Not only one of the best sports/action movies around, it also offers up a wealth of food for thought
Rollerball Blu-ray Review
Jonathan Jams It in!Thought-provoking SF collides violently with fantasy escapism in Norman Jewison’s classic tale of indefatigable machismo as motorbikes, skaters and a deadly steel ball hurtle around a veritable battleground before a baying crowd. The 1975 adaptation of William Harrison’s short story is justifiably remembered for its bravura game set-pieces as the heroic Houston team powers its way to the championship final, battering all opponents in the process, but the film’s emotional and cerebral core lies in its many languid and reflective interludes in which an indulgent and blinkered humanity is strung along on manufactured hopes and doctored dreams. The sad fact that slaughter on the track becomes the truest form of expression in a sheep-like society powerfully resonates.As superstar Rollerballer, Jonathan E, James Caan perfectly captures the instinctive brawn of the professional sportsman and the suspicions and cynicism of a sensitive man struggling to identify his purpose in a corporate-led global charade. Anchoring this tightrope personality is a fierce defiance to be neither controlled nor tamed. A terrifically stoic performance from John Houseman as the puppet-master desperate to thwart his greatest creation from gaining class-defying celebrity and, thus, threatening the status quo, and a quirky turn from Ralph Richardson as a librarian forever duelling with his clumsy computer are standouts. But the heart remains with the players, themselves, Jonathan and his doomed best friend, Moonpie (John Beck), as we watch them traverse the peculiar madness of a game that leaves its participants broken and maimed in the name of entertainment.
Blu-ray Picture Quality“Game? This wasn’t meant to be a game! NEVER!”
Arrow’s UK disc presents the film 1.85:1 and via AVC, and with an encode that is superior to that of Twilight Time’s limited US edition – which I also have. And on much larger screens this translates to an image that is slightly more robust. But there really isn’t much between them, to be fair.
There is strong grain throughout, and it looks just fine and film-like to me. Occasional contrast flutterings take place, mainly in the darker portions of the frame, but print damage is absolutely minimal. No DNR and no edge enhancement spoil things, and the palette is free from smearing. Fast motion is smooth and I saw no signs of banding. Colours are not over-saturated and there is no crushing going on. All good news on the digital front, eh?
Bob Peak’s artwork and John Box’s production design are still striking, even if there is an overall degree of minimalism about the film’s visual aesthetic. Details on the costumes – studs, buckles, stitching, numbering etc – come over well. Facial information is also pretty keen on a print that, if I’m honest, could probably look even better with further restoration. But the glistening beads of sweat, the cuts and the scars all appear better defined than ever before. Distance shots – such as the cityscapes and those of the poor trees getting immolated by hedonistic pleasure-seeking saps – aren’t terrific, but they are as finite as can be expected. It should be remembered that the overall image has always been quite soft and somewhat hazy-looking, and this remains dutifully the case.
There is strong grain throughout, and it looks just fine and film-like to me
It might not be an immediately vibrant and opulent-looking film, but I still find Rollerball to be quite a vivid experience. Whilst the story away from the three games is mostly muted, dry and all rather earthy, the three pivotal matches themselves are a startling contrast. The team colours, the green for Madrid, the yellow for Tokyo, the purple for New York and, of course, the ripe orange for Houston, ignite a fine splash of decorative illustration to the frame. Gleaming metal surfaces provide an edge. Flames and blood also put in a nice appearance, though these are deliberately dialled down and not flashy, providing a realistic and unsensationalised depiction. Skin-tones have that rather typical wane look of the era, pertaining to the makeup design and the lighting so prevalent during the mid-seventies. In fact, the film has something of a TV veneer in this regard. The disc captures all of this.
Contrast, despite the softer aspect of the film at large, is consistent if mostly unchallenged. Shadows aren’t particularly intense, but they certainly get the job done. The black of the leather pants and gloves stays deep and dark, for sure. Even for a film that alternates between pastel gentility and vivid, whip-crack action, there is a pleasing amount of depth and three-dimensionality. Some shots of the spectators take on a fish-bowl effect in the periphery of the frame, but the hand-held camera-work and sweeping track-side photography still look terrific and sharp. The three matches remain benchmark examples of action-shooting, and the transfer does them justice. Rollerball looks terrific on UK Blu-ray.
Blu-ray Sound Quality“Ears. Now, they're important, too.”
Arrow provides three tracks to enjoy.DTS-HD MA 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 options, and an isolated score and effects track. The surround track is the one that I stuck with though because it just tends to promote more of the already sparse musical score to the rears. Proper ear-engulfing pizzazz is kept to a minimum, which is only accurate to how the movie should sound. But it is quite nice to hear that steel ball rattling around you at least some of the way, and those bikes and roller-skates careening across a noticeably wider soundfield do provide for a more rewarding dip into Jewison’s future world. I know it is hardly a purist stance to take, but I have to admit that here is a film that would actually benefit from a more pronounced surround track, given the very nature of the spectacle we are witnessing. But this still delivers some high-speed delights, just the same.
Andre Previn’s classical score is justly renowned. Yet whilst the major pieces are very easy to come by, it is the corporate anthems that fans really want – especially the fantastic one that commences the Houston/Tokyo game, which is strangely wistful, angelic and yet forlorn. The music comes over reasonably well, although it never sounds particularly immersive, or boasting of any tangible depth until we hear the dazzling organ that ominously serenades the opening and closing of the film. The matches, themselves, are not scored. But I find that the combined sounds of the skates, the bikes, the crunchy bodily impacts, the glistening clash of the steel ball and the chanting and cries of the spectators provide a spectacular rhythm of their own that more than compensates. Both tracks deliver these details with enough weight and clarity to properly satisfy. This said, there seems to me, to be an effect that has either been slightly muted or simply drowned-out of the mix. It occurs during the first game, against Madrid. Jonathan smacks an opposing skater away and his swooping wingman, Moonpie, then adds a whack of his own to the poor guy as he spins away. I remember this double-impact clearly from a hundred viewings on VHS, but since DVD onwards, the second clonk seems peculiarly diminished.
Proper ear-engulfing pizzazz is kept to a minimum, which is only accurate to how the movie should sound
But the important thing is that, overall, the detail across a huge array of on-track effects is very good. Bashed noggins and bodies slamming into walls have wince-inducing realism, and the sound of skaters tumbling over the wooden track is curiously addictive. And, adding some heft to the action, is a surprisingly decent level of bass. There are plenty of crashes and bashes on offer and they are bestowed a satisfying amount of wallop. As I mentioned earlier, the depth of the organ playing for the opening and closing is also keenly appreciated.
Dialogue was always going to cause some concern, I suppose. But the fact is that this element is deliberately downplayed, and always has been. For one thing, the leading man is a renowned mumbler, and this very trait is crucial to our understanding of and empathy for the character he is playing. Much of what Jonathan says outside of the game is low, slow and monosyllabic, even when he gets angry. Still, whilst dialogue is all nicely central and always intelligible, it is unavoidably quiet and pregnant with heavy pauses. However, all of this is intentional. Going against this ethos, however, is the terrific moment when the players chant their team’s name in swaggering intimidation towards a furious Japanese advisor, and then during the awesome finale when the voices of both Shane Rimmer and Moses Gunn roar out above the massed cries of the crowd as they chant “Jon-a-than!”
All things considered, Rollerball , whose original 70mm Roadshow presentation boasted a 6-track audio mix, sounds energetic and lively despite its vintage.
Blu-ray Extras“I love this game, Moonpie! I love it!”
Fans will be familiar with the majority of the supplements found on Arrow’s disc, but they are a welcome bunch, just the same. There are the two commentaries – one from Norman Jewison and the other from original story writer William Harrison – that delve into the production and the concept in great detail. We also have the great Making Of featurette, going into the training and the stuntwork , and the contemporary promo feature From Rome to Rollerball, along with the original trailer, a teaser and several TV Spots. All this stuff is good.
And the new material cleverly builds upon it.
Blood Sports with James Caan is a great little piece of reminiscence from the frank and entertaining actor. He recalls the months of skating preparation that they did on flat surfaces only to find, when they arrived on-set, that the track was set at a 38-degree angle. Crash-bang-wallop ... immediately. He also mentions how the actors, stuntmen and assorted professional skaters attempted to play Rollerball for real after shooting one day. The game lasted 11 seconds before degenerating into pitched battles and utter chaos.
The Fourth City: Shooting Rollerball in Munich revisits the still-futuristic Audi Dome and BMW Museum and Towers in which much of the movie was originally shot. We hear from a Houston Team rookie-extra and there is some interesting trivia about the spectators were purloined for the three games, especially regarding the difficulty in finding enough Asian faces for the Tokyo match. A fine little piece that takes a new slant on the problems facing the production.
In The Bike Work : Craig R. Baxley on the Motorcycle Stunts in Rollerball the stuntman recalls his experiences making the film, and the numerous thrills and spills that ensued. Some of the more key stunts are discussed, and it is great to hear how much a high profile gig such as this brought the stunt community together and provided them with such a platform from which to make a name for themselves.
Arrow’s disc also has reversible artwork and a collector’s 28-page booklet.
The overall package is just superb.
Rollerball Blu-ray Verdict“They dream they're great rollerballers. They dream they're Jonathan. They have muscles, they bash in faces.”
Although popular upon its initial release, critical response to Rollerball was largely negative in the US, yet much more accommodating in the UK where an appreciation of its high-brow statements about the link between sport and state-sanctioned violence was much more forthcoming, despite some initial cuts to the film. This was an art house concept meeting with studded leather gloves, hard-steel and grinding motorcycle wheels, and the resulting impact left cinematic bruises that have still not healed. Caan’s typically understated style, backed-up with muscle, forged a lasting impression, and never has a guy on roller-skates seemed so blisteringly iconic. And, for that matter, never has a beefcake appeared so vulnerable one moment, and so unbeatable the next. Well ... Rocky Balboa, maybe.
Not only one of the best sports/action movies around, Rollerball also offers up a wealth of food for thought. Some people are put off by the tonal switches from the adrenalized matches to Jonathan’s slow peeling back of the glamorous veneer of a life of delusion and his own voyage of self-discovery, but this contrast is the dagger that pierces the media bubble that could so easily describe our own celebrity-driven society. To maintain order, the corporate leaders of the world are willing to introduce anarchy. Satiation of the masses becomes paramount, with the game of Rollerball totally akin to the carnage and the proxy-born catharsis of the Roman arena. Yet, predicting our own obsession with pop culture sensation, the might and glory of the individual still rises above the indoctrinated passions of the many, emboldening the ethic of the “hero”. Critics took umbrage with the depiction of women. Indeed they appear only as material tokens, but then, by extension, the majority of the men, those who aren’t glorious Rollerballers, that is, fare little better, with only Houseman’s corporate ogre and Richardson’s librarian breaking from the strictures of conformity to develop personalities of their own.
It remains a stunning achievement in terms of stunt audacity and the sheer splendour of mayhem
Alongside Soylent Green and Logan’s Run, Jewison’s film questions the boundaries of civilisation and the notion of a future perfect. It is far better than either of those, assuming noble aspirations of genre dissection that would reach their zenith with Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000, and the raw energy and high-speed physicality witnessed later in the post-apocalyptic moral morasses of Mad Max and its sequels. It remains a stunning achievement in terms of stunt audacity and the sheer splendour of mayhem, absolutely celebrating adrenaline, and yet it still needles the collective consciousness with accusations of our latent barbarism.
An all-time classic, Rollerball gets stellar treatment from Arrow. With a transfer that actually manages to improve on that from Twilight Time’s US release, and with more bonus features too, this stands proud as the version to beat. Very highly recommended.
“Jon-a-than! Jon-a-than! JON-A-THAN!!!!”
You can buy Rollerball on Blu-ray here
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