stands of Rollerball cares much what happens to the players. Why should they? Won’t there always be other players coming up, willing to risk life and limb to earn one of this world’s elusive luxury cards?

The games you’ll see played on screen tonight offered up enough excitement back in 1975 that some real-life corporations apparently tried to license the rights from the filmmakers to form their own Rollerball leagues, outraging director Norman Jewison, who’d said that he’d intended to depict the “sickness and insanity of contact sports and their allure.”

I sympathize with Jewison’s plight, but satire is always tricky to pull off: when depicting senseless or immoral violence with the goal of denouncing it, how can you be sure that you aren’t just making more of the same, sure to be enjoyed just as uncritically as the thing you’re critiquing? When inventing a fictional dystopia, how do you know you’re not just showing the kind of people who would love to become a member of Rollerball’s executive class one more way to make such a bleak future come true?

As we watch the Houston players and their opponents compete, people get hurt, get killed, get replaced. No matter what happens—and eventually what happens is widespread death, a fiery playing field, and additional assorted mayhem—the game continues uninterrupted. And why not? Rollerballwas designed to be a game of teams, not individual players, and it does not have superstars—except perhaps for James Caan’s Jonathan E, who’s been Houston’s best player for the last ten years, earning a celebrity that makes him an unwitting threat to the executive class. As John Houseman’s executive says, “The game [of Rollerball] was invented to demonstrate the futility of individual effort. Let the game do its work. If the champion defeats the reason the game is designed, then he must lose.”

Here’s where tonight’s history of the future feels especially close, for me: how many of the systems that we interact with in 2023 are designed to tell us we’re unique individuals with free will, while simultaneously pressing each of us into some massive data set of like quantities, the better to target us with ads or to influence our politics? The Corporate Future of Rollerball is almost already our corporate present, at least in this way: corporations will always prefer to sell to and to influence a massive populace of likeminded consumers than to try to reach hundreds of millions of distinct individuals. The more we’re like each other, the better, for their purposes—but Jonathan E., at least, aims to insist on his own strength, and that of his chosen team. “The team is a unit. It plays with certain rhythms,” he says, early in the movie. Later, he adds, “We pride ourselves on being a power team.” And then, after the corporations change the rules again, rigging rollerball even more in their favor: “It’s gonna be rough. But it’s still basically the same game. And the team with the power wins.”

In Rollerball’s future and in ours, I’d say it’s past time we think hard about whose team we’re on, and about how much power our team might need to hold onto in order to shape the shared future ahead of us, already coming at us fast and hard from around the next curve of track.

Game on.

Matt Bell is the author of the novel Appleseed (2021) and the acclaimed craft book for writers, Refuse to Be Done (2022). Matt holds a position at ASU as a professor of English and creative writing.

History of the Future is examining gripping cinematic visions of the future emanating from different moments in recent history. In partnership with Majestic Neighborhood Cinemas, experts from ASU faculty and abroad introduce films that have shaped the reality we know today. Connecting past depictions of the future to the present and seeing how the hopes and anxieties of the last five decades have influenced how we tackle the problems of tomorrow.