Year Region Certificate Running Time Screen Ratios Screen Format Sides Layers
1975 1 R 125 minutes 1.85:1 / fullscreen Non-Anamorphic NTSC 2 Single

Soundtracks Subtitles Similar Releases
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Surround
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Back in the mid seventies, when he appeared in "Rollerball", James Caan was a very big star. This was soon to change, in very short order, but "Rollerball" certainly benefits from his star presence. It's an SF action movie, with pretentious social commentary asides, that is held together solely by the charismatic performance of Caan.

The film is set in 2018 - a long time away in 1975 but worryingly close now - when the world is controlled by huge corporations. In order to avoid public unrest, these corporations have introduced the sport of "Rollerball" as a distraction. The point of the game is brutality, and the audience becomes enraptured by the ritualistic violence unleashed in the arena. James Caan plays Jonathan E, the biggest star in the sport, a veteran who has no plans to retire. However, his massive popularity is inconvenient for the Corporation in America, to which the cult of personality is anathema. So they plan to force him to retire, by fair means or foul. Jonathan E. does not take this lying down and keeps playing, even as the Corporation begin to change the rules to turn the sport from merely dangerous into virtually lethal.

In other words, it's the old Bread and Circuses story, but the rollerball sequences are the best things in the film. Brilliantly shot and edited, they have a kinetic excitement that carries the viewer along. We can understand why people want to watch the sport, although there is something decidedly queasy about the celebration of gratuitous violence. The problem in retrospect, however, is that we don't find out much about the game itself. The rules and tactics are never clearly explained so we have to rely on picking up what we can from the highlights we are shown. So, when the rules are being changed, we don't entirely understand what's being altered. The depiciton of America in the future is the usual soulless dystopia that we're used to from so many SF films of the sixties and seventies. Interesting that so many of these futuristic movies are so negative about the future of democracy.

Other good points of the film include Caan, whose relaxed charm is reminiscent of Paul Newman in "Slap Shot", and John Houseman having fun as a truly despicable corporate villain. The most enjoyable moment is a quiet one, however, involving a wonderful cameo from Sir Ralph Richardson as the keeper of the computer archives. All history has been placed on computer, and Richardson is distressed to find out that his equipment is unreliable - "We've just lost the entire thirteenth century. Still, nothing much there apart from Dante and a few corrupt popes."

The problems with the film are twofold. Firstly, the plot involves Jonathan E. searching for some meaning to his life, and this entails a lot of tedious soul searching which could easily have been cut down. He's not an interesting enough character to survive this amount of scrutiny. Secondly, the film wants to have its cake and eat it. On the one hand, it wants us to be appalled at the gratuitous brutality of the game and the way the crowds seem to love it, but on the other, it wallows in the bone crunching violence it purports to condemn. I suspect that Norman Jewison, a director more used to social drama and light comedy, was eager to put some liberal political message into the film to show that he wasn't just making a dumb action movie. This tends to have a negative effect on the pace of the film. The purported significance of the film means that we have "serious" classical music blasted at us throughout. I'm not sure that I ever want to hear Bach's "Tocatta and Fugue" again, but it's always nice to hear Albioni's "Agagio", even if it was used much better in "Gallipoli".

I mustn't be churlish though, since it is generally an entertaining film, and it looks quite stunning. The production and costume design are really excellent, and some of the images created by Douglas Slocombe, the cinematographer, are truly memorable. A scene where a crowd of bright young things blow up some trees is thuddingly "meaningful", but is shot in such a way as to be genuinely memorable.

MGM have done a good job on the DVD, which is one of their better efforts. The picture quality is pleasing, although it is non-anamorphic 1.85:1. The colours vary, but are sometimes impressive, especially on the in the rollerball scenes. There is a generally sharp picture that shows some grain but not too much blocky artifacting.There is also a fullscreen option on the second side of the disc, which is not noticably better or worse in terms of image quality. The soundtrack is a 5.1 remix that is excellent during the scenes in the arena but usually subtle and uneventful elsewhere. Great opening music though, with the classical music coming through with beautiful clarity.

There are several extras on offer. Norman Jewison provides a commentary that is surprisingly uninformative. He's clearly an intelligent and thoughtful man, but he spends a lot of time pointlessly describing the scenes and storyline for us and not enough on explaining the way the film was made. He also seems to be shouting, as I had to turn the volume down every time he began speaking. The featurette is brief and dated, but has some interesting interview clips from Caan and Jewison. The trailer is pompous and predictable. As for the "exciting interactive Rollergame", it involves putting the scenes in order. You don't get any reward, by the way, so don't get too excited when you get it right. As you get as many chances as you want, the game is simply a ten minute process of trial and error. The packaging is nice, as usual from MGM, and the usual booklet is mildly interesting to read. But why, for the umpteenth time, aren't these production notes on the disc itself ?

"Rollerball" is worth seeing, even if it's not as interesting as it could have been. It seems a little dated, but as one wise critic once said, "There's nothing so dated as yesterday's future". The disc is an attractive package and presented with more care than some back catalogue releases. Generally good value for money.

Mike Sutton

Film Details

Norman Jewison

James Caan
John Houseman
Ralph Richardson
John Beck
Moses Gunn
Maud Adams

Audio Commentary
Theatrical Trailer

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