Rollerball (1975) posits a dystopian future (2018!) in which war has been replaced by the titular game, a gladiatorial spectacle of violence that helps keep the global populace entertained and anesthetized. Director Norman Jewison and writer William Harrison further give us an athletic champion, Jonathan E (the great James Caan), whose individual expertise defeats the worldwide corporate leadership’s design: to emphasize the futility of individual effort. Corporate bigwigs (icily incarnated by John Houseman) need Jonathan to retire, but Jonathan begins to have his own dangerous ideas
Bring on the Dystopia! Every couple of generations, science fiction decides it's time to go dark and allegorical with its content. The future is supposed to be the bright and shining vision of tomorrow that ushers in peace and tranquility for all mankind. On the surface this new world could be gleaming bright with beautiful skyscrapers standing as pillars of man's triumphs, but at its core, this world is just as dirty, if not more horrifying as the one we're currently living in. Norman Jewison's 1975 science fiction classic 'Rollerball' starring James Caan and John Houseman presents a seemingly ideal future where there is no war, but everything is controlled by various corporations and man has given up all decision-making responsibility and individuality. In this world, all conflicts are decided by the strength and ability of a team of men playing one of the most brutal and violent sports ever created.
Jonathan E. (James Caan) is the best player the game of Rollerball has ever seen. It is a hyper-violent sport where men either die or are crippled for their efforts. Jonathan E. has been playing the game for ten years, far longer than any other player on his Houston team, and far longer than Bartholomew (John Houseman) and the rest of the executives of the Energy Corporation ever thought he would last. In a world where the corporations make the decisions, decides where you live, who you marry, they have decided Jonathan's time as the leading scorer the game of Rollerball has ever seen is up and he needs to retire. But why? Huston is in the playoffs. They have to face Tokyo and New York and those two teams are all that stands in the team's way of securing another championship victory.
What Jonathan does next shocks everyone and rattles the Energy Corporation to its core, he asks "why?" Never before has anyone openly defied the executives. But, after Jonathan's wife Ella (Maud Adams) was taken from him, Rollerball was the only thing Jonathan had left to hold onto. Jonathan's best friend and teammate Moonpie (John Beck) and his trainer Cletus (Moses Gunn) try to dissuade their friend from digging into the corporations and their history, but Jonathan wants answers. When Jonathan refuses to retire ahead of the Tokyo game, the corporations that run the world announce new rules to Rollerball. But Jonathan and Huston keep winning. As the rule changes continue, it's clear that the intention behind the changes is to ensure the death of the one man who openly defies this new world order with his acts of individuality.
The 1970s were a tough, dark decade for Science Fiction films. If you catalogue films like 'The Omega Man,' 'Soylent Green,' and 'Westworld,' the outlook for the future was universally bleak. Even more classically tinged science fiction films like 'Star Wars' had billions of innocent people blown to bits by an evil government overlord just to make a point. 'Rollerball' infuses the worst aspects of professional sports and capitalism together and creates a world that may seem bright, beautiful, and peaceful. The reality of the situation is that the Rollerball matches are no better than the barbaric games held in the Coliseum in order to entertain and anesthetize the people of Rome. 'Rollerball,' along with the rest of its dystopian brethren feels like the perfect response to a post Viet Nam/Watergate world where distrust in the government and our world leaders was at an all time high.
Director Norman Jewison working from a smartly written script by William Harrison proposes a tranquilly bleak future world of 2018. Sure, one could argue that the world is better off without war or seemingly any semblance of crime, but when people have given up their free will and have handed it over to the whims of those with means and capital, is that really a future worth living? Where 'Rollerball' gets a lot of its story and plot proceedings right is when it spends the time to ponder and examine these themes. These are weighty thoughts and musings for what could have been a dopy and vapid action movie (like the 2002 remake). While the Rollerball matches are thrilling and incredible pieces of action filmmaking, it's the big ideas that help make 'Rollerball' a better than average dystopian work of science fiction. It also doesn't hurt to have someone like John Houseman who has an equally benevolent manner with a sinister disposition playing the villain.
Where the film starts to lag and lose some of its focus is when James Caan's Jonathan starts to investigate what is widely known as "The Corporate Wars." After the last three big nations of the Earth finished fighting each other, it was the corporations who rose from the ashes to rebuild the world and govern. In their early years, apparently there was some kind of war for global control that ended with these various regional corporations to invest in the game of Rollerball to settle their differences. Rather than fight it out, the corporation with the best team wins. That's really all the explanation to the world of a future 2018 that the audience is given, and really, it's all that is needed. Jonathan's investigations into what happened feels like a prolonged rabbit hole that doesn't go anywhere and only needlessly pads out the film. The fact that he can't easily and openly go to a library and check out a book is enough to know that the world of the future where information is controlled in such a way isn't a good one. We don't need the twenty minute deviation that occurs when Jonathan goes to Geneva to find answers that don't exist. Cann does what he can to make this material interesting and his internal battle to do what is expected verses what is right is certainly compelling, but the mystery aspects of this brave new world never quite come to fruition.
At the end of the day, 'Rollerball' is a great reminder of how dystopian science fiction films were done right. They weren't based off of popular YA novels. They all didn't feature popular tween stars of the day pulling off impossible acts of rebellion. Movies like 'Rollerball,' 'Logan's Run,' '1984,' 'Silent Running' are about everyday people, people without extraordinary abilities or impeccable aim with a bow and arrow making simple open stands of defiance that they rarely survived. And because of that, even with all of the genre trappings and production values, the science fiction films of this era where far more interesting, believable, and to some degree, terrifying. 'Rollerball' may not be the end all be all greatest piece of science fiction filmmaking ever made, but it is far more thoughtful and exciting than it is often given credit for and one that is well worth a reexamination.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Rollerball' arrives on Blu-ray for a second time thanks to Twilight Time as part of a limited edition release of 3,000 units. Pressed onto a Region Free BD50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard clear Blu-ray case with a booklet featuring an essay by Julie Kirgo. The disc opens directly to a static image main menu featuring traditional navigation options.
With a 1.85:1 1080p transfer, 'Rollerball' makes a pretty excellent return to Blu-ray. Without the previous release available to me for comparison. After reading up on our review for the previous 2014 release, I'm left to conclude that this is the exact same transfer as before. I don't mean to say that in a bad way at all as that release by all accounts was very good. Film grain is visible, darker crowd scenes of the stadium tend to appear on the noisy side of things, but overall, everything is well detailed and stable. Colors are bright and vibrant, the orange uniforms of the Huston team look fantastic. Primaries are just as vibrant. Some extremely slight speckling apparent with a couple of small scratches and hairs, but otherwise the print is in fantastic shape. Black levels are rich and inky, but some of the night shots and darker scenes, and a few shots in the arena during the three Rollerball matches can look a little crushed, but nothing so terrible as to raise the red flag of HD rebellion over. All around a very good looking image.
As before, this release of 'Rollerball' arrives with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 as well as a DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track. As before, there are a few baked in issues with these respective audio mixes. For starters, the 5.1 mix tends to have some rather soft dialogue moments. Part of the issue is that James Caan's character Jonathan E. isn't supposed to be the brightest bulb in the socket, so Caan tends to mumble his lines a fair bit. In these quieter conversational moments, you're likely going to need to adjust the volume a bit to compensate. That said, where this 5.1 track scores big is in the Rollerball arena. The surround sound elements are rich, thundering, and envelop the viewer. The hits are hard, the cheers from the crowd are loud, and in these moments the excitement never abates. Even with its quiet dialogue issues, the 5.1 mix is leaps and bounds better than the 2.0 mono track. The mono track tends to feel flat and has an even more difficult time with the ebbs and flows of dialogue and action. To that end, if this is your first rodeo with Twilight Time's release of 'Rollerball,' best keep to the 5.1 mix for the full effect.
Audio Commentary: This is the same track as the one Norman Jewison recorded in 1997 for the special edition DVD and was used again for the previous release. Even though it may be recycled, if you've never heard it, it's one of my favorite commentary tracks just for the information on how they shot the Rollerball matches alone.
Audio Commentary: Writer William Harrison provides his own thoughts on the film and it's a very good track to listen to from the writer's perspective. Be warned, there are very long gaps making me wonder if there weren't only specific scenes he contributed to.
From Rome to 'Rollerball': The Full Circle: (SD 7:54) This is a bit dated, but is a fun piece of extra features material working to draw the connection between Rollerball and Roman gladiator matches.
Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball: (SD 25:04) This is a very good if slightly EPK leaning bonus feature. It's cool to hear from the cast and crew talk about the film in hindsight, but it's all pretty standard material.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 2:58)
TV Spots: (SD 1:32)
'Rollerball' was a fantastic flick to revisit. Much like how I mentioned in my review for 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' a bad remake tends to overshadow a good original film. I hadn't seen this movie in over 20 years and it amazed me at how well it still held up and made me forget that that terrible ripoff/remake ever existed. It's a fantastic 1970s dystopian sci-fi film that may not achieve it's lofty thematic goals, but it takes a shot. Which is more than I can say for most movies that pass for dystopian science fiction these days. Twilight Time once again brings 'Rollerball' to Blu-ray in fine order, with an identical video and audio presentation as well as identical extra features. If you already bought the previous release, the only thing new is the cover artwork. Everything else is the same. If you missed the previous release, now is the time to pick this great flick up on Blu-ray. Recommended.