Rollerball (1975)

James Caan stars in Norman Jewison's erudite and fascinating sci-fi film. Arrow UK region B Blu-ray release.

The Film

In the future, the world is controlled by powerful corporations and they have created a game called Rollerball contested by teams from corporate controlled cities around the world. Jonathan E. (James Caan) of the Houston team is the most well known player, holding many records and having competed for over eight years. He is surprised to find that he is being asked to retire from the sport and suspicious of the corporation's executive's motives in wanting him to leave...

Written by William Harrison, the script is closely based on his 1975 short story Roller Ball Murder - although only seven pages long, it provides most of the detail of the futuristic setting and the game itself for the screenplay. Very much a product of its era but still perfectly valid forty-years later, the story reflects growing concerns about the power of big businesses, the risks of relying on computers to store and process data and the resulting ease with which access to these can therefore be limited and the apparent need for sports to move away from the 'purity' of the past to become crowd-pleasing entertainment. The main addition to the story is the idea of Jonathan's enforced retirement and the more specific motivations behind the changes being made to the sport (which seem to be a more recent and sudden thing rather than the gradual change per the novella).

Despite its short origins, Harrison's script never feels overstretched into the two-hour film - although on first impressions Rollerball seems like it is going to be an action packed adventure, it is a far more introspective film with a distinctly European surrealist flair - although not quite approaching Tarkovsky levels, there are some very extended scenes and really very little actually happens; pacing is slow but the film certainly never drags - every scene is relevant and there is no descent into subplots or attempt to open the film out onto a wider scale - from the start and throughout it follows Johnathan E and his personal story alone. Exposition of the futuristic world is well handled without need for the clunky opening text scrolls of so many other films, we learn enough to understand the world and it makes a plausible future, but a lot is left unsaid. The all important game itself gets enough screentime for the rules to become evident and it feels like a realistic sport, rather than the gratuitous death matches in many similar films.

A highly versatile director, Norman Jewison is best known for his musicals, including Fiddler on the Roof (1971), but he shows some real art-house talent here. The Rollerball scenes are a particular highlight - the film's opening shots of the arena being set-up give it a verité documentary-type feel, while the action scenes include some dramatic hand-held work as the camera rides with the skaters and bikers and even goes tumbling down the track, shots which give the game a real kinetic feel without the need for excessive over-editing. The full-scale arena itself is well built with great attention to detail, really bringing the game to life - the rest of the futuristic world is well realised with good location shoots and some nice looking sets, although inevitably it now feels rather dated. The music is surprisingly a mix of well known classical pieces, limiting the expected synthesiser work to a couple of scenes and as per the director's intentions, this does help to avoid dating the film as much as some of its contemporaries.

James Caan plays the strong silent-type to perfection in the lead role, his is a classical anti-hero portrayal, a man who just wants to do what he enjoys, has no particular interest in the fame or benefits and is perfectly content with the system until things start to change around him. The supporting cast is strong with a number of veteran actors including Moses Gunn, John Houseman and British actor Ralph Richardson adding a classy feel to proceedings and keeping the standard very high.

For a modern audience, Rollerball is a rather unexpected film - it harks back to 2001: A Space Oddessy (1968) and European art-house films far more than the more action packed contemporary sci-fi of the later 1970s; inbetween the matches, which are a stunningly filmed mix of vividly kinetic and verité camerawork, the film is languriously paced with very little actually happening. Fans of Kubrick, Tarkovsky and the more intellectual sci-fi of the 1960s and 70s will find plenty to enjoy here, but those wanting a Castellari or Carpenter approach might find it a little dull in places. Recommended.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? James Caan - American actor best known for playing Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972)
Directed by anyone interesting? Norman Jewison - A Canadian born director who helmed the highly influencial In the Heat of the Night (1967) as well as Steve McQueen thriller The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
Any gore or violence ? Several quite bloody shots, nothing overly gory.
Any sex or nudity? None.
Who is it for? One for fans of the more intellectual, art-house science fiction.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour. 1080p HD
The print looks stunning, with excellent colours and detail, natural film grain still present.
Audio English LPCM 2.0 Mono - original audio, good and clear.
English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 - minimal alterations to the mono, mostly moving the music to the rear speakers.
Isolated music and effects track LPCM 2.0 Mono
Subtitles English HOH
Extras The disc includes:

New for this Arrow release and currently not otherwise available:
  • Blood Sports with James Caan - interview with the lead actor going into good detail about the project (11 minutes HD)
  • The Fourth City: Shooting Rollerball in Munich - revisiting the Audi Dome where the rollerball scenes were produced and looking at the background of the arena. (18 minutes HD)
  • The Bike Work: Craig R. Baxley on the Motorcycle Stunts in Rollerball - the stunt director talks about how the stunt scenes were made and the crew auditioned for the film. (17 minutes HD)
  • A 28 page booklet with discussion of the film's meaning and notes on the transfer as well as stills and poster art.

Carried over from the MGM releases:
  • Audio commentary from director Norman Jewison - a solo track that covers a lot of ground about the film and production.
  • Audio commentary from writer William Harrison - a solo track with a lot of detail but several long gaps.
  • Making of documentary, includes interviews with Harrison and Jewison as well as the stunt co-ordinators and actor James Beck, covers a lot of detail. (25 minutes SD)
  • From Rome to Rollerball a contemporary promotional piece with some behind the scenes footage.(7 minutes SD)
  • Original trailer, teaster and three TV spots
Region Region B (UK & Europe)
Other regions? This release is Blu-Ray exclusive. Available on DVD from MGM in the UK with the above listed MGM features, but only a 5.1 remix audio track. On a more barebones US DVD release. A limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time in the US included an HD print of similarly strong quality but none of the new extra features.
Cuts? The film is fully uncut. Print language is English.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 19th March 2015.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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