Looking back at the early 1970s, it's fairly obvious why author William Harrison decided to write "Roller Ball Murder" (1973), the short story that became Norman Jewison's Rollerball (1975). An avid sports fan, Harrison noticed the increasing levels of violence at spectator events and their influence on TV ratings, especially football and hockey. The Philadelphia Flyers, still a fledgling NHL expansion team, had recently been nicknamed "The Broad Street Bullies" after developing a more power-based style of play. "The Sweet Science" even made a televised comeback (largely from the debut of HBO World Championship Boxing in January 1973), having spent a decade in stasis after the in-ring death of athletes like Benny "The Kid" Paret. The economy was also changing after the demise of capitalism's "Golden Age" and the threats of inflation, soaring energy costs, and unemployment. No wonder people were angry.
And make no mistake about it: pretty much everyone in Rollerball is angry...and if they're not, it's because they just popped a few pills to take the edge off. But inside, they're still angry, and possibly none more so than Jonathan E. (James Caan), the star player of Houston's Rollerball team. He's bigger than the game itself, holding countless scoring records and, without a doubt, the most popular player in the sport's history. Unfortunately, he's on the way out: the corporate reps behind the scenes of the sport see Jonathan E. as nothing but trouble, as he's routinely gone against their mindset that games like Rollerball should discourage individual effort. So they'll do what it takes to get him out of the game (which itself is a chaotic hybrid of hockey, roller derby, football, and several other sports), including bend the ever-changing rules in hopes he'll be killed in action. Meanwhile, Jonathan attempts to do some digging to see how (and why) the powers-that-be arrive at such decisions, but attempting to navigate through public records---even for someone of his celebrity---proves to be an Orwellian pursuit. The message of Rollerball is loud and clear, however: if we're not careful, we'll continue to be entertained by mindless, numbing violence while submitting to higher powers.
Much like Robocop, Fight Club and countless other violent slices of social commentary, some people ended up missing this message. Naturally, plenty of viewers just lapped up Rollerball's hard hits and ignored the humanistic ending. In a 2001 behind-the-scenes featurette for Rollerball, director Norman Jewison even admits that certain members of his stunt crew briefly considered setting up local chapters of the sport after the movie wrapped. But John McTiernan's wrong-headed 2002 remake, rightfully regarded as one of the worst blockbusters ever made, has probably done the most damage to the original's reputation. I'll admit that Rollerball isn't flawless: it's a bit too self-aware at times, Jonathan E.'s planned retirement party and the subsequent "tree-burning" are complete overkill, and that ridiculous font is plastered everywhere. But it's still a pretty entertaining ride made even better by its fortune-telling abilities.
Originally released on Region 1 DVD back in 2002 (and in various foreign markets as a "Special Edition"), the original Rollerball finally arrives on Blu-ray from Twilight Time. It's obviously priced a bit higher than your average catalog release, though die-hard fans will appreciate the top-tier A/V presentation and well-rounded extras. Like the film itself, it's not perfect...but without a doubt, it's probably the most complete package we'll get on home video.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer outpaces the 2002 DVD by a wide margin. Image detail is solid, textures are present and lots of little background details are more pronounced than ever before. the film's period-specific color palette looks good, while a healthy layer of film grain is present from start to finish. A handful of sequences don't fare quite as well; whether due to the film stock, lighting or other elements of the source material, these less impressive moments don't appear to be caused by the transfer or disc authoring. For the most part, this is respectful treatment of a forward-thinking film that still looks like an obvious product of its time.
DISCLAIMER: The promotional images featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.
Not to be outdone, viewers are given the option of two separate audio mixes (5.1 and 1.0), both presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. Purists will undoubtedly want to stick with the original one-channel mix, but the surround track is fairly well done and really adds to the crowd-fueled chaos. The score also benefits from this surround track, though anyone who just wants a taste of this fuller experience will enjoy the Twilight Time standard Isolated Score track presented in lossless DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio. Either way, both standard mixes are relatively crisp and clear with well-balanced dialogue and music cues, although optional English subtitles have also been included if you need them.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
As expected, the menu interface is basic but perfectly functional and loads very quickly. This one-disc release is housed in a standard keepcase with vintage poster artwork and a nice little Booklet
that includes production stills, vintage promotional images and liner notes by Twilight Time's Julie Kirgo. Simple, effective and appropriate.
Though I don't have the 2002 DVD for verification, every source I've found seems to indicate that it was missing several features which appeared on subsequent international releases of Rollerball
. These look to have (mostly) made the cut for this Blu-ray, which means that some of 'em may be new to less rabid fans of the film.
These "new" extras lead off with a feature-length Audio Commentary with William Harrison, who wrote the original "Roller Ball Murder" short story and helped develop the film. Harrison does a fairly good job of moving things along, though there are plenty of lapses and a bit of narration at times. Topics include the rise of corporations and violence in sports, "bread and circuses", the actual rules of the game, accidental symbolism, injuries on the set, differences from his original short story, stunt work, shooting locations, the message getting lost, and much more.
Up next is a 25-minute Behind-the-Scenes Featurette (dated 2001 but again, apparently not on the domestic DVD release) with participation and other contributions from actor John "Moonpie" Beck, editor Antony Gibbs, writer William Harrison, director Norman Jewison, stunt coordinator Max Kleven, stunt man Walt Scott and other crew members. Topics include general production, the source material adaptation, the film's controversial reception, and its legacy.
Also here is a collection of progressively shorter Trailers & TV Spots (1:30 total) as well as the previously mentioned Isolated Score track presented in DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio for all your Toccata and Fugue in D Minor needs.
Recycled extras from the 2002 Region 1 DVD include a feature-length Audio Commentary with Norman Jewison and the vintage "Full Circle" Featurette that briefly looks at "blood sports" and other distractions throughout history. Although the lack of new supplements is disappointing, this is still a well-rounded collection that fans will enjoy digging through.
Like it or not, the original Rollerball has remained prescient during the last four decades and, despite a few cracks in its foundation, still holds up fairly well. James Caan's strong lead performance is rightfully well remembered, while the ambitious production design and stunt work are unquestionable highlights. Twilight Time's Blu-ray outpaces the 2002 Region 1 DVD in every department, serving up a rock-solid A/V presentation and even a handful of "new" extras for those who didn't import earlier releases. Despite the company's notoriously high sticker price, die-hard fans will certainly want to get Rollerball while it's still around. Highly Recommended, but slightly less for new viewers.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.