Blu-ray Review: Rollerball (1975) - Twilight Time Encore Edition

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For those who missed out on boutique label Twilight Time's initial Blu-ray edition of the 1975 Rollerball, now's the time to pony up. The label has recently issued a 3,000-unit "Encore Edition" of the Norman Jewison-directed classic. Set in a future run literally run by corporate interests, Rollerball is a prescient exploration of the workings of a society run by businessman. War has finally been eliminating, with the masses kept at bay by a bloodlust-driven spectator sport: rollerball. Corporations own the teams, which play the game with an ever-increasing violent intensity. The point, at least in the minds of the corporate bosses, is to display the teamwork of the rollerball teams as a deterrent to individuality.

Despite the corporations' best efforts to prevent heroes from emerging, one does ascend in the form of Jonathan E. (James Caan). In my previous look at Rollerball, I opined that Caan's under-acting is a deficit to the film. But upon revisiting the film, it feels that Caan's stoicism is actually quite appropriate for the everyman hero Jonathan becomes. Though Caan himself later said he considered the role underwritten, Jonathan is simply not intended as a magnetic figure. Though it requires him to suppress his natural intensity, Caan is nonetheless quite effective in a role that hyperfocuses him as the calm at the center of the storm. 
Rollerball reissue cover (301x380).jpg As Jonathan rises to stardom, he's offered a generous retirement plan (read: they want him to take it, or else). A star player like Jonathan will collapse government leader Mr. Bartholomew's (John Houseman) plan to eliminate individualism and leadership from society. The more headstrong Jonathan refuses to go quietly into the night, the more the iron-fisted Energy Corporation begins dismantling rollerball's rules. The team sport quickly morphs into an all-out bloodsport.

Two years ago I summed up Rollerball as "a pretentious, humorless slog." Too harsh. Just as I came to appreciate James Caan as Jonathan E., the film itself has come into sharper focus as an acidic commentary on a society poisoned by rampant consumerism. The cost is high, as it leaves a nation of numbed souls who've willfully succumbed to a totalitarian state, unable to speak or think for themselves. That's not to say the film it without flaws. Jewison does let the tension go slack a few too many times. But overall this is a vital film that deserves to be revisited (or discovered for the first time, if you've yet to see it).

Because Twilight Time appears to have pressed the "Encore Edition" from the same master as the previous edition, I'll draw from my previous review for tech and special feature coverage.

Rollerball has been well-preserved on this Blu-ray. Occasionally given an intentionally stylized, soft-focus look, the image is consistently clean. Fine grain structure is intact, resulting in a transfer that retains the mid-‘70s period appearance. Audio is presented in both DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0, with the surround mix offering a predictably more visceral experience. The actual rollerball matches are sonically lively, but all other aspects sound great too. AndrĂ© Previn’s score is offered up as a DTS-HD MA 2.0 isolated track.

Two commentary tracks highlight the extras. One features director Norman Jewison and the other is with writer William Harrison. Video-based supplements include a pair of vintage promotional featurettes: “From Rome to Rollerball: The Full Circle” and “Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball.”

Visit Screen Archives or the official Twilight Time site for ordering information while supplies of Rollerball last.

Rollerball reissue booklet (299x380).jpg

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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