"Rollerball" is one of those classics of sci-fi that I somehow managed to miss for all of my 30 years. Whilst browsing the local store, I found the DVD for ten dollars and figured I had nothing to lose -- to rent it, if I could even find it on DVD, wouldn't cost THAT much less.
I had some vague notion of the storyline, but I tried not to read the case or liner notes and take in the movie on a first impression. Released in the summer of 1975, there are definite and readily apparent influences of earlier films, not the least of which being Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange." The colors, the film stock, the editing style are all reminiscent of that earlier, similarly-themed master work, yet I don't believe it detracted from this film at all.
Supposedly set in the year 2018 (though this is never established in the movie, that I could tell), corporations have replaced governments and managed to eliminate war, poverty, disease and bad hair days. People don't have too much of a say in what goes on around them, but they're all very physically comfortable. Of course, the violent nature of the human beast must be satisfied, and it is -- in the gladitorial ring of the world's most popular sport, Rollerball. The game consists of two teams (from cities all over the world) skating and motorbiking around a 1/8-mile track, trying to get a steel ball into a goal. As the course of the season progresses, more and more limitations as to what constitutes fair play are removed, and by the final, the melee is total.
James Caan plays the Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana of Rollerball, Jonathan E.. He's the biggest star in the world, but he's also a thinking man, and when the corporation which owns his team wants him to retire, he refuses, wanting to know first why they'd want him to retire when he's playing at his best.
The rest I leave to the viewer to find out. I can only say it is a very well-crafted script with plenty to say about violence, the spirit of the individual man, and the bloodlusts that a happy and idle populace can muster. Very well-filmed with touches of brilliance in editing and framing.
A detraction which really couldn't be helped involves the portrayal of the future. Director Norman Jewison couldn't know what the world of forty years in his future would be like, so he took the wise route of not making it all that different from 1975, but with subtle changes (such as the interesting but impractical "multivision" concept in which all TV sets have a large screen and three smaller screens above it, each showing different but related pictures). The result, though infinitely preferable to lots of neon and superfluous antennae, is that the place looks like 1975 with slightly cooler gadgets. I can't tell you what 2018 will look like, but it won't look like that.
Interestingly, the "corporate inevitability" concept of the future, which I believe Jewison meant earnestly, plays out much more as a satire of the opposite, a communist world. Much of what the coroprate culture says, as personified by John Houseman's Mr. Bartholomew, sounds much like the rhetoric of communism -- people are fed and comfortable and happy, but the individual is beholden to the group at all costs. Indeed, some of the words of description of the culture seem lifted straight from Marx and Engels.
The DVD leaves something to be desired, though. The picture is a lot dirtier than I'd like, especially in still-shot scenes. The color is muted, though this may be part style, and some shots seem positively muddy.
The remastered 5.1 soundtrack is a disappointment. The rear speakers get very little play. One particular effect of note, I must concede, is one moment when you can hear the ball roll all the way around the arena, and it's as though you're standing in the center.
In all, it's an excellent movie, which I can't recommend enough, but if the disc had been any pricier than it was, I would have felt as though I was somewhat taken.
Perhaps after the release of the upcoming remake, there will be a better special edition.
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