A tale of three films. One is original. One is its remake. One is a cash-in. And the latter is the one that became a classic.
In 1975, a big-budget SF effort by Norman Jewison hit the theatres with much publicity. This was Rollerball. In a future world with no wars, and everything is controlled by corporations, human aggression is channeled through the titular, extremely violent game. The game has been designed to be such that becoming good at it is impossible, and thus there are no heroes, and the f…tility of human endeavour is underlined. But then James Caan, as Jonathan E., becomes that impossible thing: a champion, and thus a hero. He refuses to retire, and so the powers that be keep changing the rules, making the game more and more lethal, in an effort to bring him down.
This is SF with a strong social bent, which is all well and good, but the message is confused, and the delivery is ponderous. The actual game sequences are well staged and suspenseful, but in between there is a great deal of portentous muttering. The ending, which in theory is showing the beginnings of the rebellion against corporate rule, is also unintentionally fascist, as the mob chants Jonanthan’s name over and over again. The film is certainly an interesting one to look at today, but it was not the box office success that had been anticipated.
Flash-forward to 2002, and John McTiernan, of Die Hard and Predator fame, helms the remake. The results? Oh dear. Dear dear dear. The film is certainly worth catching, but strictly by the so-bad-it’s-great crowd. I distinctly recall how my jaw dropped when, after half-an-hour of sound and fury, I realized that there still wasn’t any sign of a plot. Dropping the futuristic setting and virtually all traces of social commentary, the film shifts the story to former Soviet satellite states, and has lunk-headed Chris Klein join LL Cool J and Rebecca Romijn in what is merely an extreme sport run by organized crime. The tracks the game is played on have become insanely complicated, and so not only is the film’s story now dumber than a sack of hammers, the action, frenetic though it might be, is also now very difficult to follow. An even worse bomb than the original, the remake did serve a purpose in making its model now look like some kind of classic.
Let’s go back now to 1975. The expectation was that Rollerball was a blockbuster in the making. Never one to miss a bandwagon, Roger Corman determined to ride the movie’s coattails and produced an imitator: Death Race 2000. And here the ironies multiply. The inexpensive Death Race not only beat Rollerball into the theatres, it wound up outgrossing its big brother. It’s also far and away the better film. I’ve reviewed the disc on this site before, but briefly, this is the tale of a lethal road race where the goal is to kill as many pedestrians as possible. The setting is a future USA under a dictatorship, and the race is brought to us courtesy inane media coverage (the satire here is viciously accurate). Death Race 2000 is as lightning quick as the first Rollerball is sluggish, as whip-smart as the remake is stupid, and a whole lot clearer than either in what it is attacking and how it is doing it. It’s also extremely funny and exciting.
So there you have it, a triple bill to chew on. Do yourselves a favour, though, and save the best for last.