I have a special fondness for this period – the years after the bar for sci-fi films as challenging and meaningful statements about the world was raised by Kubrick in 1967 then lowered again by George Lucas in 1977. This was the age that produced Silent Running, The Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green and a good many others. Rollerball had somehow eluded me till now.
In an undefined but not-too distant future where we still have cathode-ray TVs (albeit with several screens) and computers that only men in white coats get to use, the brutal sport of rollerball is the entertainment for the masses – think of ice hockey with roller skates, motorbikes and a lethal steel ball. The game, like everything else, is sponsored and controlled by the handful of corporate monopolies that now run the world.
James Caan’s character, Jonathan E, is the greatest ever player and a huge folk hero, but for reasons of their own the corporations want him to retire. They can’t simply tell him to – that would be too heavy-handed – so they have to pressure him into it by changing the rules of the game with each match, progressively reducing his chances of survival. But Jonathan is having none of it. Since he lost his wife – also, he believes, through corporate interference – the game is all he lives for, and he’s not giving it up until he at least understands why.
This is a film that comes at you from two angles. The future world in which entertainment is provided for the masses to keep them numbed against the political control that is exercised over them is hardly original but the exact nature of that control is unnervingly plausible. States have ceased to exist – even the pretence of them has gone. Corporations have not only taken their place but have survived a series of wars to emerge as a handful of all-powerful monopolies – a picture of the future that survives intact 40 years later.
But the reason this film has cult status – and the reason I never saw it as a kid – is undoubtedly the game itself. No mere quidditch, the making-of documentary goes into detail on how it had to be devised and played – rules, equipment, stadium and all – from the ground up. The results show on the screen, and are totally convincing to watch in a way our CGI age could never hope to duplicate, as each successive game becomes more and more brutal and bloody.
By contrast, the soul-searching scenes between the games can drag a little at times, but they do add the required depth to Caan’s character, so we care what happens to him in the arena.
The Blu-ray transfer is pristine, and comes with a comprehensive selection of extras including a 25-minute making-of documentary, and audio commentaries by director Norman Jewison and writer William Harrison.
Rollerball is out on Blu-ray on 23rd March, 2015. Buy from Amazon
Review by Dennis Sisterson.