Release Date(s)1975 (November 22, 2022)
Studio(s)Algonquin Films/United Artists (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
Norman Jewison’s Rollerball, which was adapted from the short story Roller Ball Murder by William Harrison, was a decent-sized hit when it arrived in theaters in 1975, but its notions of a future in which the world is dominated by a corporate society were more appreciated in Europe at the time. Despite this, its subject matter and aftermarket life on TV and home video has kept it in the public eye for decades, even forming the basis of a remake by John McTiernan in 2002.
From the outside looking in, Rollerball appears to be nothing more than a cheap Roger Corman quickie with little to no substance other than violence and bloodshed. That’s not unreasonable when looking at the output of New World Pictures at the time (Death Race 2000 was released a mere three months prior), but once you’re acquainted with Rollerball, you realize very quickly that it’s actually more of an anti-violence piece, seeking to highlight a possible future society run by corporate conglomerates, who even have their own national anthem. Within this world, James Caan is Jonathan E, who has reached his tenth year as a Rollerball champion for the Houston team. But because corporate executives discourage individual efforts, he’s asked to retire. Over the course of the film, he slowly realizes that he has a form of power to counter his overlords because of the public’s adoration for him, but he must decide if that power is worth having.
Much of one’s appreciation of Rollerball will depend entirely on their media diet. If you’re a seasoned veteran of dystopian future society stories, you may be way ahead of Johnathan E instead of discovering what little there is to discover alongside him. This is not a film about intrigue. There are no layers to pull back, nor are there any characters with hidden agendas. The answer to Jonathan E’s inquiry about why he’s being asked to retire is not that complicated, making the lengthy scenes in between matches seem unnecessary. In fact, there are none of the scenes you might expect in a film like this. None of his friends or loved ones are threatened, he’s never followed, and he’s generally under no threat of any kind. So when lead executive, Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), repeatedly asks him to cooperate and step down, there’s a vagueness to it since there seems to be no real consequences for bucking the system.
On the other hand, there are moments when the examination of this society and what it’s like to live in this world is in play, even if it’s a little slapdash. The scenes of groups of wealthy partygoers firing weapons at trees and setting them ablaze are a bit on the nose, but we never see what commoners are like outside of the Rollerball arena. Their devotion and worship to their teams is their only function, which in a corporate-owned society, makes sense. The lack of gray areas in this regard make it feel like an absolute, which is never the case in any situation. It’s also fascinating that the mystery of how all of this came to be is never solved. We don’t know how this corporation got to be where it is and how it gained control over everything, but it’s not necessary to know. It ultimately doesn’t matter. It just is. Judging Rollerball from a perspective almost 50 years removed from its theatrical release in which we are constantly bombarded by corporate greed in every facet of our lives, it’s not hard to imagine just how this world came into being.
Rollerball was shot by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe on 35 mm film using Panavision Panaflex and Arriflex cameras with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in the US (it was purportedly shown in 1.75:1 elsewhere in the world). The film comes to Ultra HD from a 2022 4K scan and restoration of the original camera negative performed by MGM with grading for High Dynamic Range performed by Scream Factory (HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are included), which was also used for the previous Scorpion Releasing Blu-ray release. The film was previously released by Capelight Pictures in Germany on 4K Ultra HD, but the results were mixed in terms of color and contrast. Those issues have been fully addressed here as this is the definitive presentation of the film, hands down. Armed with a very high bitrate that sits primarily above 80Mbps and frequently spiking above that, it also offers a healthy grain structure that’s evenly distributed and organic to its source. There are almost no signs of damage or speckling leftover and everything appears mostly crisp. Contrast is excellent with near perfect blacks, especially in the stands of the arena where light often disappears within the darkness of the crowds. The HDR grades really boost the color detail in the uniforms and various environments outside of the games with bright, deep swatches of orange, green, blue, and red, among others. Flesh tones and details are especially improved. It’s a lovely presentation with little to no flaws.
Audio is included in English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH. The film was originally released in Dolby Stereo, 4-track for 35 mm engagement and 6-track for 70 mm. It’s unclear where these tracks were derived from, but they may be the same tracks included on the Scorpion Releasing disc. The 5.1 is bit more balanced when it comes to dialogue, although it’s not perfect either. James Caan’s vocal performance is often subdued, and sometimes his dialogue is a bit unintelligible. The stereo track is a little quiet and the dialogue tends to stick to the center with no spread, as if it was almost a mono track, yet it isn’t when it comes to sound effects and score. The surround track handles everything much better, with much more authority. It’s the clear winner of the two, though there’s room for improvement.
Rollerball on 4K Ultra HD sits in a black amaray case with an insert featuring the original theatrical artwork. The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Norman Jewison
- Audio Commentary with William Harrison
- From Rome to Rollerball: The Full Circle (Upscaled SD – 7:56)
- Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball (HD – 25:07)
- Blood Sports with James Caan (HD – 10:59)
- The Bike Work: Craig R. Baxley on the Motorcycle Stunts in Rollerball (HD – 17:33)
- The Fourth City: Shooting Rollerball in Munich (HD – 18:55)
- Theatrical Trailers (HD – 4 in all – 9:22)
- TV Spots (Upscaled SD and HD – 4 in all – 2:28)
This release carries a mix of extras from various DVD, Blu-ray, and UHD releases from around the world. The first audio commentary with Norman Jewison was recorded for the 1998 MGM DVD release, while the second with screenwriter William Harrison was recorded sometime later, also for DVD. Both men tend to go quiet a little too often, but they offer plenty of insight into the creation of the film. From Rome to Rollerball: The Full Circle is a short, vintage documentary made during the film’s production and primarily consists of behind-the-scenes footage and an interview with director Norman Jewison. Return to the Arena is a 2001 DVD documentary that traces the origins of, the execution of, and the reactions to the film, featuring interviews with Norman Jewison, editor Antony Gibbs, screenwriter William Harrison, actor John Beck, stuntman Walter Scott, and stunt coordinator/second unit director Max Kleven. Blood Sports features a 2014 interview with James Caan about his experiences on the film. The Bike Work contains an interview with stuntman Craig R. Baxley who further discusses the motorcycle stunt work. The Fourth City offers interviews with the film’s unit manager Dieter Meyer and actor Jimmy Berg, as well as Audi Dome manager Moritz Breitner, about the filming locations in Munich, which mostly include the Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle (the Audi Dome), the BMW towers, and the BMW Museum. Last are a set of four theatrical trailers and four TV spots.
Not carried over from the Capelight Pictures German UHD and Blu-ray releases is the From Rollerball to Rome: Reflection on a Sci-Fi Classic documentary, two UK 8 mm clips, From Sweden to Stardom: An Interview with Maud Adams, and The Restoration of Rollerball documentary (which is rendered moot since this release contains a brand new restoration). Missing from the Scorpion Releasing Blu-ray release is a brief interview with stuntman Bob Minor, and absent from the Limited Edition Twilight Time Blu-ray release is an isolated score audio track and Julie Kirgo’s valuable liner notes. Various Region 2 DVD releases also included a pair of still galleries, and there’s a couple of radio spots for the film floating around on Youtube. It’s also worth noting that one of the film’s earliest LaserDisc releases contained an interview with Norman Jewison that doesn’t seem to have made it past that format.
Rollerball’s story and thematics are perhaps even more prevalent than they were during its initial release. Its makers were clearly concerned about the direction in which the world was going, and they were right to do so. In any case, Scream Factory’s UHD release trumps the Capelight UHD release in terms of video quality, as well as offering a fine extras package. Though the missing materials are scattered across several releases, this is still a disc you’ll want to own if you’re a fan.
- Tim Salmons