Before Star Wars came along in 1977 and reminded moviegoers how much fun science fiction could be, most of the decade’s more prominent films of the genre were serious fare that used the future to examine a range of topics about life and humanity in the present and where things might be headed. Utopian societies that are never as good as they appear is a frequently used trope, and that’s the world the characters of Norman Jewison’s Rollerball find themselves in the year of 2018, which likely seemed a long ways off in 1975.
The film opens with a Rollerball match between Madrid and Houston, although in place of the country’s national anthem, the anthem of the Energy Corporation is played. It turns out corporations are in charge of the people instead of governments as a result of the Corporate Wars. Unfortunately, very little is revealed about the Corporate Wars and it, along with other elements of the story, should have been further explored and explained to make the viewers understand how and why people gave up their freedom for comfort.
Rollerball is a hybrid of roller derby, football, and basketball, with some of the participants riding motorcycles. It grows more violent with each session as the corporations agree to strip rules away in an attempt to force Houston’s star player and the story’s hero, Jonathan E (James Caan), to retire. The game has become a replacement for war, and the corporations want the game to be viewed as a metaphor for people to give up their identities and work as a team. After 10 years, Jonathan has become a popular star, which defeats the corporations’ purpose, so they want him out. They offer him a nice life and a new girlfriend, but he’ll have none of it.
Rollerball offers good action sequences in the three Rollerball matches. The camera operators, editors, and stuntmen all deserve kudos. Unfortunately, where the film stumbles is the script. Based on the short story “Roller Ball Murder” by screenwriter William Harrison, the film contains many interesting ideas, such as the increasing power of corporations in people’s lives, but they aren’t completely thought through or at least aren’t clarified in the film.
For example, if Jonathan’s fame is such a threat to the status quo, why doesn’t the Corporation just have him killed in an “accident”? Instead, they set him up to get killed in the matches by removing the rules, yet there’s no good reason why the rules are being removed and nobody questions it. And in the final match, there’s no time limit, so the game has no end point. Apparently, the spectators are okay that Rollerball turns into a gladiator fight where the last man standing wins.
While Rollerball gets enough right to make it worth viewing, it’s unfortunate the film didn’t maximize its potential, because the ideas it contains deserve better treatment than falling into vague generalities.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.85:1. The futuristic color palette of the production, like many of the era, used a lot of neutral colors such as beiges, grays, and whites. The latter are particularly bright as seen in Mr. Bartholomew’s office. The uniforms appear in bright orange, green, yellow, and blue. There are also rich browns in the wood in Jonathan’s home. Blacks are solid but could crush when darkness overwhelmed the image. Shadow delineation is adequate.
There’s a natural amount of film grain, which increases during the night exteriors when the partiers are out shooting guns that set fire to the trees. The image looks very clean for the most of the film. I did notice some dirt and black streaks during a slow motion shot of water when Jonathan is in a Japanese spa and white specks briefly pop up when Jonathan walks out to a helicopter. The image is sharp, offering great details and depth. The wood grain in the Rollerball track panels is seen in long shots and creases are evident in the leather pants of the teams’ uniforms.
The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Mono. On the former, Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” opens the film and it swells in the surrounds and gets good LFE support. Aside from the music, the surrounds are offer light ambiance in the arenas and during the party scene, but I would have liked them more immersive during the action scenes.
When the motorcycles entered for the opening scene, they moved across the front channels. Dialogue is relegated to the front center channel and is mixed a too quiet at times. Otherwise, the track sounded free of wear or damage and had a good dynamic range between the dialogue at the quiet end and the motorcycle engines at the loud end.
Special Features include:
- Isolated Score Track – André Previn’s score is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 2. While I enjoy hearing soundtracks, I would appreciate this feature more if I could skip over the silent passages.
- Audio Commentary with Director Norman Jewison – Recorded in 1997, the director offers a wealth of interesting information about the making of the film.
- Audio Commentary with Writer William Harrison – Naturally, Harrison speaks about the creation of the film from the writer’s perspective. As the film progresses, his breaks between talking seem to increase so much, you might wonder like I did if he stopped without saying goodbye.
- From Rome to Rollerball: The Full Circle (SD, 8 min) From 1975, the promo piece includes Jewison talking about how in 10-20 years there could become a corporate society, and Caan discussing his part.
- Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball (SD, 25 min) – From 2001, Jewison, Harrison, and others are interviewed individually about the film.
- TV Spots (SD, 2 min) – Three spots, all using much of the same material.
- Original Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 min)
- MGM 90th Anniversary Trailer (HD, 2 min) – Nice of Twilight Time to include it.
While the title being a limited edition makes it difficult to decide on a bottom line for someone else, and though I have issues with parts of the story, I am glad I saw Rollerball. Twilight Time delivers a satisfying high-def disc with good video and adequate audio. Plus, they gather previously produced extras along with an isolated music track, which will certainly please the film’s fans and should please the curious.