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Rollerball 2018: Trump, Zuckerberg & The Future Present

The 1975 sci-fi Rollerball depicts a world run by a global corporate state that has eradicated war, famine and disease - and yet, it can't help but feel prescient in the era of Trump, Mark Zuckerberg and Cambridge Analytica.

Rollerball 2018: Trump, Zuckerberg and the Future Present

The future becomes the present with surprising regularity. Set in 2018, Norman Jewison’s 1975 film Rollerball depicts a world run by a global corporate state that has eradicated war, famine and disease. High-level executive Mr Bartholomew names the price for such luxury, “Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks of anyone, all it’s ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions.”

That and a gladiatorial contest called rollerball, designed to satisfy the bloodlust of the population once they have grown bored of recreational drugs, designer sex and minimalist furniture. A homicidal hybrid of American football, roller derby and martial arts, rollerball according to Bartholomew, “Was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort.”

Bartholomew’s logic predisposes rollerball’s players to planned obsolescence in the same way Apple designs the very device you are reading this article on to wink out of existence the moment you’ve bought it. Long past his expiry date is the captain of the Houston rollerball team, Jonathan E, a champion for a decade in a sport that haemorrhages players faster than an aneurism.

Jonathan relishes his role as leader of the team, outsmarting Madrid or outfighting Tokyo, but is nothing more than chopped liver with a penchant for nifty hats; a gladiator kept in luxury to stud like the racehorses he rides around his ranch. Are his assigned lovers whisked away to have his progeny reared as future rollerball stars? “The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity; but a wounded spirit who can bear?” Jonathan is a physical freak of nature; his body and mind totally attuned to rollerball but mourns his wife Ella, given to an executive as gift and a calculated attempt to destroy Jonathan’s soul in order to quicken his demise on the track.

Trumpian Amazons

Women in corporate society are straight out of Vogue via Studio 54, designer concubines high on aphrodisiacs and the lead in their heavy make-up. These Trumpian Amazons are commodities, traded and humiliated, used as spies and leverage. No Stormy Daniels here. Some even believe that the rollerball players are manufactured in Detroit. Jonathan may yearn for the spectre of his wife, stalking her on his multivision screens, but he isn’t averse to scarring the face of his latest allocated corporate lover when he suspects her of espionage.

Rollerball 2018: Trump, Zuckerberg and the Future Present

source: United Artists

There are exceptions; at a party to honour Jonathon with a new documentary (and to encourage him to quit), the social elite cheer every slo-mo violent contact, but as the camera tracks across them, a single woman has turned away sobbing at what the world has become. Her trauma is so at odds with the worldview of corporate luxury that we fear for her safety, perhaps her drugs failed and the thin veil of her Instagram existence was pulled back just enough for her to experience a terrifying glimpse of reality.

The corporations want Jonathan out of the game to dissipate his growing popularity. Like Jesus he is famous enough to be known by one name and a series of ever-deadlier rule changes trigger an existential crisis in him – a search for truth and the meaning of his functional existence. Jonathan discovers that this quest is futile in the Nietzschean sense, as his truth has been desecrated and remodelled in the image of the corporate dominant ideology.

Is Mr. Bartholomew Zuckerberg grown old?

Millennia of human knowledge, both genius and lunacy have been decanted into Zero, a liquid super computer, the very embodiment of hypernormalisation run amok. When challenged by Jonathan with the simplest of questions, “I’d like some information about corporate decisions: how they’re made and who makes them?” Zero responds with corporate sound bites, “Corporate decisions are made by corporate executives. Corporate executives make corporate decisions” and later, “Knowledge converts to power. Energy equals genius. Power is knowledge. Genius is energy.”

Jonathan is in a world where no one knows who is pulling the strings, least of all his own. Zero is Google and Facebook, algorithms manipulated by Cambridge Analytica and Trump’s Project Alamo to elect a corporate president by a monolithic corporation. Has Zero become the echo chamber of the Nietzschean abyss that will gaze into us should we stare at it for too long? Is Bartholomew Zuckerberg grown old and ousted from his own company? The man with a billion friends but not one companion so bereft of truth that he doesn’t know his own identity.

Rollerball 2018: Trump, Zuckerberg and the Future Present

Rollerball (1975) – source: United Artists

Bartholomew may be the nerd with all the power but he reveals to Jonathan’s protégé, Moonpie, what he really fears. “You know what those executives dream about out there behind their desks? They dream they’re great rollerballers. They dream they’re Jonathan; they have muscles, they bash in faces.” Jonathan’s refusal to quit, despite the suicidal rule changes is a counter revolution, a Spartacus slave rebellion or the NFL players taking a knee in silent protest against inequality.

Nietzschean “will to power”

With his search for truth rendered meaningless, Jonathan imposes his “will to power” over the corporate world in the championship game against New York. Noam Chomsky argues his point, “Under capitalism, we can’t have democracy by definition. Capitalism is a system in which the central institutions of society are in principle under autocratic control.” The final game is a brutal death match in the NFL film style; Jonathan maims and kills with corporate efficiency, hurting his fellow slaves and rivals to benefit mankind and free it from benign corporate tyranny.

Rollerball 2018: Trump, Zuckerberg and the Future Present

Rollerball (1975) – source: United Artists

Or does he? The final shots of Jonathan skating through flames and JG Ballard twisted motorbike wrecks with the world chanting his name, “JON-A-THAN. JON-A-THAN. JON-A-THAN,” suggest that a violent dictator is about to usurp the decadent corporate republic. Human evolution repeats itself endlessly on a circular track. After all Bartholomew gave him the idea, “You’ll dream you’re an executive. You’ll have your hands on all the controls, and you will wear a grey suit, and you will make decisions.”

As Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor roars on the organ we have witnessed the birth of a monster in grainy extreme close up, a sports personality, a media celebrity anointed as leader or corporate president? The future becomes the present with surprising regularity.

Is Jonathan E. saviour or tyrant? 

Rollerball is currently available on BLU-RAY in the UK from Arrow Films.

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Mark Farnsworth has been the senior film writer for Globalcomment.com for a decade, teaches Film in East London and is currently working on two screenplays, The Mysteries and Into the Lair of the Fascist Beast. He also writes the Oh/Cult section for Brokenshark.co.uk.

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