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There is no crime; there’s only the game – “Rollerball” on 4K UHD

Updated: Dec 7, 2022


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS

(1) James Caan plays No. 6 Rollerball superstar Jonathan E., Houston team captain, during a game against Madrid, Spain. (2) Houston Coach Rusty (Shane Rimmer).


(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)




“ROLLERBALL”

4K Ultra HD, 1975, R for violence, language and brief nudity

Best extra: “Return to The Arena: The Making of ‘Rollerball’” carried over from previous editions












SEVERAL WEEKS after seeing Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” during the summer of 1975, a high school buddy and I went to a crowded theater to see the latest James Caan movie. After his Oscar-nominated performance as Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather” (1972), in which he was originally cast as Michael, the role ultimately played by Al Pacino, the New York-Caan became one of Hollywood’s hottest stars.

He would go on and play a love-struck sailor in “Cinderella Liberty” (1973), then a self-destructive professor in “The Gambler” (1974) before playing the athlete in the futuristic “Rollerball.” During a 2015 interview featured on the 4K disc, Caan says, “As a group, critics have been really, really good to me. I don’t remember ever getting bashed, even though I deserved it once or twice.” Several other top performances included an ace safe-cracker in “Thief” (1981), the tortured author in the adaptation of Stephen King’s “Misery” (1990), and as Buddy’s estranged father in the holiday favorite “Elf” (2003).

“Rollerball” is based on author/screenwriter William Harrison’s bleak short story set in then not-too-distant future of 2018. World governments have fallen to corporate takeovers, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been replaced with corporate anthems. The United Nations has also disbanded as global wars and violence have vanished, replaced with gladiator battles on circular wooden tracks. They’re a blend of roller derby, professional wrestling, U.S. football, and pinball. The film followed two notable dystopian sci-fi films “Planet of the Apes” (1968) and “Soylent Green” (1973), and, later, George Miller’s “Mad Max” (1979) and “Mad Max 2” (1981) and John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” (1981).


(1&2) The violent Rollerball action between Houston and Madrid, as Jonathan E. and Moonpie (John Beck) prepare for Second Quarter action. (3) Houston corporate boss Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman) congratulates Moonpie and Jonathan for another excellent performance. (4) The Houston team chants “Houston! Houston! Houston!” after a midweek workout.




Caan plays Jonathan E., the captain and star of the Houston team. He and his teammates wear shoulder pads and spiked gloves, while trying to throw a steel ball – slightly larger than a grapefruit, into the goal – while avoiding the other team’s players and motorcycles as they skate around the track at 35mph. Fans couldn’t get enough of the ultra-violence with its abundance of blood and broken bones, and a worldwide TV audience of 2.5 billion. But, Jonathan’s stardom has become too much, a threat to the corporation, and they demand he retire or suffer an old-fashioned ending [death].

Co-stars included John Houseman as the corporate boss Mr. Bartholomew, Maud Adams as Jonathan’s new girlfriend Ella, and John Beck as teammate Moonpie. During its theatrical run, it received mixed reviews. The New York Times said, “‘Rollerball’ isn’t a satire. It’s not funny at all and, not being funny, it becomes, instead, frivolous.” Critic Vincent Canby went on to say it featured two interesting sequences. One suggests “Fellini’s imagination,” when dinner guests use a hand-sized atomic gun to “incinerate whole trees in an instant.” The second is when Jonathan goes to Switzerland to question ‘Zero,’ the world’s most powerful computer.

Side Note: Director John McTiernan (“Die Hard,” “The Hunt for Red October”) attempted a “Rollerball” remake in 2002, which bombed.



(1) Jonathan’s assigned wife Mackie (Pamela Hensley) has been ordered by the corporation to leave him. (2-4) A Houston Corporate dinner party with dancing, drugs, and the use of an atomic gun that incinerates whole trees in an instant. (5&6) Jonathan and Mr. Bartholomew debate his future with the team.






EXTRAS

The 4K disc includes five featurettes, the most interesting “Return to The Arena: The Making of,” which highlights the production mostly filmed in Munich, Germany using the 1972 Olympic basketball arena. Director Norman Jewison (“In the Heat of the Night” 1967) was living in London after helming “Fiddler on the Roof” (1972) and “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973) and didn’t consider himself an action director. “I didn’t have very much interest in the future, only insofar that I could project behavior,” he says. But editor Anthony Gibbs said Jewison was drawn to the story because “the man [Jonathan] was going to be his own man,” similar to other characters Jewison brought to life on screen like Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter (Denzel Washington). “It’s a combination of history repeating itself like the Circus Maximus in Rome. The whole idea of violence for the entertainment of the masses,” the director says. Being from Canada, Jewison knew about violence and sports since it went hand-and-hand with hockey. “The moment there’s blood on the ice, the entire audience stands up like they're being fed.”

Four-time Oscar winner John Box (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “Oliver!”) was hired as the production designer to create the indoor track. Caan and the others actors and stuntmen trained at roller rinks in the U.S., U.K., and Germany before arriving in Munich. Box’s 35-degree sloped track was extremely challenging, but within a few weeks, “We were ready to play the game,” stuntman Walt Scott recalls. Jewison filmed the action sequences for over 100 days. “I was terrified of killing someone,” he said. “Nobody was seriously hurt, but the guys got banged up,” including head trauma – seeing stars while wearing helmets, said stunt coordinator Max Kleven.

Another featurette, “The Fourth City,” pinpoints the various filming locations in Munich beyond the Olympic arena, including BMW’s futurist Towers from architect Karl Schwanzer, and the 10-minute interview with Caan titled “Blood Sports,” originally produced by Arrow Video for its 2015 Blu-ray release, in which the actor says, “Rollerball” is really about revolution. “Heroes bred revolution, and Jonathan got bigger than the game.”

Two running commentaries are provided with Jewison and Harrison, both quite informative as the director opens with details on selecting a piece of music that would translate across the centuries, picking Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, recorded at Albert Hall in London on one of the world’s largest organs, performed by English organist Simon Preston.


(1) Before the game against Tokyo, Moonpie and Jonathan get their own personal masseuse. (2-4) The violence escalates during the game. (5) The librarian (Ralph Richarson) gives Jonathan access to the world’s largest AI computer ‘Zero.’ (6) Jonathan receives a new corporate girlfriend Ella (Maud Adams).





VIDEO

The original 35mm camera negative was scanned in 4K in the U.S., while TLEFilms based in Germany spent a year restoring “Rollerball” for a German 4K Ultra HD release in 2020. But, for this new Shout! (Scream) Factory 4K disc, a new HDR restoration (HDR10 & Dolby Vision) was created, giving the film a completely different look with brightness, color palette, and aspect ratio. So, which one is the best, and the one to add to your 4K collection?

The differences go back decades since the U.S. release prints were matted at 1.85:1 aspect, which Shout replicates; international prints were given a slightly looser vertical crop with 1.75:1 aspect, featured on the German 4K disc. Also adding to the confusion, the 1975 theatrical prints were changed at the last minute from the more desired Technicolor Dye Transfer to Eastman Color. The colors and brightness weren’t readjusted to the Eastman prints, says TLEFilms restoration supervisor Torsten Kaiser during a featurette on the German 4K set. This means all previous video releases on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray were based on unreliable Eastman Color prints.

Beyond the ratio differences, the new Shout! 4K master is much darker – especially with the mid-to-deep shadows, with a warmer color palette for an overall more pleasing cinematic experience. But does it match the levels Jewison and British cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Julia”) intended? I guess we’ll never know, but the highlights are also more controlled on the Shout disc. The maximum HDR light level is 1000 nits and averages 514 nits.

Finally, both 4K versions exhibit a good dose of natural film grain, extracted from the camera negative.



Shout! (Scream) Factory (2022)

vs. Capelight Pictures (2020)

(1&3) Shout! (Scream Factory) 4K - The darker and more defined version with more saturated colors. (2&4) Capelight Pictures 4K - The mid to deep shadows are too bright and the colors are less saturated, plus less detail in the highlights.



AUDIO

The original two-channel stereo track is provided, but you’ll want to select the six-channel DTS-HD Master, which gives the pipe organ a fuller soundstage. It also gives sound effects a most enveloping experience from the front to the back speakers.

A big shout out to the folks at Shout and MGM/UA for giving “Rollerball” a new 4K remastering just two years after the first reworking. We only wish Shout had carried over the recent 85-minute documentary “From Rollerball to Rome” included on the German three-disc set, featuring interviews with producer and film scholar Calum Waddell, actress Maud Adams, author/critic Kim Newman, special effects John Richardson, camera assistant Robin Vidgeon and stunts Dick Warlock.


“Some people loved it, and some thought it was too violent and too far-fetched, but I think there’s a lot of kernels that really hold true.” Maud Adams


Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer




The Final Showdown

Houston vs. New York




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