Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Rollerball (1975)

"Ham-fisted, lumbering and interminable. But it does look nice on Blu-ray."

The decade of cinema pre STAR WARS (1977) offered us some of the most iconic and memorable science fiction ever filmed. Movies like Franklin Schaffner’s PLANET OF THE APES (1967), Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1967), Cornel Wilde’s NO BLADE OF GRASS (1970) and Kubrick again with A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) did just what the best science fiction literature managed to do: they used the medium in ways we never thought possible, and as a result changed the way we viewed and reacted to the world around us. 


Norman Jewison’s ROLLERBALL came along a bit later in 1975, in the wake of briskly creative SF pictures like Michael Crichton’s WESTWORLD (1973), overly pompous but still interesting movies like John Boorman’s ZARDOZ (1973) and remarkable literary adaptations like L Q Jones’ A BOY & HIS DOG (1975). ROLLERBALL has aspirations to be like many of the above and, indeed, is obviously influenced by some of them. Sadly, its nowhere near in the same league, despite a memorable central performance and an interesting idea.

Things finally hot up at the climax 

In an unspecified future where the mysterious corporations control everything, the most popular entertainment provided to the masses is a violent game called rollerball. This involves two teams competing on roller skates and motor bikes on a banked track for a steel sphere they have to pop into a receptacle, for which they gain points. It also seems to involve bashing the hell out of your opponent team members, although exactly how much you can do that isn’t made clear, but that doesn’t matter because the rules get changed later on when it seems you can hurt them a lot more and eventually kill everyone in sight. 

Innocent victims of the porno androids

The best at this game is Jonathan E (James Caan) who has become so popular as part of the Houston team that the corporations want him to retire. Jonathan doesn’t want to. They change the rules of the game to make it more dangerous for him. He keeps playing. Eventually he plays a game of rollerball where everyone ends up dead but him. I think the take home message is intended to be that individualism is a good thing, but I’m still not sure from the final freeze frame if we’re not just meant to think sport creates lunatics.

Probably the best kind of chair in which to weather the slow bits

There’s a lot wrong with ROLLERBALL, but I’ll concentrate on what it does right first. The game itself is an interesting invention, and the sequences (which feel as if they were directed by someone else entirely) do look properly dangerous at times. Caan is pretty good as the sportsman who can’t understand why he can’t keep doing the thing he’s good at, but it’s when he goes on a Quest To Find The Truth that it all goes very wobbly indeed, not least because of Ralph Richardson’s comedy turn as a librarian in Geneva that feels as if it’s been ported in from another film. There is a prolonged party scene at one point that’s supposed to be decadent but just feels like the opening of some bizarre android porno. And why do they start shooting trees? There’s a pleasing 2001 vibe to some of the scenes but on the whole everything is just too slow and ponderous. 

"To be honest I'm not that worried as I shall be playing God in TIME BANDITS in a few years' time"

ROLLERBALL desperately wants to be an SF Film With A Message. Unfortunately for it there is plenty of SF out there from the same era that does the job so much better. If you want a Bread and Circuses-style social commentary, watch Nigel Kneale’s YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS (1968). If it’s a science fiction satire using dangerous sports you want then Paul Bartel’s DEATH RACE 2000 (1975) does the job very nicely. Compared to these Norman Jewison’s ROLLERBALL feels ham-fisted, lumbering, and interminable. But it does look nice on Blu-ray. 

Here we go again. And again. And again.

If you’re a fan of ROLLERBALL Arrow’s Blu-ray comes with plenty of extras, many of them ported over from previous DVD releases. These include separate audio commentaries from director Jewison and writer William Harrison, a brand new interview with star James Caan, Craig R Baxley talking about the motorcycle work, a making of as well as a separate piece about shooting the film in Munich, on set footage and interviews, a trailer, TV spots and more.

Arrow Films released Norman Jewison's ROLLERBALL on Region B Blu-ray on 23rd March 2015

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