The Bottom Shelf

[Each month, The Bottom Shelf explores a justly unheralded movie genre of ages past, mining it for cheap laughs and facile insights. By and large, the films discussed herein are best enjoyed in bulk, accompanied by good friends, strong liquor, and frequent juvenile cackling. Every once in a while we’ll throw a decent flick in the mix, just to keep you on your toes.]

Reality television is the current favorite whipping boy of the culture, with each new Survivor knockoff or Bachelor clone castigated as yet another portent of the inexorable decline and fall of civilization. Indeed, it is easy to despair at the sight of attention-starved nitwits competing for the affection of a faux-millionaire lummox or consuming several yards of horse rectum for relatively meager financial gain. (Although did you see that one episode of Man vs. Beast where the Kodiak bear beat that Japanese dude in the hot dog eating contest? That was cool.)

And yet, are things really as bad as they seem? To answer that question we must turn to history - and by history I mean, of course, the bad movies of the 70s and 80s. For just as those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them, those who forget the bad movies of the 70s and 80s are doomed to rent them because the box looks cool, only later to realize that, indeed, they have already seen this particular piece of shit. In this case, we must learn the lessons of the genre which, for lack of a better term, we shall call “sports of the future.”

We begin with Rollerball, one of the crown jewels of that final golden age of cinematic science fiction before Star Wars came along and ruined everything. You know, back when shopping malls were still new enough that they could be used as both conveniently cheap “futuristic” settings and conveniently glib symbols of consumer decadence and corporate dominance. When everyone dreamed of having a home computer, even though getting one meant putting an addition the size of an airplane hangar on your house. When a convincing depiction of an advanced society could encompass Farrah hair, corduroy jumpsuits and wood-paneled basements with TV screens built into the walls, and everyone would think it was cool. Such a film was Norman Jewison’s Rollerball.

James Caan stars as the Joe Namath of Rollerball, Jonathan E. Despite the wide variety of sartorial horrors Caan is forced to endure (the orange team uniforms are bad enough, but the monolithic belt-buckles Jonathan favors in his civilian garb may well have rendered the actor sterile), it’s not hard to see what attracted him to the project. In the corporate-controlled dystopic future, there is no room for celebration of the individual. Rollerball is meant to demonstrate the disposability and interchangeability of ordinary citizens. When Jonathan becomes the game’s biggest star, he threatens the dominant paradigm. What superstar actor wouldn’t be smitten with the notion that celebrity is the key to toppling an oppressive society?

“What superstar actor wouldn’t be smitten with the notion that celebrity is the key to toppling an oppressive society?”

Most of Jewison’s big ideas are served up in the inimitable stuffy tones of John Houseman, who plays the evil head of the Energy corporation. He gets all the big speeches about the value of comfort over freedom and the futility of individual effort, but he doesn’t see much action in the arena, so let’s forget about him.

Here’s how the game is played: a metal ball is shot out of tube and circles a roller rink until it is snatched up by one of the skating players. His goal is now to skate past every member of the opposing team and then deposit the ball into his team’s goal. Of course, the other team must try to stop him. Some of the players are on skates, others on motorcycles. The player with the ball may latch onto the back of one of his own team’s motorcycles in order to pick up additional momentum. He may also pass the ball off to another member of his team, but the ball must remain visible at all times.

RollerballAs Jonathan’s popularity grows and he continues to refuse the corporation’s entreaties to retire, the powers that be decide to make things harder on him by eliminating the rules of the game. First, penalties are suspended so that the defensive team may use any means necessary to stop the offense from scoring. (Driving over your opponent’s neck with a motorcycle, for example, proves to be an effective technique.) The final game of the season is played with no substitutions and no time limit. At this point the violence goes into overdrive as Rollerball becomes a game of Last Man Standing.

Whenever Rollerball leaves the rink, the picture turns stodgy, preachy or just plain silly (as in the scene where glamorous socialites leave a swanky cocktail party to shoot flare guns and blow up trees). To his credit, however, Jewison manages to keep the action crisp and clean; you can actually follow the game in progress with little or no confusion. The same cannot be said for most of the films to follow in its skate tracks.

Never one to let a trend pass him by, Roger Corman produced his own down-and-dirty take on Rollerball in 1978. A sequel of sorts to Death Race 2000 (itself a seminal work in the “sports of the future” genre, assuming driving over old ladies qualifies as a sport), Deathsport takes place 1000 years hence, after the neutron wars have destroyed civilization as we know it. Now there are but a handful of cities populated by “statemen” scattered throughout the great swaths of wilderness, where mutants and “range guides” dwell.

The great range guide Kaz Oshay (David Carradine, in one of his finest loincloth performances) is captured by statemen on motorcycles and taken to a bad matte painting, where he is forced to endure some very painful flashing blue visual effects. Another captured guide, Deneer (Claudia Jennings), is stripped naked and tortured with a giant set of wind chimes. The villainous Ankar Moor (Richard Lynch) flares his enormous nostrils and plots their demise against an array of black backdrops. Occasionally a glowing sphere serves as the sole set decoration. Even by Corman standards, this is one chintzy post-apocalypse.

“Even by Corman standards, this is one chintzy post-apocalypse.”

As for the Deathsport itself, the filmmakers lose interest in it almost immediately, which should come as no surprise since it’s incredibly lame. Oshay and Deener are equipped with shiny gold helmets and big glassy swords and released onto the battlefield, where they are pursued by motorcyclists. That’s really all there is to it - the cyclists try to run over the range guides, who in turn try to decapitate the cyclists with their swords. There are also a few land mines scattered about, almost as an afterthought. After a minute or two, the range guides disable the surrounding force field and make their escape. A protracted motorcycle chase ensues, followed by a final duel between Oshay and Moor. Victorious, Oshay and Deener proclaim their love for each other with the following deeply moving exchange:

“Our union is complete.”

“I agree.”

There’s not a dry eye in the house, but only because there’s not a single eye left in the house by the time this emotional crescendo arrives.