Blu-Ray Review – Rollerball (1975)


I’m a sucker for arena-style combat and fictional sports. I don’t know what it is. It’s becoming a bit of a problem as if a film comes out and it has those elements, you can be assured that I’ll be at least somewhat interested. I’ve sat through some turgid shite due to this weird compulsion. I’m using this depressing little glimpse into my film tastes to explain my enthusiasm for the Blu-ray release of 1975 cult film Rollerball, which features both of those magical, cynicism-ducking factors in spades. Luckily, I’ve seen it before and I like it so I eagerly grabbed the opportunity to watch it in glorious 1080P.

The future. James Caan plays Jonathan E, an veteran professional Rollerball player. Playing out like a mix of roller derby and a circus act involving motorbikes, the game of Rollerball has captured global attention and fiercely loyal fans. Things start to change for Jonathan as it becomes apparent that the shadowy, faceless corporate bigwigs want him to retire from the game. He refuses and the corporation strikes back, going about forcing Jonathan’s hand by slowly taking everything from him as long as he continues to play. Reaction seems to be mixed to James Caan as Jonathan E. I think he does well as a jaded veteran. His performance is subtle, but it works. He can occasionally seem a little bit too laid back at times. I get that he’s seen and done a bunch of violent, soul-scarring things, but Caan can be a little monotonous when perhaps a scene could have done with a little more oomph. John Houseman gives a classy turn as the sleazy Bartholomew and Maud Adams does great things with her underwritten role of Jonathan’s ex wife Ella.

Set in the way futuristic year of 2018, Rollerball has some interesting ideas about where the world has gone. Huge corporations have taken over political forms of government and basically run everything (Ha! What a dated sci-fi ideal that has no relevance in today’s society at all!) since the shady, swept aside happenings of the Corporate Wars. Rollerball is king. It keeps the population focused elsewhere and, according to Bartholomew, helps to drive home the concept of futility in individual effort. Jonathan becoming the name that crowds chant is obviously counter to the whole idea. Rollerball’s influence can be felt throughout the decades. The Running Man has a similar premise, although its approach is kind of the opposite. The easiest of comparisons is The Hunger Games, which takes the idea of Rollerball and runs with it. Trouble with these influential films is that over the years they are imitated and usually improved upon. Rollerball’s got several cracking ideas about where society’s gone and why, but it’s not expressed with the same sophistication that science fiction fans now take for granted. A lot of the secondary details about how society works don’t hang together. William Harrison’s script is solid, but it bangs the “corpurashuns r bad” drum a little too heavily and often. I’m for anything that paints massive companies as the scary and morally bankrupt entities they are, but a little more subtlety is needed occasionally.

Whilst not nearly as violent as it once seemed, Rollerball still packs a nasty little punch when it comes to staging the dangerous matches. The practical stuntwork looks and feels perilous. Maybe it’s because we’re so used to seeing greenscreen action sequences and the like, but I felt each impact more than I do usually. It’s well shot too with some really striking images, especially six burning trees set aflame by drunk partygoers. Not sure the music fits. The film begins and ends with Bach’s super famous “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” which may not be a name that you know, but look it up and I can almost completely guarantee you’ll have heard it in countless things.It’s shorthand for creepy melodrama, usually used for comedic reasons. My rapidly fleeting point being that it seems ill-fitting and unintentionally funny now.

Rollerball is an enjoyable solid film. Whilst it doesn’t have the teeth it once did in terms of both graphic violence and world building it still has a lot of scarily relevant things to talk about. Recommended.

Ben Browne

Genre:Drama Distributor:Arrow Films Release Date:23rd March 2015 (UK)Rating: 15 Director:Norman Jewison Cast:James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck, Moses Gunn Buy: Rollerball – [Blu-ray]