Rollerball at 40: Paving the way for The Hunger Games

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Jun 25, 2015, 10:58 AM EDT

Forty years ago, 1975 brought the arrival of a number of sci-fi, horror and fantasy films that made an impact on their genres -- some good, some not so good, but all interesting and all remembered even to this day. We continue our look back at each of those films on the anniversary of its release and where it stands four decades later with this near-future drama that has become more prophetic with time.

Title: Rollerball

Release date: June 25, 1975

Cast: James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck, Ralph Richardson

Director: Norman Jewison

Plot: By the year 2018, traditional governments have all but vanished and corporations control the world and its resources. The populace is kept distracted and entertained by Rollerball, an extreme combination of football, motocross and gladiatorial fighting in which players are often killed and the violence level is constantly raised. When its star player, Jonathan E. (Caan), becomes a hero to the public, his corporate masters grow nervous and demand that he retire -- but Jonathan refuses and determines to find out why.

Why it's significant: Death Race 2000, The Running Man, Battle Royale, The Hunger Games -- name the movie that combines a deadly, ultra-violent sports competition with a futuristic, dystopian setting and it was probably influenced in some way by Rollerball. The film wasn't the first to tackle this subject matter -- Peter Watkins' little-seen The Gladiators (1969) was there first -- but it turned the subject matter into box-office gold and paved the way for many of the films mentioned above.

Ironically, director Norman Jewison set out to make a film that was disgusted at the level of violence in the title game, but it is those sequences that are the best part of Rollerball -- they're visceral, bloody and steadily more horrific. The rest of the movie is a rather slow crawl through a lot of talking -- in locker rooms, boardrooms, living rooms and cocktail parties -- as James Caan's Jonathan E. broods and begins to realize that the Energy Corporation, which owns his team in addition to a large chunk of the world, sees him as a threat because he represents the power of the individual.

Despite its shortcomings, Rollerball remains eerily relevant. Just take a look at how the Super Bowl has been all but turned into a national holiday, while the government refuses to give people Election Day off to vote, and you'll see how sports could be seen as serving to distract the public today. The escalation of violence in and the rise of MMA fighting is the real-life counterpart to the stripping of all rules from rollerball. As for the concept of corporations controlling our entire lives and even managing to alter or erase past history -- that is hardly science fiction anymore (compare this to the weak 2002 remake, which stripped all the themes out of the story and made it just a dumb action piece -- the original movie's corporate masters would have approved). Rollerball may not be a great film, but its portrayal of the future looks, in some ways, a lot like right now.

Other entries in this series: