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Standing for the corporate anthem
A region 2 DVD review of the original ROLLERBALL by Slarek
 

When Norman Jewison's Rollerball was released in the UK back in the mid 70s, it was deemed by the teenage audience, of which I was one, to be a seriously tasty piece of action cinema. The violent Rollerball matches around which the narrative is structured had the same pulling power as the fights that had prompted so many of us to dress soberly and lie about our age to get into kung fu films a couple of years earlier. We weren't so keen on the bits in between, of course, though I remember liking the eccentric librarian – played by a wonderfully dotty Ralph Richardson – who has misplaced the entire thirteenth century ("Not much in the century – just Dante and a few corrupt popes") and laughing when the game's star player, after enjoying the very physical violence of the game, seemed close to tears over a small cut on his finger. But the game was the draw, an adolescent attraction to artificial violence that is still used to sell movies to a mass audience that has an almost Pavlovian response to fast-cut movie action. Yet even at that innocent age I got the message contained within, that the violence I was enjoying was actually a negative thing, something the barbaric mayhem of the final match made all too clear. On that first viewing I was particularly struck by the opening scoreboard for the Houston vs. Madrid game, where the team names were abbreviated to their first three letters and placed beside each other seemed to say 'HOW MAD'.

Earth-based science fiction inevitably dates as technology progresses in ways the film-makers could never have foreseen. This is hardly surprising, since were they that able to accurately predict future developments then they could have made a mint working in the technology industries. Even Stanley Kubrick, whose staggering 2001: A Space Odyssey still looks ahead of its time, occasionally fell foul of this – he accurately predicted portable flat screen TV monitors, but the transmissions are still in black and white with the most basic of title graphics. Coming back to Rollerball so many years after its initial release, and after its memory had been soured by John McTiernan's wretched remake, I was struck not by what has dated – the computers still use punch cards and have text-based green screen displays – but how relevant most of its predictions have become and how modern so much of it looks. And despite the brilliance of the Rollerball matches, it's the material in between, the character scenes I mentally fast-forwarded as a teenager, that provide the film with its social, science fiction and political meat.

Rollerball is set in a future in which war is non-existent and all concept of nationality has been dissolved. Society is ruled by six multinational corporations that exercise ultimate power over ordinary working people, with privelage reserved almost exclusively for the Executive Class. The principal sporting event is Rollerball, a violent and gladiatorial game that provides both an outlet for public aggression and a demonstration of the futility of individual effort. In a game that must have no stars, one has nonetheless emerged in the shape of enigmatic and high-scoring Houston captain Jonathan E (played by an enigmatic James Caan). The Executives decide that he must be removed from the game, and the head of the Houston-based Energy Corporation, Bartholomew (John Houseman), informs Jonathan that he must announce his retirement. When Jonathan refuses, a series of increasingly deadly rule changes are introduced to up the game's brutality, the aim being to crush Jonathan's rebellious intentions and permanently eliminate him from the game.

The separation of society into powerless workers and a ruling elite has been a mainstay of science fiction cinema since Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis, but as presented here it seems particularly relevant to the new millennium. In the world of Rollerball, national boundaries have effectively been dissolved, replaced instead by a small number of giant, controlling corporations (brief mention is even made of 'the Corporate Wars', making you wonder just how they were fought). In the real world the very word 'corporation' has become a rallying cry for those opposed to the increasingly expansive globalisation of industry, with smaller companies swallowed up or obliterated by multinational leviathans whose annual turnover is greater than that of many small nations. We're all affected by it and in the end dependent on it – if you own a PC, then you're probably running an operating system put out by a corporation genuinely global in size, and even as an Apple user (and let's just remember how big they have become since the success of the iPod) I have just watched them get into bed with computer chip giant Intel. Even this review is affected, being set as it is on a web design program made by a big software company that has recently been swallowed up by an even bigger software company, which looks set to discontinue the product and 'incorporate' all the best bits in its own release. Don't even get me started on the oil and fast food industries. The concept of a corporate-controlled world in 2018 thus does not seem as far fetched as it might once have done, and considering the power and influence these corporations now wield and that this film was made some thirty years ago, this prediction now seems genuinely visionary.

Increasingly laws favour the employer over the employee, to the degree that actually opposing the will of any large company, let alone a giant multi-national, is too often regarded as a futile gesture. In Rollerball this has been extended to the degree that if someone from the Executive Class wants the wife of someone from the lower classes, then they can just take them, a grim if unsubtle metaphor for the corrupting power that wealth and privilege can bring. Like the sporting superstars of today, the Rollerball players share many of the privileges of the Executive Classes and have become cocooned in their own world – they work together, party together, and only occasionally mix with the Corporate masters. Their (and the film's) only real dealings with the ordinary folk are the prostitutes supplied by the Corporation as 'companions'. After ten years in the game, even this has become a tiresomely familiar aspect of sporting life for Jonathan. "I'm Daphne," announces the latest arrival by way of introduction. "Yeah, that figures," is Jonathan's weary reply. Women get a particularly raw deal in this dystopian future, being playthings for Rollerball players and Executives alike, and you can almost understand the relish with which they brandish a destructive weapon after a party, greedily laying waste to a line of tall trees after an evening digesting the violence of Rollerball clips on Multivision. Designed as a critique of the cruel depravity the ruling class, the scene that cannot help but read nowadays as a reflection of the harm being unleashed on the environment by a number of the current multi-national corporations.

Similarly forward-thinking is evident eslewhere. The computer terminals may show their age, but their function in society has been accurately predicted. When Jonathan looks for books, fellow player and friend Moonpie is bemused. "What do you want books for?" he asks, as the grinny clerk informs him that the titles he has ordered are classified and have been transcribed and summarised in electronic form. This again rings creepily of changing times – a librarian friend of mine recently was told by a college lecturer: "Why would my students need to use a library? They have the internet now."

Television in Rollerball has become Multivision, a four screen system whose centrepiece is the sort of large display that everyone from home cinema enthusiasts to Jones-keeper-uppers are installing in their living rooms today, while on news channels the image is being similarly fragmented to provide an unprecedented range of simultaneous information (check out the BBC's News 24 during any major news event) to a multimedia aware and increasingly impatient audience. The corporate executives even communicate using what is effectively video conferencing, something that would not appear in reality for a number of years.

The brutality of the game is obviously a central issue, reflecting the increasing levels of violence in sporting events such as ice hockey, basketball and football, a trend that also gave rise to more comic social commentaries such as Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000 and George Roy Hill's Slap Shot. The gladiatorial nature of the game can't also help but reflect a modern mass-market fascination with confrontational reality television, shows on which people placed into situations where they will inevitably come into verbal and even physical conflict for our entertainment. In the case of shows like Temptation Island, we are even invited to observe relationships fall apart and contestants in states of emotional distress. Are we really that far from seeing this transformed into physical violence? Be honest, do you watch Jerry Springer for the debates or the punch-ups? This key element of the film apparently fell on largely deaf ears on its initial US release, and on his commentary track, director Norman Jewison expresses his horror at the news that after seeing the film, one Texan entrepreneur actually tried to organise a real-world Rollerball league.

Which brings me back to my opening paragraph and my own initial reaction to the Rollerball matches. Thirty years on they are still superbly executed set-pieces, vigorously performed, immaculately shot and brilliantly edited, and I'm talking proper editing here, not the MTV-driven machine-gun cutting of so many recent action films. As a result, the first and a good part of the second match are as exciting and thrillingly staged as any real-lfe sporting event, even when play is at its most grimly barbaric. The rules are simple enough to pick up in the opening ten minutes, and it is to director Jewison's very considerable credit that everything about the game feels authentic, from the design of track and costumes to the pre-match inspections and gameplay itself. None of this feels rehearsed, and the performers skate and fight and defend the goal as if they've been doing it for years. With perhaps deliberate irony, Jewison – aided enormously by the extraordinary athleticism of his actors and stunt men, the dazzling skills of editor Anthony Gibbs and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, and an army of superb camera operators – has created an on-screen spectacle that, for the first half at least, is one of the very things he is protesting against, gripping an audience that should really be appalled. But then, as viewers fully aware of this fact, what does that tell us about ourselves?

sound and vision

Many American films from the early to mid 1970s were shot on location using high speed stock, and that, combined with a sometimes shabby attitude to film preservation, has resulted in some rather grainy transfers. Shot in 1975, Rollerball is no exception, with the grain clearly evident pretty much throughout, but otherwise this is quite a nice print, with strong colours, good contrast and very solid black levels. Occasionally, such as when the Executives go out to shoot up the trees, the grain level undergoes a visible boost, and large areas of one colour do tend to show a few problems. Jewison's use of darkness and shadow, especially when dealing with the Executives, is deliberate, and detail in shadow area is thus restricted for a reason. Sharpness is good, within the restrictions of the film stock, and dust and scratches are minimal, though occasionally visible. The picture is framed 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced.

Although a 5.1 mix, this is essentially a front-weighted stereo affair, though some rear speaker action becomes evident during the Rollerball matches, which is also when separation is at its most noticeable. Music is very nicely reproduced, with low organ notes beefed up through the sub-woofer.

extra features

Given Special Edition status by MGM, the extras on the DVD are numerous enough and of a quality to justify that label.

Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball (25:05) is a retrospective documentary on the making of the film, and includes interviews with director Norman Jewison, screenwriter and author of the original short story William Harrison, editor Anthony Gibbs, stunt coordinator Max Kleven, actor John Beck and stunt man Walt Scott. This is a brisk, informative and engaging look back at the film, with Jewison, Harrison and Beck very aware of how the world is moving ever closer to the film's prophetic vision. The writing, casting and creation of the film is covered, as is the process of designing the game and, eventually, working out the rules. Some behind-the-scenes photos and footage are welcome.

The first of two Audio Commentaries is by director Norman Jewison, who has a slow, drawling delivery but what he has to say is consistently interesting and informative. Recorded in 1997, presumably for a laserdisc release, Jewison covers a lot of ground here, including the construction of the stadium, the selection of camera operators and the game commentator, the casting, the iconic use of music, and his fear that someone was going to be killed in the process of filming the matches. He goes into considerable detail on the tree-burning sequence, which he describes as "one of the cruellest moments in the film," providing reassuring detail over how they shot the sequence without harming any living trees. He also goes into some depth regarding the film's political elements and how they are still relevant today, drawing parallels with modern Middle Eastern conflicts and how some people believe they are actually all about oil. You don't say. This is clearly a film he remains proud of, and he looks back at the 1970s as time when he had more creative freedom: "I was allowed in those days to make a film with a little bit more depth to it, a little bit more grace."

The second Audio Commentary is by William Harrison, writer of the original short story Rollerball Murders and the film's screenplay, his first. Though there are a few dead patches here, when Harrison talks he delivers, providing background information to the writing of the story, including his observations about the increasing violence in sport and the rise of multinationals. He talks about elements he wanted for the film but didn't get and the things he learned from Jewison, and analyses the narrative function and subtextual intentions of some scenes in useful detail. There is also some very nice anecdotal information and some reflection on the how reality appears to be catching up with his original vision. I was pleased that he also commented on the abbreviated names on the Houston-Madrid scoreboard at the start – it wasn't just me, then.

The Original Rollerball Featurette (7:54), nicely titled From Rome to Rollerball: Full Circle, is the original EPK, which although familiar in structure contains a useful collection of interviews and on-set footage from the time of the film's production. Given the purpose of the featurette, the tone is surprisingly sombre, reflecting the film's downbeat view of the future. Framed 4:3, the picture quality is inevitably a little rougher than on the retrospective documentary. In contrast to the vast majority of EPKs we get to see, this is a welcome inclusion.

Theatrical Trailer (2:49) is framed anamorphic 1.85:1 and is in pleasingly good shape. Not as superficially slick as much of the promotional material being churned out now, it is nonetheless very persuasively assembled.

Theatrical Teaser (0:56) is also anamorphic 1.85:1 and in good shape and very nicely edited. As a sell it delivers the goods, though is voiced-over by Trailer Voice Man's serious 1970s cousin.

The Remake Teaser Trailer (1:13) is anamorphic 1.85:1 and nicely hints at how awful the recent remake is, all MTV cuts, garish imagery and computer-game graphics.

There are 3 TV Spots (0:53, 0:26, 0:11), framed 4:3 and based very much on the Teaser Trailer.

Finally Stills Galleries is sub-divided into Production Design and Production Photographs, which are framed within an anamorphic 16:9 picture. None are full screen and some just cry out to be so, notably the pre-production artwork and poster ideas.

summary

If ever a film has suffered at the hands of the Hollywood Remake Machine then this is it. While the 2002 update by the once so promising John McTiernan reduced the thoughtful politics of the original to the sort of idiotic xenophobia is depressingly typical of modern action cinema, the Rollerball of Norman Jewison and William Harrison stands even today as a visionary work, a warning of corporate-controlled future in which individuality is crushed and freedom is traded in for the illusion of comfort. That we appear to be stumbling blindly towards this world is perhaps the film's most sobering message, though it also suggests that resistance is not futile and that individuality is worth fighting for, and that the corporations really can be successfully taken on, which is some ways makes it a seemingly unlikely companion piece to the documentary McLibel. As if this weren't enough, Rollerball is also a terrific science fiction actioner, solidly balancing drama with awesomely staged action.

MGM's DVD delivers decent picture and sound, two very good commentary tracks and a sprinkling of other well presented extras. If the film is a distant memory then this is the time to revisit it and see just how far ahead of the game Jewison and Harrison were. With documentaries like The Corporation highlighting to an increasingly receptive audience the very real threat to democracy, freedom and the environment that the rise of the multi-national represents, it's fascinating (and from a genre standpoint inspiring) to look back thirty years and see it all predicted in the subtext of an American science fiction film. We can take some solace from the fact that we're not there yet, and as Jonathan demonstrates all too clearly, though the odds may be stacked, it's never too late to join the fight.

Rollerball

USA 1975
120 mins
director
Norman Jewison
starring
James Caan
John Houseman
Maud Adams
John Beck
Moses Gunn
Shane Rimmer
Ralph Richardson

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
English
Czech
Danish
Dutch
Finnish
Greek
Hebrew
Hungarian
Norwegian
Polish
Portuguese
Swedish
Turkish
extras
Director's commentary
Writer's commentary
Making-of documentary
Original featurette
Trailers
TV spots
Stills gallery
distributor
MGM
release date
Out now
review posted
10 June 2005

related review
Rollerball
[Blu-ray review]

See all of Slarek's reviews