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Perhaps one of the more interesting facts about the 1975 Rollerball is that...it's only 17 years away! Taking place in 2018, this often laborious but still fascinating sci-fi film ranks with Logan's Run, Soylent Green, and Zardoz as one of several 70's sci-fi epic movies with a message. And although Rollerball attempted to tell an exciting and conscious-raising story, it would soon be swept away by a small film called Star Wars in 1977.
The director, Norman Jewison, had this to say about the film in 1978: "Rollerball looked into the future in which all-powerful corporations provide a murderous sport to let people work off their aggressions. I worry about how much direction we have over our own lives." Rollerball proved a mild success in the states, but was a greater success on the international market. The film, which was based upon an Esquire short story by William Harrison (who also wrote the screenplay) was met with mixed to poor critical reviews. Variety called it a film which "packs an emotional and intellectual wallop" while Arthur Cooper in Newsweek proclaimed the film feeble and trendy, and said lead actor James Caan was stuck in a film "leaving him in a state of mumbling bemusement." And the critic Molly Haskell started her review with the sentence "What do you do if you have a pretentious six million dollar futuristic fantasy called Rollerball on your hands and you strongly suspect it's a clinker?" (Her answer: shelve it or pump it full of technological gee whiz).
Some interesting technical notes about the film: it was photographed in Munich and London in 35mm at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It was later enlarged by the Technicolor lab in London to 70mm and a 'scope' ratio of 2.1:1. Its producer, United Artists, had set aside 10 prints of the film to be screened in 70mm with six track sound. A group of pre-production researchers interviewed an English speed skater and examined the Olympic Cycle Track and Olympic Basketball Stadium in Munich to devise the Rollerball arena. The producers eventually hired a German architect to create the Rollerball track in the stadium and additionally employed a Norwegian stunt coordinator, seventeen English Roller Hockey players, twelve American Roller Derby skaters, six motor bikers, and eleven stuntmen from American and England.
Although Rollerball was met with less than enthusiastic reviews, it remains a fascinating document of futurism and the fear of the future as mid 70's American lives were changing dramatically in the wake of the Vietnam War and the rise of powerful corporations. As much as Rollerball may fail to convey a cohesive thematic story, it still remains a stirring indictment of our fascination with popular violence and the media's embrace in displaying that bloodlust in new technological and voyeuristic ways.
Producer: Norman Jewison, Patrick Palmer (associate producer)
Director: Norman Jewison
Screenplay: William Harrison (also story Roller Ball Murders)
Production Design: John Box
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Costume Design: Julie Harris
Film Editing: Antony Gibbs
Original Music: Tomaso Albinoni, Johann Sebastian Bach (from "Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565") Dmitri Shostakovich (from "fourth movement of symphony No. 5 in D minor"), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Principal Cast: James Caan (Jonathan E.), John Houseman (Bartholomew), Maud Adams (Ella), John Beck (Moonpie), Moses Gunn (Cletus).
C-125m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Richard Steiner