Part Five: Too much is never enough
The science-fiction movies of the 1970s suggest a number of common fears were in the air: chaos, deprivation, and totalitarianism, usually in some combination. (Less common but still present fears: killer computers, disruptive ape visitors, underground bats, and other threats this column will get to in due time.) The world of Soylent Green managed the ruin of Earth with an iron fist, while No Blade Of Grass and A Clockwork Orange depict worlds spinning out of control. But what of futures that managed to have everything and then some? Why would this be something to fear?
The answer: because of the price. One string of 1970s films portray paradise found, but at the cost of what makes us human. Sometimes the toll isn’t that obvious—it’s just an insidious tax slipped into everyday life. That’s the case in Rollerball, a Norman Jewison-directed 1975 adaptation of William Harrison’s 1973 short story “Roller Ball Murder.” Despite allusions to upheaval in the recent past, Rollerball depicts a world of peace and prosperity. Poverty and war are no more. True, democracy has given way to corporate control, but nobody seems to mind that much, especially with the distraction 0f Rollerball, a sport brutal, popular sport that grows more popular the bloodier it becomes.
And as the game’s biggest star, Jonathan E (James Caan), keeps noticing, it’s getting bloodier all the time. A veteran in a sport that grinds through athletes, Jonathan has become one of the most famous men on the planet. And that’s a problem. A superstar for Houston’s team (like all teams, it’s owned by a corporate conglomerate, in his case, the Energy Corporation), Jonathan keeps receiving unsubtle encouragement from Energy’s chairman, Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), that he should pack in his skates in exchange for a life of even greater pleasure and privilege than the one he now enjoys. He’s getting to be bigger than the sport itself, and by the overlords’ thinking, that won’t work out well for anyone in the long run. They’ve created a civilization in which individual achievement can have no part. Having conquered the world with the free distribution of bread and circuses, they now have only one thing to fear: a man who can’t be bought.
Rollerball is a widely misremembered film, in part because its posters and other marketing materials play up the game sequences, and in part thanks to a 2002 remake, about which the less said, the better. While the eponymous sport figures prominently in the 1975 original, it’s less an action movie than a moody consideration of what it means to give up freedom for comfort. “No poverty, no sickness, no needs, and many luxuries,” Bartholomew explains. “Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks, all it has ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions.” After his initial refusal to retire, Jonathan starts freely questioning those decisions, in the process realizing how much he, and everyone else, has surrendered. That begins with the basic knowledge about how the world is run. Trying to correct this, Jonathan looks for books on the subject, only to find they’ve been placed off limits. A later trip to Switzerland to visit the central computer on which all books are stored results in one of the decade’s less-probable visions of where technology was headed: toward an easily confused, water-based system named Zero, a “memory pool” that doubles as “the world’s brain.” But while the technology now looks laughable, the implications about knowledge and power in the digital age to come don’t:
As a movie, Rollerball is less than perfect. The tone wobbles between “meditative” and “sleepy,” and neither the world nor the sport get fleshed out satisfactorily. As fictional games go, it makes more sense than Quidditch, but not that much more. And as dystopias go, Rollerball’s never seems particularly believable. That’s partly because Harrison’s short story, which the author adapted for the screen himself, reads more like a sketch than a blueprint. It’s filled with suggestive details that need a bit more attention than they get in the film: the solemn singing of corporate anthems, the merry-go-round-like rotation of sexual partners among the privileged, and the indescribable ennui that afflicts those who think too hard about it all. “I yearn for high, lost, important thoughts, and that maybe, just maybe, I’ve got a deep rupture in the soul,” the original story’s Jonathan laments. Caan never captures that feeling. He seems more angry than soulful, which pays off nicely in the bloody finale, but doesn’t really work for the rest of the film. Even more problematic: Rollerball doesn’t seem like a particularly convincing distraction for the masses. Sure, it looks exciting enough, and it’s easy to see why it would inspire obsession in some fans. But the whole world? And what do they think about between matches?
But as prophecy, and as a glimpse at the collective psyche of the time, Rollerball is a fascinating film. It anticipates the roles corporatization and, however clumsily, computers would play in everyday life. More tellingly, it suggests the fear that stability and material success could only come at the expense of old ideals. Many people spent the 1960s imagining a future that looked nothing like the one they found themselves in during the 1970s. The roles they imagined themselves playing in that future were far removed from the ones they ended up playing. Rollerball hit theaters the same year Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks arrived in record stores, and a year before Jackson Browne released The Pretender, and both albums were taken up, at least in part, with handwringing over what became of the generation that came of age in the 1960s. Rollerball has much in common with them. It’s about selling out and wondering whether it was worth the reward—only here, the whole world has sold out. As a plausible future, it doesn’t work for a minute. As a generation projecting its own self-loathing onto tomorrow, it makes a lot of sense.
Rollerball practically shares a universe with 1973’s Sleeper, Woody Allen’s lone venture into science fiction (not counting the aliens from Stardust Memories). Though set a few centuries apart—Rollerball in the far-off year of 2018, Sleeper in 2173—both films depict a world in which pleasure and easy living have conspired to corrode the soul. For Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman, this manifests partly in the form of bad taste. Awakened from a 200-year coma by dissident scientists, Miles Monroe (Allen) emerges to a world that treasures Margaret Keane paintings and the poetry of Rod McKuen. Those once-timely references have barely survived into 2013, but for Allen, they’re symptomatic of a drift into mindless pleasure-seeking. Forced to disguise himself as a robotic domestic, Allen watches as his new owner, Luna (Diane Keaton), spouts bad poetry and entertains guests with an orb that seems to have the same effect as extremely powerful weed. Later, disguised no more, he listens to her praise the Orgasmatron, a device that takes all the messiness and drama out of human sexuality, one so effective that humans have essentially turned sexless without it. In such a bloodless place, is it any wonder he was able to disguise himself as a robot so easily?
At the same time, no one seems to realize how bad things have gotten. “This world is so full of wonderful things,” Luna laments when a friend tells her about the activities of the underground resistance. “What makes somebody go berserk and hate everything anyway? Why does there have to be an underground? After all, there’s the Orb, and there’s the Telescreen, and there’s the Orgasmatron. What more do they want?” As writer Ryan Britt points out:
The fact that in a mind-controlled Orwellian society that there is still a bunch of pseudo-intellectual banter going on about art is actually a pretty dark statement from Woody Allen if you stop to think about it. Are even our petty distractions being orchestrated and tolerated by a larger thought-controlling machine? It’s subtle, but the notion is certainly there.
Maybe that’s why, in the end, Sleeper becomes less a work of science fiction than a love story. Allen was, and in some ways remains, a romantic at heart. When Luna tells him “relationships with men and women don’t last… It was proven by science,” Miles dismisses science as a whole as a dead end, then ends the movie with a quip about sex and death, and a lusty embrace. The problems of Sleeper’s world remain unsolved, but the movie ends with a hope that passion might creep through whatever obstacles society throws in its way, and with it, all the messiness and beauty of an imperfect world.
Luna and her friends wouldn’t be out of place in the world of 1976’s Logan’s Run, either, assuming they didn’t stick around too long. It’s all pleasure, all the time under the dome. And the dome is the only world its inhabitants know. Why should they know any other? Sex is as easy as dialing up a partner from the network, and everyone lives for fun. The only trouble: Everyone has a “life clock” hardwired into their bodies, and at age 30, everyone must participate in a public spectacle called Carrousel [sic] that ends their lives. (It’s a bit like a cross between a public sacrifice and the Ice Capades.) But that’s okay, because they’ll soon be reborn. Everyone says so, so it must be true. But the process has its doubters, called Runners, who decide to take off before seeing what’s on the other side of Carrousel. Assigned to stop them are Sandmen like Logan 5 (Michael York), who merrily hunts his prey until he meets a skeptic named Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter) and, as part of an undercover assignment, has his life clock irreversibly advanced. With Jessica in tow, he takes off. Hence the movie’s title.
What happens during that run—a journey through a wasteland that includes a murderous robot named Box; a visit to the ruins of Washington D.C., which is now home to the world’s oldest, most childlike man (Peter Ustinov); and a climax that involves, shades of Rollerball, an easily confounded supercomputer—takes up much of the film’s second half, and is far less compelling than what precedes it. And what precedes it is pretty silly. Directed by Michael Anderson and taken from a 1967 book co-written by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, it plays at times like the film is consciously trying to serve as the source for many future parodies of 1970s science fiction. The jumpsuit-clad characters clumsily convey exposition, constantly explaining the rules of the world in which they live to each other as if learning them for the first time. The effects and production design, which won a Special Achievement Award at the following year’s Oscars, range from the visionary—the miniatures used to create the city remain impressive—to the pedestrian.
Yet that sometime works in the film’s favor. Filmed in the Dallas/Fort Worth region, including scenes shot at the since-demolished Dallas Apparel Mart, the film often resembles the future as filtered through a 1970s shopping mall, but that’s part of its charm. Like Dawn Of The Dead a few years later, the film saw the mall as a dead end, a place where aspiration and desire gets sidetracked into consumerism. Why leave the dome when the dome contains every possible pleasure, even if that pleasure also contains the hidden sting of death? Anderson’s direction is far from fleet, and neither York nor Agutter give the material any real sense of danger, but the images of that fools’ paradise, so close to the ones in which 1970s filmgoers spent their weekends wandering, help make the film tough to forget.
Another continent, another sort of dome, another vision of the harm too much peace and contentment might do: In 1974’s Zardoz, writer-director John Boorman imagined an Earth laid barren, mostly. In 2293, Earth has become a wasteland inhabited largely by primitive Brutals and overseen by Exterminators, a warrior class that worships a giant floating stone head named Zardoz, whose mouth spews guns and platitudes like, “The gun is good. The penis is evil.” The film gets stranger from there. When an Exterminator named Zed (Sean Connery, clad in a loincloth) stows away inside Zardoz, he discovers it’s actually piloted by a foppish Eternal, a member of a seemingly immortal psychic ruling class who disappeared behind protective domes called Vortexes while the rest of the world fell apart. Inside the Vortex, they have everything they could ever want: knowledge, artistic treasures, peace, and prosperity. Everything, that is, except sex, violence, and the accompanying passions. Or for that matter, the products of all those passions: children and death.
Zardoz is are clearly in highly symbolic territory there, and it just gets more symbolic the more its world is developed. Other citizens of the vortex include the Apathetics, who have grown so bored with paradise, they live a kind of waking death. Elsewhere are the rebellious Renegades who, in the world’s cruelest punishment, get sentenced to an eternity of never-ending senility. There’s dissension within the ranks, too. Sensing Zed brings with him more than just a chance to study primitive culture up close, Charlotte Rampling’s Consuella wants him destroyed, a wish complicated by Zed’s obvious desire for her. (An unusual occurrence, given that all the other men in the Vortex have grown impotent.)
Emboldened by the recent success of Deliverance, and a few years away from making Excalibur—a psychosexual take on the Arthur legend inspired by Carl Jung and James Frazer—Boorman works in big strokes here, treating the future as a canvas on which the film can work over some Big Questions. Reduced to bare description, Zardoz sounds ridiculous, and while Boorman has a hard time keeping his premise afloat through the end—though the film’s final images are dazzling—it’s the work of a visionary filmmaker given license to run where his muse takes him. And where it takes him is often stunning, from the image of the hollow god hovering over an empty Irish beach spewing out weaponry to the hallucinatory hall of mirrors. It’s in many ways an act of madness, one made possible by the window Boorman’s then-recent success had just opened, as well as lingering psychedelia, a public demand for dark science fiction, and the sexual frankness of Last Tango In Paris and porno chic. Reviews at the time weren’t overwhelmingly positive. In Time, Jay Cocks singled out its “startling beauty” while calling it “misconceived and overloaded.” (Others were less kind.) He isn’t wrong, but Zardoz’s very overstuffed oddness almost proves its point, and the point of the complementary films that accompanied it: It’s a deeply personal vision that demands a world in which deeply personal visions remain possible. It’s an imperfect defense of imperfection, and another reminder that utopia has its downsides, and a paradise on Earth can never really be paradise at all.
Next: Apes! Apes! Apes!