Rollerball versus Death Race 2000 (2007)

A feature from Death Ray 08 from yet another of our innumerable regulars. We went a little overboard with those, I think we have to admit that.

This piece was written in the year before the release of the Jason Statham remake of Death Race, that’s why it is not mentioned. Quick verdict on that: trashy, but kind of fun.

Ladies and gentlemen, Death Ray presents a fight to the death between two sports-SF dystopias. In the worthy corner, Jonathan E! And coming from the pits of black humour, it’s Frankenstein…!

If the late 1960s early 1970s saw a slew of eco-fables and pessimistic nuclear doom-mongery in cinemas, there was at least a fantasticality that distanced the horror from real life, and many ended on a note of cautious optimism – note the dome floating off into space in Silent Running (1972), or the uneasy truce between man and ape in the last of the Planet of the Apes sequence (1973). They were bleak films, warning of the destruction of the Earth through man’s carelessness. The films that followed were bleaker.

The ravaging of the Earth took on a more sinister turn in the mid 1970s. The  downfall of man was accidental in Planet of the Apes (1968), The Omega Man (1971), and Silent Running, the fears of the Flower Children plastered on the big

Worth it, but worthy.

Worth it, but worthy.

screen. The vision of ruined Earth would stay on as a theme, but the fall would no longer occur through ignorance. The cynical hand of government would guide into our green collapse or nuclear apocalypse, and then keep most of us pinned in poverty while the elite swanned about in luxury.

In the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate a suspicion of government percolated into the mainstream. The dystopian backdrop of the Cyberpunk genre, characterised by an overpopulated, degraded world run by authoritarian corporate or nominally democratic governments was struggling into existence. By the time Soylent Green came out in 1973, these themes of environmental doom and authoritarian misdeeds were blending, but it was 1975 was the saw blatant mistrust of authority writ large in big-screen SF. Two films that year had totally corrupt systems oppressing the masses, using bloodthirsty sporting events to keep the populace in line – Rollerball and Death Race 2000, both of which came with a side-order of satire on the modern sporting world.

Rollerball depicts a techno-feudal 2018 where corporations control everything, including history and love. The mob is kept pacified with matches of Rollerball, a sport played on a circular track between two teams of 10, comprising seven rollerskaters and three motorcyclists. The aim of the game is to slam a small metal ball into the magnetised, single goal. Wiping out opposing players in the process is encouraged.

In the film’s world, Rollerball provides an outlet for aggression has supplanted all other forms of sport and war. It is against individualism, as the players are supposedly nothing without their team mates – their jerseys carry no names, only numbers. It is a problem for The Energy Corporation when their Houston team’s star player Jonathan E (James Caan) becomes one of the most recognised men on the planet. As this celebrity flies in the face of Rollerball’s intended purpose, the corporation’s head Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman), tries to get rid of Jonathan, first attempting bribery and then by making the game increasingly dangerous in the hope that Jonathan will be killed. This, of course, fails to happen, and after a brutal free-for-all with the New York team, the film abruptly ends with a battered Jonathan skating round and round a debris-littered track as thousands chant his name.

Regarded by some as a neglected classic, Rollerball is slow and pompous. Though the game is by far the most believable futuristic sport shown in cinema, the film’s big weakness is that it is hard to see how a sport alone could be so instrumental in keeping a world of people docile. It has good points, design and performances are both vibrant, with Caan putting in a nuanced turn. His Jonathan E is a simple sportsman at the top of his game who cannot understand why he is being asked to retire, but who slowly begins to see beyond his sport to the heart of the corrupt system. However, the film’s point – a strong individual can defy the system – is a simple one, laboriously delivered.

The Roger Corman-produced Death Race 2000 is a sparkier affair. After a global financial crisis, The United Provinces of America is a fascist state run by an emperor called Mr President (Sandy McCallum), who entertains the populace with the annual Transcontinental Road Race. The contestants rack up points for running people over (babies and the elderly scoring highest). He who finishes alive with most points win.

Tired racing champion Frankenstein (David Carradine) is on a secret mission to end the race and kill the president. Masquerading as a “rebuilt man” — a cyborg — he has a grenade built into his hand (get it?), which he will detonate when he shakes hands with Mr President, a privilege that can only be gained by winning. Complicating his task are Thomasina Paine (descendant of revolutionary leader Thomas Paine, played by Harriet Medin) and her granddaughter Annie (Simone Griffith), who is serving as Frankenstein’s navigator. As Frankenstein was a friend of Mr President, they plan to kidnap him and use him as political leverage.

Eventually, Annie and Frankenstein come to an accord. One by one the racers are knocked out of the race. Frankenstein’s plan goes slightly awry as he is forced to use his grenade to get rid of his arch-rival Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (played by Sylvester Stallone as a stressed out killer). In the end, true to the character of the film, he runs Mr President over, a fate also meted out to chief race proponent Junior Bruce (Don Steele) after Frankenstein becomes the new Mr President, marries Annie and bans the race.


Death Race 2000 is more fun than Rollerball, but does that mean it’s a good movie?

Violently excessive, Death Race 2000 is a blood-soaked Wacky Races on steroids. A heavy use of black humour points out our more unsavoury urges regarding entertainment, but as you’d expect from a Corman effort, it is a cheap movie, little more than an exploitation flick.

As to which is best, both films have their devotees, though neither are masterpieces of cinema. A better SF team sport flick than Rollerball has yet to be made. Rollerball also scooped several awards and nominations, notably wins at the Golden Scrolls for Caan’s performance and BAFTAs for John Box’s art direction. Death Race 2000, needless to say, is a little less well-served in the plaudits department, but it does not expect us to take it seriously, and that’s where it wins out, to our minds, over the self-importance of Rollerball.

Short Stuff

Like a lot of good SF cinema, Death Race 2000 and Rollerball were both based on short stories.

Rollerball‘s source material was “Rollerball Murder” by William Harrison (b. 1933), an English professor at the University of Arkansas. Harrison also wrote the screenplay for the film, though he allegedly told one student the director Norman Jewison, “did everything to my script but use it.” Elsewhere he said that Caan exerted a large influence on the film, adding and changing lines, with the result that, in the end, most of Harrison’s dialogue went unused.

Many of the differences between the film and the story, published in Esquire in 1973, concern the rules of the game. The short story has bigger teams – 20 people in total, including members on foot armed with lacrosse stick-like clubs, an oval track, two goals, and multiple cannons. In the film, the balls are fired against the direction of play. In the story there are a number of cannons – four are used in the final game – and multiple balls in play. The cannons in the short story are deliberately aimed at the players’ backs, and in the last two games, against Tokyo and New York, the balls’ shape is altered to make hitting the players more likely.

“Rollerball Murder” is less portentous than the film. It is the crowd’s bloodlust, not the machinations of the corporate state that drive the modification of the game’s rules, whereas Jonathan is less driven to beat the system, being more of a part of it. It’s a travelogue of the future as much as it is a statement against violent entertainment, a job, like the film, it does poorly, as it is violent entertainment in itself.

The Danish Ib Melchior, a fascinating man, wrote “The Racer”, which provided the basis for Death Race 2000. Melchior’s story was a simple one about a driver in a Death Race whose growing conscience prevents him from running over his victims. Melchior (b. 1917) graduated in Denmark, Melchior joined a troupe of travelling British players. He was performing in a play on Broadway when Pearl Harbour was attacked, and immediately joined the US army. He spent two years in Europe as a counter-intelligence agent, for which he was decorated by the Danes, Swedes and Americans. After the war he went into business as a director, producer and screenwriter, making many low budget SF B-Flicks, though his credits also include the passable Robinson Crusoe on Mars. During this period, he claimed to have invented Lost In Space. His claims stand up to some extent, and he was employed as a special adviser to Mark Koch, producer of the 1998 film remake.

Sport facts

Things you never new about Rollerball and Death Race 2000.

  1. James Caan as Jonathan E shared the Golden Scroll best actor award with Don Johnson, for his performance as Vic in A Boy and His Dog.
  2. The tag line for Death Race 2000 was:  “In The Year 2000 Hit And Run Driving Is No Longer A Felony. It’s The National Sport!”
  3. Two of Rollerball‘s five tag lines were: “In the future there will be no war. There will only be Rollerball” and “The next war will not be fought – it will be played.”
  4. Ib Melchior also wrote Angry Red Planet (1960), The Time Travelers (1964), The Outer Limits episode “The Premonition” (1965)..
  5. William Harrison has had one other major film – Mountains of the Moon (1990), based on his book Burton and Speke. Another of his novels, Three Hunters, is in pre-production.
  6. Roger Corman has made over 400 films.
  7. “Rollerball Murder” finishes with Jonathan E singing along to the pre-game anthem of the New York match.
  8. Moonpie, Jonathan E’s friend in Rollerball, gets a passing mention as a skater who gets his brains kicked out in the story’s Tokyo match.
  9. Death Race 2000 was Sylvester Stallone’s ninth film.
  10. George Miller cites Death Race 2000 as a key influence on his Mad Max movies.

Roller connections

Rollerball murdered by remake, respected by rip-off.

Hollywood likes nothing better than plundering yesteryear’s back catalogue. To the suits, a John McTiernan Rollerball remake seemed like a sure thing. They were wrong.

Most of the politics were stripped from the story, which was moved to a 2005 setting. The new plot has extreme sports lover Jonathan Cross (Chris Klein) recruited to play in the young sport of Rollerball by its inventor Alexi Petrovich (Jean Reno). It emerges that Petrovich had become corrupt, and is deliberately making the game more dangerous to boost ratings.


Oh dear.

The film was pitched as an R to begin with, but was received so poorly by test audiences that it was re-edited to a PG 13, broadening its potential audience base. Unfortunately, much of the coherency of the film went with it. The studio obviously knew the film was a stinker, as it  was delayed for a year before being quietly released in February, 2002. It bombed, and co-star LL Cool J admitted it “sucked” on national TV.

Better is Futuresport (1998), which owes a huge debt to Rollerball. Set in a dystopia where scandals have caused the decline of traditional sports, Futuresport has become an international phenomenon. A mix of street hockey, American football and basketball intended to provide a bloodless resolution to inter-gang conflicts in Downzone, the LA ghetto, it was created years earlier by Tre Ramzey (Dean Cain) and Obike Fixx (Wesley Snipes).

When the North American Alliance and Pacific Confederation almost comes to blows over Hawaii, Ramzey offers to stage a game of Futuresport to resolve the problem… Cue terrorists and complications with Fixx. At nine million dollars, Futuresport was the most expensive TV movie made at the time. Silly, but good looking for TV fare, it is surprisingly watchable.


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