It's the 21st century, decades after the end of the Corporate Wars that put an end to nation states. The distant corporations control everything and in return for their obedience provide the populace with everything, including the wildly popular sport of Rollerball; a combination of roller derby, hockey and motocross. Johnathan E, Captain of the Houston team, is the world's greatest Rollerball player with an unparalleled history of success. He lives lavishly, is envied even by the most privileged corporate executives and anything he wants is his for the asking, but something is wrong. Someone wants Jonathan to retire and this faceless person or persons is doing everything he or they can to persuade, bribe or threaten him to quit. Jonathan refuses and as he tries to learn more about how his world works, not an easy thing in a society where curiosity is discouraged, those who control Rollerball are making sure that if he doesn't quit, then this season will be his last because the game is rigged so that he can't come out alive.
Rollerball, directed by Norman Jewison with a screenplay by William Harrison based on his short story "Roller Ball Murder", is a vicious commentary on the growing violence in professional sports combined with a moving tribute to the triumph of the individual in the face of a society determined to prove this impossible. James Cann is perfect casting as Jonathan E as is John Houseman as the corporate kingpin Bartholomew and Maud Adams as Jonathan's wife who was taken from him at an executive's whim. And then there is Ralph Richardson's wonderful cameo as the computer scientist battling his stroppy creation that has inadvertently erased the whole of the 13th century.
Jewison acknowledges that the extreme violence was a direct result of Kubrick's Clockwork Orange of a few years earlier and that he felt that it backfired on him somewhat when instead of audience's being horrified, they actually started wondering when real Rollerball rinks would be built. Life imitating art indeed.
But what really makes the film work is its central message. Rollerball was created to prove to the masses that individual effort is futile, yet here is a man in Jonathan E who, without any agenda, demonstrates that the system can be beaten no matter how it is rigged. Not only beaten, but in a way that exults rather than subverts a man's nobility.
For all it's violence, this is a film that couldn't be made today. Such a call to human freedom on its most basic level sits most uncomfortably now that we live in the time of Rollerball.