In the film the world of 2018 (referred to in the tagline as "the not too distant future") is a global corporate state, containing entities such as the Energy Corporation, a global energy monopoly based in Houston, which deals with nominally peer corporations controlling access to all transport, luxury, housing, communication, and food on a global basis.
Rollerball is a violent, globally popular sport around which the events of the film take place. It is similar to Roller Derby in that two teams clad in body armor skate on roller skates (some instead ride on motorcycles) around a banked, circular track. There, however, the similarity ends. The object of the game is for the team in possession of the ball to score points by throwing a softball-sized steel ball into the goal, which is a magnetic, cone-shaped area inset into the wall of the arena. The team without possession of the ball is defensive and acts to prevent scoring. The ball is put into play by being fired out of a cannon at the top of the track. Rollerball is a full-contact sport in which players have considerable leeway to attack opposing players in order to take or maintain possession of the ball and to score points. In addition, each team has three players who ride motorcycles to which teammates can latch on and be towed. The player in possession of the ball must hold it in plain view at all times.
Rollerball teams, named after the cities in which they are based, are owned by the various global corporations. Energy Corporation sponsors the Houston team. There appear to be various divisions or classes of teams, as with soccer and baseball, as Jonathan refers to a new player on the Houston team as having been called up from the Manila team, but this is never explicitly stated.
The game is a substitute for all current team sports and for warfare. While its ostensible purpose is entertainment, Mr. Bartholomew, a high-level executive of the Energy Corporation, describes it as having a "distinct social purpose": to show the futility of individual effort.
Jonathan E. (James Caan) is the veteran star of the Houston rollerball team. By virtue of his stellar performance over ten years, he has become the sport's most recognizable player. After another impressive performance against Madrid, Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), chairman of the Energy Corporation, announces that they will feature Jonathan in a "multivision" special about his career.
After the Madrid game, Bartholomew tells Jonathan that he wants him to retire. He offers a lavish retirement package if Jonathan so announces during the special, while emphasizing the benefits of corporate-run society and the importance of respecting executive decisions, never explaining why he must retire. Jonathan struggles to understand while thinking about his wife Ella (Maud Adams), who was suddenly given to an executive without explanation.
Jonathan later tries to access books but finds they have been classified, transcribed, and stored in a corporate computer bank. He comforts himself back at his ranch by watching a video of his former wife, soon discovering that Energy Corporation has sent him a concubine.
Rollerball degrades into senseless violence as the rules are changed and made more dangerous in order to force Jonathan out. The semi-final game against Tokyo will be played with no penalties and limited player substitutions, yet Jonathan refuses to withdraw. A Houston instructor (Robert Ito) attempts to teach the team how to counter Tokyo's unorthodox martial arts skills, but the Houston players, led by Jonathan's skating partner and best friend, Moonpie, say they intend to simply beat the Tokyo players down and drown him out with multiple chants of "Houston! Houston! Houston!"
The brutality of the match kills several players including Houston's lead biker, Blue; while Moonpie (John Beck) is left in a brain-dead vegetative state. Despite the violence, Houston emerge victorious, and will play New York in the finals, a game that will be watched all around the world.
The corporations hold an emergency teleconference meeting of the chief executives to discuss Jonathan's obstinate refusal to retire. It is decided that the championship game between Houston and New York will be played with no penalties, no substitutions, and no time limit. The executives' meeting reveals why they want Jonathan to retire: Rollerball was conceived not only to satisfy man's blood lust, but to demonstrate the futility of individualism. Jonathan's talent and longevity is threatening that purpose.
Before the match, Jonathan has a surprise visit from his former wife, Ella, who reveals that the corporations ordered her to convince him to retire. Despite the obvious dangers and despite knowing that he will probably die, as he confides to the vegetative Moonpie in a pre-game hospital visit, Jonathan decides to play.
The final game quickly loses all semblance of order as the players are incapacitated or killed. The crowd, raucous and energetic at the beginning, gradually becomes more and more subdued as the carnage unfolds, devolving into a gladiatorial contest. Before long, Jonathan is the only player left on the Houston side, while a skater and a bikeman remain from New York. After a violent struggle directly in front of Mr. Bartholomew's seat, Jonathan dispatches the skater and takes the steel ball. The New York bikeman charges him on his motocycle, but Jonathan meets his charge and unseats him, the two of them rolling over and over to the inside of the track. Jonathan pins the bikeman down and raises the ball as if to kill him while the world watches in utter silence. With a moment's pause, Jonathan releases the New York biker, gets to his feet, painfully makes his way to the goal and throws the ball inside, scoring the game's only point.
Jonathan begins to freely skate around the track in silent victory, and the coaches and fans of both teams start chanting, "Jon-a-than!", first in a whisper, then in voices which grow louder and louder as Jonathan continues faster and faster around the track. Mr. Bartholomew hurries to the arena exit, knowing that Jonathan E. has defeated the game itself and invalidated its premise, with the implication a revolution could happen. As the cheering becomes a roar, there is a freeze frame hold on Jonathan's blurred face, over which is played Bach's iconic prelude to Toccata and Fugue in D minor, as the film credits roll.
Rollerball's arena sequences were shot at the Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle in Munich. This hall was selected because it was the only sports arena in the world with a near-circular profile, which the production could take over and redress for shooting.
The then-new BMW Headquarters and Museum buildings in Munich, Germany appear as the headquarters buildings of Energy Corporation at the Olympiapark, Munich. A number of scenes were also filmed at Fawley Power Station, near Southampton. The sequence where Jonathan E. visits Geneva to consult with Zero the computer concerning corporate decisions features exterior shots of the Palace of Nations.
Recognizing their contribution to the film's many crucial action sequences, Rollerball was the first major Hollywood production to give screen credit to its stunt performers.
The game of Rollerball was so realistic the cast, extras, and stunt personnel played it between takes on the set. At the time of the film's release, Howard Cosell interviewed Norman Jewison and James Caan on ABC's Wide World of Sports, showing clips from the film and with the two of them explaining the rules of the game. Audiences who saw the film so loved the action of the game that there was actually talk about forming rollerball leagues, which horrified Jewison.
The film is noteworthy for its use of classical music: Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor is performed on organ by Simon Preston during the opening title sequence; it is heard once again at the end of film's final scene and over the first section of the end credits, bookending the film. The Adagio in G minor by Albinoni/Giazotto, and the Largo from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 is also used to establish tone, mood, and atmosphere for certain scenes in the film. The classical music was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andre Previn, who also wrote the "Executive Party" music for the movie.
The film earned $6.2 million in theatrical rentals at the North American box office.
Variety praised the film, calling the lead performances "uniformly tops."
By contrast, Vincent Canby was unimpressed, and his review stated:
"All science-fiction can be roughly divided into two types of nightmares. In the first the world has gone through a nuclear holocaust and civilization has reverted to a neo-Stone Age. In the second, of which 'Rollerball' is an elaborate and very silly example, all of mankind's problems have been solved but at the terrible price of individual freedom.... The only way science-fiction of this sort makes sense is as a comment on the society for which it's intended, and the only way 'Rollerball' would have made sense is a satire of our national preoccupation with televised professional sports, particularly weekend football. Yet 'Rollerball' isn't a satire. It's not funny at all and, not being funny, it becomes, instead, frivolous."
TV Guide gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, saying that "the performances of Caan and Richardson are excellent, and the rollerball sequences are fast-paced and interesting." James Rocchi of Netflix said in his review that "the combination of Roman Empire-styled decadence and violence mixed with a vision of a bizarre, loveless corporate future is evocative and unsettling."
On the other hand, Jay Cocks of Time Magazine posted a negative review of the film, saying that Caan looked "unconvinced and uncomfortable" as Jonathan E.
The film has a 67% approval rating at the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.
American Film Institute listsAFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
AFI's 10 Top 10 – Nominated Science Fiction Film
In 1977 Caan himself rated the film 8 out of 10, saying he "couldn't do much with the character."
According to Playstation Museum Video game graveyard article and unseen64 , Z-Axis Games was developing a video game adaption based on the film, Set ten years after the events of the film, Rollerball The video game's promise to recreate the ultra-violent action of the game played in the movie. Rollerball The video game was slated to be released for playstation and Nintendo 64 on 1997. But was canceled due to the publisher MGM Interactive going bankrupt and laying off its employees.
In 2004, I-play developed and published a Rollerball game for mobile phones. it's based on the 1975 film rather than the 2002 remake of the same name.