First of all, please be warned. This dissection in text will contain a lot of revealing plot information concerning both versions, 1975 and 2002, of Rollerball. In the 2002 case, I might be saving you a lot of agony in the process of trying to watch it without a few friends and a lot of chemical stimulants. In the 1975 case, it might actually ruin something worth a watch or two. Your discretion is advised, although even knowing everything that happens in the 1975 production in advance cannot make it any less compelling.
As I intimated in my previous post, there is a reason why Hollywood recycles its old ideas at a rate that seems to increase as time goes on and the oligopoly of the media continues to worsen. It is not to improve upon or even ignite nostalgia for the original film, but rather to remake the money that the original film made. Whilst there are genuinely good remakes out there, the majority are so stupendous in their mediocrity that they prompt genuine puzzlement at Hollywood’s surprise that returns on investment are declining sharply. And then there are the ones that are so incredibly, utterly bad that they prompt questions about whether the executive who green-lit the production was subsequently buried out in the Nevada desert somewhere. The 2002 production of Rollerball as directed by John McTiernan goes well beyond that. It achieves a level of outright imbecility that even trying to describe why it sucks so much to the proverbial Man From Mars is a fruitless exercise. In order to understand how bad it is and why, you just have to see it for yourself. It really is that awesomely terrible.
But in order to prepare audiences for what to expect, and to provide a little background in order to make potential audiences understand just how terrible the film really is, it is handy to compare it to the film being remade. In 1975, Rollerball was released into theatres. Directed by Norman Jewison, the film was nothing really special, but it was competent enough in its storytelling and stylings to make it worth a watch. And as a commentary on the use of entertainment to sedate the masses, it does make for some interesting discussion. Both films are based upon a short story by William Harrison called Roller Ball Murder. The basic thrust of the story is that the government uses a sport called Rollerball as a diversion in order to keep the people in a more docile, controllable state. Essentially, people are easier to control when they are directing urges to kill at or through players, and the manner in which the game is publicised is also designed to demonstrate that individual effort is futile.
The 1975 production of Rollerball was very faithful to these themes, and like all good speculative science fiction, laid out foundations very carefully in order to maximise the impact of what I will call its punchlines. In the 1975 film, corporations have essentially replaced governments. These corporations do not have punchy names, simply referred to in the story as the “energy corporation” or the like. In turn, each city shown in the games generally has a corporation associated with it. I forget which corporation is associated with New York or Tokyo, but the energy corporation for which the hero and his team play is associated with the city of Houston. After one game that seems to play like any other sport you care to mention, star player Jonathan E (James Caan) is called into the office of an executive called Bartholomew (John Houseman). Bartholomew, on the behalf of all the corporations and their masters, issues Jonathan with an ultimatum. Retire from the game right now. Or “suffer the old fashioned way”, as it is eventually put to him. However, Jonathan’s loyalty to his teammates causes him to stall and put off his retirement and the announcement thereof. So the corporate masters progressively suspend or alter the rules, making each subsequent game played in the film scrappier and more violent than the last. But every attempt to induce Jonathan to retire, even those resulting in the deaths of teammates, only prompts him to ask more questions. Who really makes all of the choices on behalf of the citizenry? Why do these people want him out of the game so badly? And why do the uniforms in this game set so far in the future look like something people would have put down as too daggy in the 1960s?
With all of that explanation out of the way, it is time to examine what makes the “2002” (more on this anon) production of Rollerball so unbelievably bad. Before we begin, it is important to understand a curious facet of the production. Previews for the film were so overwhelmingly negative that the release date was moved back no less than five times. Blood in the games was digitally cleaned up to an extent that hop, skips, and catapults itself over the line to absurd. One classic shot in which an anonymous player is smacked in the face with the ball was clearly altered so that blood would appear as sweat. Which is patently ridiculous for a number of reasons. One, unless you have diabetes and your blood sugar is below 1.0 mmol/l (at which point you will have difficulty standing up anyway), or similarly dire medical circumstances, you do not sweat enough to create that much of a geyser of the stuff like that. Two, when you smack a person in the face with a metal ball, stuff does come out of them in that kind of quantity, but it is nothing like sweat. It has a different colour, tends to be more metallic in nature, and has a much darker colour. The reason this nonsense was committed in the first place was because the studio knew they had such a stinker on their hands that they wanted to open it up for the widest audience they possibly could, meaning that they wanted it open for anyone old enough to see over the counter at the ticket window.
Also problematic was the casting. Jean Reno is more than capable of playing a sleazy businessman under the right conditions, and Naveen Andrews does a reasonable job with the role of his second in command. But out of a total cast of dozens, these are the only two men in the entire film who get away with so much as a shred of dignity. And you will notice that I appended my comments about Reno with “under the right conditions”. Good. In La Femme Nikita and Léon, Reno had the right director in Luc Besson. A director who was aware of his limitations and points of excellence, as well as how to balance them for best effect, in other words. I am not saying that John McTiernan is so incompetent that he could not have done similar things in the right circumstances. But in this instance, the circumstances were so utterly wrong that it is a wonder anyone’s performance hit any notes at all, leave alone a right one.
Secondary star LL Cool J (“don’t any of your street demons have real, grown-up names?”) is on record as having admitted on the Conan O’Brien show that the film sucked. So whilst I will hold my judgement on whether he is an idiot or not in check for now, his music and more importantly his acting still suck dog shit through a straw. Fellow secondary star Rebecca Romijn often depends on her material. She gives a performance in X-Men and X2 that the late Brion James would have been proud of. But the same caveat exists with her as Jean Reno. She needs good direction, and more important good writing, to back her up. Although she is framed well and benefits from good editing in key shots, she otherwise receives precious little in terms of directing, and nothing at all in terms of writing. Although it has been some time since I watched this film that closely, I was under the impression that the character of Aurora was announced in game broadcasts as being Dutch. She speaks with a faux-Russian accent that, as a Russian friend of mine put it, would not have convinced the five year old version of me. Whilst it is more than possible that the character was born in The Netherlands to Russian parents, it is the job of the screenwriter and director to explain things like this. And this is putting aside the fact that having Rebecca Romijn enunciate with any accent at all was totally unnecessary to the plot.
But the man who comes off the worst in Rollerball by far is top-billed star Chris Klein. The stories vary, but Chris was apparently eager to do some roles that broke away from the mould set for him in American Pie. I have watched the first and third of the films in that series, and whilst I can say they are not totally reprehensible, I can also perfectly understand why an actor who believes himself to be capable of more would want to build associations with better things. Unfortunately, the script has Klein‘s character, the imaginatively named Jonathan Cross, in just about every significant sequence (more about this anon), and sometimes the way in which the character behaves is just ridiculous. But after reading some of Klein‘s comments about it, I cannot help feeling sorry for the guy. One quote that was published on the IMDB ends with “but it certainly wasn’t for lack of effort on my part”. And he is right. Throughout the film, although his acting skills appear to be less than up to the job, Klein appears to be trying his hardest to make the whole sorry affair work. Not helping his cause any is that in contrast to the hardened Jonathan E played by James Caan in 1975, Klein looks so green in Rollerball circa 2002 that it prompts questions from the audience about how he could survive in such a hardcore sport. When a film prompts the audience to ask this about a 6’1″ man who used to play what Americans refer to as football, that is not a good sign.
Which brings us back to the script, and comparisons with the 1975 original. The 1975 original production makes some significant but also sensical changes to the manner in which the titular game is played. The arena in which the 1975 concept of the game is played is a perfect circle, for example. But most important to understand here is that the 1975 version was filmed with a developed-enough sense of the games rules that the cast could actually play games (albeit without the violence and mayhem depicted in the film) during breaks. I tend to try to limit the number of expletives I use in any given writing or aloud speaking for reasons that Sasha Mitchell explained brilliantly in Kickboxer 2 (essentially, you do it too much and it loses its meaning), but the rules of the game in the 2002 production of Rollerball were clearly designed by lying, cheating, rigging fukking assholes. The circular track has been replaced by a figure-eight that provides an excellent choke point in the middle at which scraps should prove fatal. Adding to this is that in order to score a point, players have to take the ball, do a run around both sides of the track, go through one of the overhead ramps, and then fling the ball at a gong that, if hit hard enough, ignites fireworks. And believe me, that explanation is much easier to follow than the one given by the idiot announcer played by Paul Heyman (I hope for his sake that his character does not mirror the real-life him).
As you might imagine when the film cannot even keep the sport it is titled after straight in its internal head, the result is a chaotic mess where most of the direction takes place in the editing room. Shots of people whizzing past the camera on motorbikes, attacking one another, or skating around the track with no clear purpose, are strung together whilst Heyman tries to make announcements that will give the audience even a slight clue concerning how to react. Which brings me to the differences in the climactic sequence.
First thing off the bat is the motivations that Jonathan has to play the grand final game. In the 1975 original, he is told that there will be no substitutions, no fouls or penalties, and no time limit. Essentially, this reduces the whole game to a gladiatorial game in which the last person drawing breath is the winner. Such is the desperation of the corporations to make Jonathan be a good little boy and quit the game, thus allowing them to continue to use it to keep the masses from having an outbreak of “rebellious” thought. In the 2002 version, the setup for the final game is as convoluted as the game itself. Jonathan asks the Jean Reno game owner to get his girlfriend out of the game and somewhere he does not need to see her anymore in exchange for playing in one final send-off from which Reno‘s character hopes to secure a “North American cable deal” and get his position of power secure. Yeah, you heard all of that right. Reno‘s character imagines that Jonathan is somehow important to get his astoundingly shitty little sport on television in America (as opposed to, I do not know, maybe exchanging contracts and money?). As the game progresses with similar suspensions of the rules and erupts into violence from the audience, Jonathan simply kills the Reno character (and his second in command) before calling it a day and going home with Rebecca Romijn‘s character, where it is not-so-subtly implied that they will mate until they pass out.
In the 1975 original, it works a little differently. The game progresses as normally as can be in the circumstances of there being no rules at all. But after Jonathan refuses to kill the last member of the opposing team and instead drags himself to the goal to put the final ball in, he then skates around the track to the ever-increasing cheers of his name from the audience. Thus, he accomplishes what the John Houseman character and his cohorts were so shit-scared of throughout the rest of the film: he has become bigger than the game. This is an amazingly life-affirming moment in the film. Although no one Human can do everything entirely alone or without some form of assistance (even in this match, Jonathan would be dead if not for having had teammates to help him fight through the rest of it), sometimes the efforts of a singular individual can change so much. The trick, as in all challenges, is finding the right balance between the two extremes.
So when we look at these two productions, a question comes to mind. What, if anything, do we learn from these films, and what were the makers trying to teach us? In the 2002 production, the answer is remarkably simple despite the attempts by the studio to obfuscate it. The writers, the producers, and possibly even the director, had nothing of value to teach us. I mentioned the words significant sequence earlier. In the 2002 production, pieces of footage totally unrelated to the main story are spliced in, seemingly at random, for no discernable reason. One example that springs to my mind is a moment in which two scenes are bridged with a five-second (roughly) piece of footage of Japanese men dancing whilst wearing nothing but towels (it is less homoerotic, or erotic at all, than I have just made it sound) as the Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs song Wooly Bully plays. This snippet is immediately followed by a landing in some European country over which we hear some “nu metal glam poseur” piece of shit. Is this some kind of attempt to tell the audience that new is necessarily better just because it is new? Odin only knows, but like the rest of the film, it just blows up in the makers’ faces.
The 1975 production, however, has a far more pertinent and obvious message. Specifically, the more we turn control of our lives and aspects thereof over to anonymous entities who do not even take the time to acquaint themselves with us, the more we turn into nothings with no redeeming value. Whilst this is only one side of the story, the fact that it is expressed in a fiction where corporations have replaced government makes it very relevant to the here and now. We live in a world where we must balance ourselves between extremes all of the time, and extremism towards individualism is just as damaging as extremism towards collectivism, if not more so. And when you get right down to it, Rollerball circa 1975 is about the dangers of vesting control over a collective (society) in the hands of a few (small corporate entities and their heads).
Are films made or remade with intentions? Well, in a nutshell, yes. Films that have a message with pertinence to society are often remade with the express intention of snuffing out the older film’s message. You see, in the early days of both film and television, governments saw a major potential to disseminate messages across a wide population, but this brought with it the question of who gets to put out the message, and which messages are acceptable. A plethora of answers have been proposed to the question(s), but some unsavoury types have also come to the conclusion that what others in the world feel to be acceptable or not should not matter. Only their message should count. And a film with a message that multinational corporations are not omniscient and are not a good replacement for government, well, let us just say that irks some of the richest one percent of the world. But simply taking the original message out of circulation is not a viable option. So what to do? Well, in the case of Rollerball, it was decided to put out a remake that contains none of the pertinent points of the original. Try this on for size. Go to someone who was born in 1990 or thereabouts and just mention Rollerball. If they even know what the word means, take note of what they mention in response. If their response pertains to the 2002 production and how “lame” or whatever Rollerball is in general without any awareness of the 1975 production in evidence, then you see why the 2002 remake was commissioned in the first place.
In closing, I would like to ask whomever owns the pertinent rights to the 1975 production of Rollerball why it has not been released on Blu-ray Disc as yet (possibly the same reason as above). And to the audience, please go out and have a look-see at what I often refer to in real-life as the real Rollerball. It may not be timeless, it may be dodgy, but unlike the 2002 remake, it was at least made partly for the right reasons. Thank you.
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