The year 2018: the world is ruled by huge corporations and the biggest mindless distraction for the masses is Rollerball- a deadly high octane sport where men on skates and motorcycles fight it out on a circuit to score points by hitting goals with a heavy metal ball. Team leader Jonathan E (James Caan) is entering his tenth year in the game. Going against the grain the sportsman has become a bit of a sensation, and the powers that be don’t like it one bit. You see, the point of Rollerball isn’t to win; it’s to teach people the futility of individual effort. There can be no stars where featureless unity is the prime objective. While there may be those who enjoy the barbarity of the modern gladiator theme in the sport- indeed it provides a worthwhile distraction for the masses as their personal freedom and access to information is taken from right under their very noses; this isn’t the message authority ultimately wants to deliver. The interest here is to serve up the agenda that keeps the faceless corporation in their position of power. Jonathan E is messing up that plan, and is advised no man is bigger than his team. Yet he refuses to go swiftly, and by holding on to his position the corporation resort to more and more extreme measures to make the star quit. This just makes Jonathan pissed off, he wants answers, and he wants them now, and he isn’t going anywhere without a fight.
The seventies was a period of transition and technological revolution. As a result this is reflected in the cinema of the era; especially horror and sci-fi where social consciousness and fear are often reflected. I am of the persuasion some of the best science fiction was made during this period- that is until the massive blockbuster approach came to take over. There was a decidedly nihilistic dystopian edge to many of the cult hits of the period. After the hippy dippy free-loving sixties, a hyper-aware generation arose in the seventies to bridge the gap between the previous decade’s ideals of peace and love, and the eighties yuppie generation of selfish go-getters; the founders of an era of personal excess and indulgence. Of course now, with hindsight, we can see how films like Rollerball were about as forward thinking as they come however, as is usually the case. It is only with the benefit of time they can be fully celebrated as such. In the year 2015 (the three years away from when Rollerball apparently takes place), we are governed by faceless corporations and most of us do live in ignorance of this fact- although our mindless indulgence isn’t perhaps sport like Rollerball, but a force fed diet of reality TV and social media addiction. As a result the film becomes even more pertinent than when it was first made, despite the fact it is now 40 years old. Jonathan E comes to represent each and every one of us, struggling in a global community to retain a sense of individuality. He becomes “the man” fighting against an uncaring system that is solely governed in the interests of profit and power.
Of course as an action sci-fi epic Rollerball works just as well, moving all those deep philosophical notions to one side. The film, technically, is a wiz, with scenes of fast moving action captured exquisitely without the aid of the technology we have now. The physical nature of the sport is played out in a down and dirty style; with actors throwing their all into their performances- something that would never be allowed now in the Health and Safety dominated approach of today. In fact, this film was remade in 2002, but the less said about that, the better. However when it comes to ‘remakes’ Fulci’s Rollerball inspired number The New Gladiators / I guerrieri dell’anno 2072 (1984) is another (entertaining) story altogether- but perhaps one for another day. In line with the theme of Rollerball director Norman Jewison gives his vision an unflinching edge, allowing the violence of his imagined sport to show in all its primal glory. Scenes of a sanitised, homogenous de-humanised environment are intersected with the brutal rough and tumble and uniquely human aspect played out in the Rollerball battles, both sitting together in perfect contrast.
Performances across the board reflect the key values of the piece. James Caan is a strong leading man as Jonathan E, and he plays his part without ego; only a genuine feeling of justice and righteousness. There was always the threat that any portrayal of an international sports hero could be delivered with too much arrogance to provoke sympathy, yet Caan allows his character to take on a higher meaning- in line with William Harrison’s brilliant script- so that he represents a kind of every man hero and one whose side you never stop routing for. The supporting players all work in perfect harmony with this vision.
Arrow put together a great restoration with valuable supplementary material for their BD/DVD combo package. The restored print upgraded to 1080p HD for the Blu-ray looks particularly spectacular when it comes to some of the definition evident on the print. The feature is presented here in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Audio comes delivered in Stereo 2.0 and surround sound 5.1, which makes for an immersive experience when it comes to the action scenes; the depth in the track and mix of chanting crowds and rip roaring action serve to up the ante on exhilaration. Even with the fast moving scenes there appears to be no haloing or shadowing on the print either, and the colours present naturally and well contrasted. The extras offer some great insight into the piece; especially the audio commentaries from director Norman Jewison and writer William Harrison, an interview with star James Caan, and the featurette Return to the Arena: The making of Rollerball. All of which combined aid to enhance appreciation of the feature for the dedication and hard work that went into making it. The collector’s booklet which accompanies this release includes a thought-provoking essay from James Oliver- Zero Sum Game: The politics, paranoia and prescience of Rollerball, which, not only provides context to the main feature but delves into some of the subtext for further analysis.
The full specs are as follows:
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the film from a digital transfer prepared by MGM Studios
- Original Stereo 2.0 audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
- Isolated Music and Effects Soundtrack
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Audio Commentary with director Norman Jewison
- Audio Commentary with writer William Harrison
- Blood Sports with James Caan – A brand-new interview with the Rollerball star
- The Fourth City: Shooting Rollerball in Munich – Unit manager Dieter Meyer and others revisit the Audi Dome and other original locations
- The Bike Work: Craig R. Baxley on the Motorcycle Stunts in Rollerball – Stunt artist Baxley on the challenges and dangers of being one of the Rollerball bikers
- Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball
- From Rome to Rollerball: The Full Circle – original EPK bringing together interviews and on-set footage
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- Theatrical Teaser
- TV Spots
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper
- Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film, illustrated with original archive stills and posters.
Out now, and thoroughly recommended by us, check out the Arrow official page for more details here.