Written by: Michael Den Boer on March 30th, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: USA, 1975
Director: Norman Jewison
Writer: William Harrison
Cast: James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck, Moses Gunn, Pamela Hensley, Barbara Trentham, John Normington, Shane Rimmer, Burt Kwouk, Nancy Bleier, Richard LeParmentier, Robert Ito, Ralph Richardson
BluRay released: March 23rd, 2015
Approximate running time: 125 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Widescreen / 1080 Progressive / MPEG-4 AVC
Rating: 15 (UK)
Sound: LPCM 5.1 English, LPCM Stereo English
Subtitles: English SDH
BluRay Release: Arrow Video
Region Coding: Region B
Retail Price: £15.99 (UK)
Synopsis: In the not to distance future, in a world controlled by corporations that have assumed control of every detail of mankind’s daily lives. There are no longer wars and to satisfy mankind’s blood lust, the corporations have invented a violent game called rollerball.
Rollerball was directed by Norman Jewison whose other notable films include, In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair and Fiddler on the Roof. Key collaborators on Rollerball include cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (The Fearless Vampire Killers, The Lion in Winter) and composer André Previn (Irma la Douce, My Fair Lady). Also the screenplay for the film was adapted by William Harrison from his short story “Roller Ball Murder”.
The well-constructed narrative revolves around a protagonist named Johnathan E. the veteran star of the Houston rollerball team. And in this Orwellian future society this character presents a problem when he becomes more famous then the game he is playing. Which leads those who are in power to at first try to reason with him about retiring from the game and when he firmly declines they are then forced to take drastic measures to remove him from the game.
And though the first half of the film does a very good job setting up who everyone is and what they are motivations are? Its ultimate power lies within its latter half of the film where Jonathan stands up to the system that wants to destroy him!
From a production design stand point this film does a great job of looking like something from the future, but not too far into the future. And though drama plays an integral part in the evolution of the story at hand, one must not overlook or undervalue this film’s rollerball sequences. In regards to these rollerball sequences none resemble the last as they become progressively more violent as the film progresses and as they become more violent, they also start to lose the structure that had been the foundation of the game at the beginning of the film. Visually speaking these sequences are well executed, inventive and then required sufficiently bloody.
Another strength of this film is its use of classical music as its soundtrack. Besides the music composed for the film by André Previn, these are the classical songs which are featured in this film, Tomaso Albinoni’s ‘Adagio for Strings and Organ in G minor’, Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’, dmitri shostakovich’s ‘Symphony No. 5: Third and Fourth Movement’s’, ‘Symphony No. 8: First Movement’ and pyotr ilyich tchaikovsky’s ‘Sleeping Beauty Waltz’.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this film are the performances from its cast, especially James Caan (Thief) in the role of Jonathan. He is given the difficult task of not only creating a convincing persona dramatically, but he also has to prove his physicality in the sports arena as his character is the best player the game has ever seen. Fortunately he delivers a performance that is equally powerfully in both of the areas that it needs to be. Another performance of note is John Houseman (The Fog) in the role of Bartholomew the CEO of the Houston rollerball team and Jonathan’s boss / nemesis.
The true potency of a film can’t solely be judge by its box office success of critical approval. Where this film was a success at the box office and critically, its remake twenty two years later was neither and more importantly it lacked the humanity of its predecessor! Ultimately that is because on the original Rollerball had so much going on below the surface that it transcended the sports aspect of its narrative. And it is these subtle layers of subtext which continue to make this film as fascinating and entertaining after all of these years.
Rollerball comes on a 50 GB dual layer BluRay. The film is presented in a 1080 progressive widescreen. This transfer does a superb job retaining the intended look of the film, for instance there are moments when the image is supposed to look soft. In other area’s pf this transfer contrast and black levels look consistently strong and shadow detail also looks very strong. Besides the aforementioned moments where the image is supposed to look soft, the bulk of the film looks crisp. Also there are no issues with compression or DNR and grain looks natural.
This release comes with three audio options, a LPCM 5.1 mix in English, a LPCM Stereo mix in English and an Isolated Music and Effects Track. Both audio mixes sound great, dialog is always clear and everything sounds balanced. The stronger of these two audio mixes is the LPCM 5.1 mix which offers a dynamic range that perfectly captures every bone crunching moment of the game and the film’s scores sounds appropriately robust. This releases third audio track a music and effects track is much welcomed addition. Also included with this release is removable English SDH subtitles.
Extras for this release include, TV spots (1 minute 33 seconds), a theatrical teaser (58 seconds) and a trailer for the film (2 minutes 56 seconds – 1080 progressive widescreen), a vintage EPK promo titled ‘From Rome to Rollerball’ (7 minutes 56 seconds), a brand new interview with actor James Caan titled ‘Blood Sports with James Caan’ (10 minutes 58 seconds – 1080 progressive widescreen), three featurette’s – ‘The Bike Work: Craig R. Baxley on the Motorcycle Stunts in Rollerball’ (17 minutes 33 seconds – 1080 progressive widescreen), ‘The Fourth City: Shooting Rollerball in Munich Unit’ (18 minutes 55 seconds – 1080 progressive widescreen) and ‘Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball’ (25 minutes 5 seconds) and two audio commentaries, the first audio commentary with director Norman Jewison and the second audio commentary with screenwriter William Harrison.
Topics discussed in the interview with James Caan include, critics reaction to him as an actor, how he prepared for the role and his thoughts on the film / subject matter, a proposed sequel that has yet to be made, skating and stunt work in the film, locations featured in the film and this film’s legacy.
Topics discussed in ‘The Bike Work: Craig R. Baxley on the Motorcycle Stunts in Rollerball’ include, stunt artist Craig R. Baxley discusses the challenges and dangers of being one of the rollerball bikers. Topics discussed in ‘The Fourth City: Shooting Rollerball in Munich Unit’ include, the Audi Dome and other locations featured in the film.
Topics discussed in ‘Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball’ include, how the film is more relevant today, then when it was made, the origins of the project and how all the key players got involved in the project, the dangerous stunt work performed in the film, cast members on how difficult it was learning to skate for the film and critics reaction to the film.
Topics discussed in the audio commentary with Norman Jewison include, the themes that are explored in the film, preparing and filming the rollerball sequences, the differences in how European verse American audiences reacted to the film, the cast, the look of the film and his thoughts on the characters and events which unfold in this film.
Topics discussed in the audio commentary with William Harrison include, he is the author of the short story that evolved into the feature film, he also talks about how he got involved in writing the screenplay for the film, the evolution of violence in contemporary sports and its influence on the film and throughout the track he comments on moments as they occur onscreen.
Rounding out the extras is a reversible cover art option and twenty eight page booklet with information about the cast & crew, a lengthy essay titled ‘Zero Sum Game: The Politics, Paranoia and Prescience of Rollerball’ written by James Oliver and information about the transfer. Overall Rollerball gets a definitive release from Arrow Video, highly recommended.