James Caan stars in Norman Jewison’s cult classic about an incredibly violent sport in the future

Note: Arrow Video’s Blu-ray for Rollerball is locked to Region B and is available via their website.

The original Rollerball was a distinct science fiction film even when it made its debut in 1975. Set in a dystopian future where war has been replaced by the violent sport of rollerball and corporations have replaced countries, it functions more as social commentary than pure action vehicle. Many films of this kind are badly dated a few years removed from their initial release. Rollerball feels more relevant than ever with its themes of corporate control and the loss of individual will in a society dominated by powerful interests. Mostly filmed in Munich to take advantage of that city’s foreboding Olympian architecture, director Norman Jewison crafted one of the more original and lasting films of the 1970s. It was popular enough to merit a terrible Hollywood remake back in 2002.

James Caan brings a lot to his starring role of Jonathan E., the most successful star in rollerball’s history. Jonathan E. is like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady rolled into one, an all-time great champion that has dominated the sport for years. The fictional sport of rollerball has become the most important event in the world, acting as a replacement for war between countries. It is tightly run by a cabal of corporations, mostly fronted in Rollerball by Bartholomew of the Energy Corporation. John Houseman is perfectly cast as the stately corporate executive. Originally based on a short story, one cannot help but recognize the influence of George Orwell’s 1984 and other literature on Rollerball’s message.

Rollerball as a sport is a crazy blend between an extremely violent brand of football and roller derby, a popular and temporary fad during the Seventies. The players even wear football helmets and pads under their uniforms. Add some motorcycles and actual fighting to that mix with the occasional collateral death, though it works better on screen than it should. Rollerball definitely took a page from the growing television sports culture of the early 1970s. Citizens cheer their local teams in color-coordinated clothing and love seeing the opposing city’s team get murdered during contests. Rollerball players are frequently run over and crushed by motorcycles.

There are two distinct classes of people in this business-run future. Corporate executives run society as they see fit with little regard for the average man, they get first pick of everything. Even a great champion like Jonathan E., a famous athlete known across the world, loses his wife when an executive wants her as his wife. Individual freedoms have been traded away for a supposedly safer world run by corporations. It is this problem that leads Jonathan to begin questioning the system.

The film’s overriding theme of an individual versus the corporate will is deftly handled by Norman Jewison.

Apparently the corporate sponsors never intended for one man to become this famous playing rollerball. The game was actually designed to illustrate the futility of individual achievement. Jonathan is asked to retire in the middle of another championship run against his own wishes. The game’s corporate sponsors don’t want this uppity athlete bucking their carefully designed system. Things are made increasingly difficult for Jonathan and his Houston team, including rule changes that make their contests to the death.

I was worried that Rollerball had aged badly but was surprised to find its message is more relevant today than ever before. James Caan plays the questioning sports hero with the correct amount of bravado and naive bravery. It was a tricky role that would have fallen apart in lesser hands. The film’s overriding theme of an individual versus the corporate will is deftly handled by Norman Jewison. Rollerball is a smart, subtle approach to that topic, delivering its message without feeling preachy. It is rare that a mainstream action movie from the 1970s packaged prescient commentary into an entertaining movie for the masses, but Rollerball pulls it off without a hitch.

Movie ★★★★☆

 

Rollerball Blu-ray screen shot 12

Arrow Video handles the distribution for Rollerball in the UK, locking this BD to region B. Twilight Time issued the film in the United States. Both companies licensed the same high-definition transfer from MGM. The main feature runs 125 minutes on a BD-50. Rollerball is presented at its intended 1.85 aspect ratio in fairly excellent 1080P resolution. The main feature is encoded in AVC at nearly 35 Mbps. This is a fully transparent compression effort that handles the film’s grain structure and density without artifacts. This is one of the better MGM-licensed transfers I’ve seen on the format.

Many of MGM’s older HD masters should have been kept in the vault with their limited resolution and dated picture fidelity. That is not the case with this strong film transfer of Rollerball. The 1975 movie appears to have received an average 2K film scan from the unrestored camera negative. That may sound like faint praise but in actuality turns out quite nicely for the cult classic. The film elements are in solid shape. There isn’t much debris on them. The most notable negative in the video is heavy sharpening applied to the first reel which dissipates afterwards. Clarity and film density are rather nice for this vintage of film on Blu-ray. A light pass of filtering may have been used but the overall presentation is largely film-like with generous high-frequency detail.

Flesh-tones are neutral with proper color balance. The presentation’s consistent level of sharpness isn’t overwhelming with depth but retains a crisp look with strong definition. Black levels are generally strong, a bit of shadow delineation gets crushed in the darkest shots. There is certainly far more detail and clarity than I expected. A few scenes have waxier skin than a brand-new 4K scan would produce on Blu-ray. There is probably a little room for PQ improvement with a state-of-the-art restoration.

Video ★★★★☆

Arrow Video provides the film’s original stereo mix in 2.0 PCM and an upmixed 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. The 2.0 PCM audio is far quieter in volume than the very effective 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround presentation. The surround audio is not much of a revisionist mix, mostly pushing the instrumental passages of music across the entire soundfield. I enjoyed the bigger surround mix far more, it seemed to have added dynamics and greater sonic clarity. Dialogue is cleanly reproduced in both selections, the mastering is careful to keep a coherent soundstage. Rollerball was a big production for its day and its audio recording quality has stood the test of time. I was hard-pressed to hear any limitations to its fidelity. This is rather crisp audio for a 1975 production.

Rollerball receives the rare Isolated Music and Effects soundtrack in 2.0 PCM. This is a neat extra feature since the movie includes so many famous classical pieces as its backing score. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided in a white font.

Audio ★★★☆☆

Arrow Video has given Rollerball the definitive treatment on Blu-ray, even surpassing the limited Twilight Time BD. This edition retains all of the prior DVD special features and includes several new featurettes. The two commentaries are big highlights, especially the one by director Norman Jewison. James Oliver provides an insightful essay on the film and its themes in the lavishly illustrated 28-page collector’s booklet.

The special features do an excellent job of providing the proper social context for Rollerball’s pointed message and adding insight on its production process. We learn how Munich’s distinct architecture shaped the movie’s design and some interesting nuggets from James Caan in his interview.

  • Audio Commentary with director Norman Jewison
  • Audio Commentary with writer William Harrison
  • Blood Sports with James Caan (10:59 in HD) – A brand-new interview with the Rollerball star
  • The Fourth City: Shooting Rollerball in Munich (18:54 in HD) – 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 (17:32 in HD) – Stunt artist Baxley on the challenges and dangers of being one of the Rollerball bikers
  • Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball (25:05 in HD) – An extensive, extended featurette that delves into the movie with abandon. It’s a well constructed look behind the scenes that goes beyond typical fluff.
  • From Rome to Rollerball: The Full Circle (07:55 in SD) – original EPK bringing together interviews and on-set footage
  • Original Theatrical Trailer (02:56 in HD)
  • Theatrical Teaser (00:57 in HD)
  • TV Spots (01:33 in HD)
  • 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.

Extras ★★★★★

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review as a screener that may not represent the retail disc. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

 

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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.