THE FILM 4/5
“Ladies and gentlemen, please stand
for the singing of our corporate anthem.”
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 in which war has been replaced by the titular game, a gladiatorial spectacle of violence that helps keep the global populace entertained and anesthetized.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.
As I’ve said before, films set in the future are hardly ever optimistic. Regardless of the genre–whether it be dramatic sci-fi with Blade Runner, or comedy with Idiocracy–writers have one thing in common: they are terrified of what’s to come. They see the modern world for what it is and they somehow know in their gut that it ain’t getting any better, and so these futures become heightened, satirical versions of the world in which they are currently living. Human beings are logistically replaced by automatization and emotionally reduced into mindless consumers. Colors vanish, replaced by sterile white or institutional metallic. All signs of culture are expunged, except for what’s been government issued and sanctioned. No one’s version of the future can ever be summed up with, “can’t wait!”
Rollerball is no different.
The idea of competition is as old as civilization itself. Every era had its own, including our current one, which sees the act of one vs. another at an all-time high. The most infamous, by which Rollerball is partially inspired, hail from the days of ancient Rome–one man pitted against another, or several, or fire, or an array of deadly animals. Those in the audience entered that coliseum knowing full well they would come back out again having seen someone perish, violently, before their eyes.
The game of “Rollerball” takes that concept, marries it to a combination of modern sports, adds a healthy dose of corporate influence, and throws away all the rules. Men can die in the rink, and many do. The audience is aware of this, and hopes it will happen. Sure, they’d like to see their home team win, but they want to see blood even more. This might sound over the top to some, leaning heavily in the direction of unrealistic, but how many times have you heard someone remark, “I only watch Nascar to see the crashes,” or, on a more general and visceral level, how many times have you been stuck in traffic, which could have moved a bit more fluidly and quickly had it not been for every driver slowing down to get an eyeful of the nasty car accident which has caused the delay?
This is Rollerball.
And this is Rollerball saying, “This is where we’re headed.”
Rollerball presents a very interesting dichotomous examination between the sports of fiction and the sports of our reality, a big part of which is our fascination, and at times obsession. Obviously on the surface we don’t go to baseball games or football games hoping to see bloodshed. We go to support our teams and cheer when they succeed. But when our teams fail us, most of us are simply disappointed, while some of us take that disappointment further. They’ll flip cars, attack fans of the winning team, hurl objects at the players they feel have personally affronted them. On Friday night, as our home team is victorious, we sing their praises and wear their names on our backs in salute. By Monday morning, if our team has won the battle but lost the war, we curse them, call them fucking bums, and turn our backs. That instinct to so quickly turn on whom we feel has failed us is scarily impulsive; for some of us it’s simply temporary disillusionment as we exercise our anger and hope for the best the next time around, but for those other fans among us, something close to the end of the world has occurred. And when that happens, they want blood.
Director Norman Jewison, who shockingly refers to himself as “not an action director,” crafts some of the most suspenseful and thrilling sports sequences in film. Much of Rollerball‘s running time is spent examining the future, and with James Caan’s Jonathan E. trying to figure out why the corporation is trying to force him into retirement, considering he’s good at what he does and consistently achieves victory for his team. Scenes comprising actual gameplay hardly amount to a drop in the bucket, but what’s there is masterfully done, with the violence sparing but shocking and brutal. In 1975, it must have seemed even more so.
This reissue of Rollerball from Twilight Time (the company has stated they will be phasing out Encore Editions of sold-out titles, as I have to imagine they’re getting tired of consumers’ smart-assed comments questioning their use of “limited edition”) comes at a very appropriate time. The conversation amongst NFLians for the better part of the last two years has been that of the alleged dismissal of claims of current or retired players suffering brain injuries due to their time on the field. This is an issue the NFL has been slow to acknowledge as a reality, and while this is a far cry from the events depicted in Rollerball, it’s also the first step in a direction that could lead to something eerily like it.
THE PICTURE 4/5
As usual, Twilight Time presents a very solid and stable image, courtesy of MGM. Assuming this is the same transfer that Twilight Time used on their previous blu-ray release of this title, no improvement was needed. For a film from this era (and genre), the use of colors is vibrant and look quite strong. The Houston vs. Tokyo game is a good example of this, with the players’ colorful costumes juxtaposed against the flat landscape of the rollerball rink. Textures look very defined and layered. The scene where partygoers burn down trees wit flamethrowers (I know, that sounds weird, but it makes sense when you see it–sort of) looks appropriately dynamic. There were no signs of print damage, marring, or other typical master wear and tear.
THE SOUND 4/5
Listeners’ options are a 5.1 stereo surround and the original mono track. Purists will want to go with the mono track, which offers a pretty serviceable but underwhelming presentation (the audio is 40 years old, after all), but those looking for more oomph will certainly switch to the 5.1. This track certainly offers more range, with dialogue never getting lost in the shuffle, though some of the special sound effects and high-impact moments lack fullness. Some of this can sound somewhat tinny and hollow, but only in very minor instances. Overall, the 5.1 track is probably the way to go, and minor issues aside, sounds very good.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 4.5/5
Every supplement included with this release repeats one major theme from the film: the worship of sports and sports figures during this era was something that nearly every participant felt was a potential danger plaguing society. Director Norman Jewison covers this at length for the first portion of his audio commentary, which is breezy and informative. Writer William Harrison discusses the theme in his own commentary, but while also leaving in far too many long passages of silence. He does refreshingly talk about the choices he made as a writer that, in retrospect, he now regrets, or what he would have done differently. (As an example, he would have diminished the camaraderie among the players of the Houston team, citing that their lightheartedness doesn’t seem appropriate given that they’re engaging in a death sport.)
“Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball” is a 25-minute retrospective making-of carried over from MGM’s previous DVD release. The exploration about sports culture is repeated here by all participants (James Caan does not appear), but more light is shed on the production, with those appropriate talking about their own specific contributions to the film. Jewison comes off, frankly, pretty damn lovable during this featurette.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
— Audio Commentary with Director Norman Jewison
— Audio Commentary with Writer William Harrison
— From Rome to Rollerball: The Full Circle
— Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball
— Isolated Score Track
— TV Spots
— Original Theatrical Trailers
STUDIO: United Artists/MGM
DISTRIBUTOR: Twilight Time (limited to 3,000 units)
THEATRICAL DATE: June 25, 1975
VIDEO STREET DATE: June 14, 2016
VIDEO: MPEG-4 AVC; 1080p; 1.85:1
AUDIO: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; English: DTS-HD Master Audio Mono; Music: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
SUBTITLES: English SDH
RUN TIME: 125 mins
DVD COPY: N/A
DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: N/A
Rollerball takes place in the future, which means it’s scary and kind of depressing, with little hope for the survival of our culture. However, though Rollerball is well made, and its heart is in the right place, those who already question society’s obsession with sports and sports figures will find much to appreciate, while it won’t do much to persuade those who think differently to feel differently. The act of competition is too ingrained in humanity to ever rein in, so it’s always going to be a part of us, and will likely only become more prominent as time goes on. Rollerball‘s story is timeless (the awful awful awful remake from 2002, at least, proved that), and for as long as society overly glorifies sports, its message will always be relevant.
(Thanks to Movieman’s Guide for the screen grabs.)
Twilight Time are a boutique distributor who specialize in limited editions of culturally significant films from the world’s finest filmmakers. Founded by and comprised of “collectors and lifelong movie buffs,” Twilight Time’s catalogue of releases are specifically chosen to represent the films that, though beloved, would likely not be released by their own studios: “If we didn’t put them out, it is likely that they wouldn’t come out. And we are going to try to put them out … [with] the best picture and sound that we can.”