Sci-fi movies are everywhere now and it’s hard to believe that things were very different in the pre-Star Wars 1970s. The science fiction movies that were made were often dark tales filled with subtexts filled with social commentary. Norman Jewison’s Rollerball is one such film, a biting satire on corporations, starring James Caan as an athlete who decides to go against the system.
Set in the future, Rollerball sees countries broken into several large corporations. A violent roller-derby is at the centre of their success. James Caan is Jonathan E, a hugely successful player for the Houston team who refuses to retire when his popularity becomes bigger than the game itself. The status quo of this utopian society hangs in the balance as Jonathan sets out to fight the system.
Norman Jewison is a director who tackled various genres over his career and he brings an intensity to Rollerball’s world of the future. This is more of a character piece than a slam-bam action film but that’s not to say he doesn’t inject visceral thrills into the Rollerball sequences. He creates an interesting utopian future with a rotten underbelly, the shiny surface hiding a deep dark secret. If William Harrison’s original story Rollerball Murder wasn’t a reflection of Richard Nixon’s administration, then Jewison surely got him to inject these undertones into the screenplay.
James Caan was one of the most interesting stars of the 1970s, no easy feat in a decade filled with interesting leading men. He adds a toughness to Jonathan E’s Rollerball champion, a man who isn’t too bright, but has enough sense to soon learn that there’s more than one game being played. His contemplative masculinity adds a layer to the character which would likely be very one-note in this modern era of filmmaking. John McTiernan remade Jewison’s film in 2002, ditching everything that made this 1975 film special. McTiernan knew how to build on Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair, making a film that was arguably better than the original but he dropped the ball with updating this science fiction drama.
A perfect example of what science fiction was like before George Lucas blasted the genre into a galaxy far, far away, Rollerball is a film that tackles big themes. Norman Jewison directs with style, while James Caan delivers a punchy performance in this gritty sci-fi actioner.
Arrow Films gives this cult classic a stunning Blu-ray release. Commentaries with Norman Jewison and William Harrison, retrospective documentaries, trailers and TV spots. It also comes with a great new interview with James Caan.