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Constellations: Rollerball (Book Review)

Constellations is the new line of quality SF film monographs from Auteur Press, standing proudly alongside their slightly better-known Devil’s Advocate horror film series. Released last year as part of the first wave of these, this one finds noted film journo and all-round nice chap Andrew Nette (Sight & Sound, BFI, etc) filling an important gap by providing the first authoritative, sustained study devoted completely to Norman Jewison’s classic future-sport-dystopia, Rollerball (1975). His slim-but-dense volume presents an eminently accessible and immensely readable account of the cultural context surrounding the film, its influences and precursors, its journey from page to screen, and its still-visible cultural legacy; leaving no stone unturned in his researches.

Rollerball opened a mere week after Jaws had broken all known box-office records, and just two years before Star Wars would come along to irrevocably alter the topography of not just cinematic sci-fi, but cinema itself. For better or for worse. Prior to this, Watergate, Manson, the Vietnam War (which finally lurched to a halt that year), and the corporate co-opting and strangulation of the hippie dream would all seep out of America’s collective consciousness and onto cinema screens in the form of gloomy dystopias like THX 1138 (1971), Soylent Green (1973) and A Boy and His Dog (1975). Despite Rollerball belonging to this venerable tradition, we learn that neither Jewison nor source material writer William Harrison were particular fans of the SF genre in general.

Harrison’s Esquire short story ‘Roller Ball Murder’ formed the film’s basis, written as response to, in the writer’s own words, “increased violence in sport and the idea of a corporate society”. Thanks to Nette’s gaining access to the Harrison archive at the University of Arkansas, we learn from the author’s notes how he came away from watching a rowdy basketball game in 1974, laughing at the idea that “one day men might play on a great roulette wheel, dodging huge metal balls fired from cannons, while they skate around slashing each other with spiked gloves.” Along with “a lot of Evel Knievel stuff on television,” this flight of fancy led to Harrison’s penning of the fateful short story and subsequent film that he would forever remain chiefly associated with.

Jewison, at that time coming off a string of high-profile hits including In the Heat of the Night (1967), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), had also become preoccupied with the sinister increase of corporate power, and Nette discovers that both he and Harrison had read Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporations, a scholarly, influential 1974 study by Richard Barnett and Robert Muller. On reading Harrison’s story, Jewison was more interested in the way that it articulated these concerns than in any thoughts around rising violence in sport – but the sheer unavoidable spectacle of faithfully staging these outrageous and barbaric future-sport sequences was always destined to become the film’s primary draw and focus. Jewison had pitched Rollerball to United Artists on the strength of the phenomenal box office performances of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), and exaggerating the extent of actor James Caan’s attachment (he’d expressed some interest) at that point. What UA ended up with could only ever be marketed as an exploitation film, albeit a high-class one.  

Nette sweeps us through the film’s origins and production process with considerable narrative skill.  As an academic, he’s incredibly meticulous in couching what he’s saying in a firm sense of context (with evidence of course) but without this ever seeming dry, a simple relating of facts. As with all great film writing, there’s a real feeling of connection with the people involved in the production, of film as a sphere of human thought and activity rather than a collection of found objects to be dissected. His subsequent analysis of the film itself is crisp, precise and illuminating, with no wonky pet theories or “showboating” in sight.

This is followed by a detailed and equally riveting account of the film’s reception and influence on the cultural landscape. For a start, we see the immediate appearance of a completely new SF subgenre with the likes of Death Race 2000 (1975) and Death Sport (1978), and later The Running Man (1987) and The Hunger Games (2012) et al, in turn contributing to the iconography of the Italian post-apocalypse genre, with the roller skates, spiked gloves and motorbikes seen in the likes of Bronx Warriors (1982), and Endgame (1983). Rollerball‘s immense popularity in the UK led immediately to the popular comic strip Death Game 1999 in the controversial Action weekly – what Nette doesn’t mention is that 2000AD picked up the baton straight after Action‘s demise with the likes of Harlem Heroes and The Mean Arena, casting a Rollerball-shaped UK comic-book shadow well into the ‘eighties and ‘nineties. Naturally, with all of these “responses” the emphasis is squarely on kick-ass future-sport violent action than any kind of meditation on the corporate takeover of modern life or anything else.

While misunderstood by critics at the time, Rollerball stands today as one of the great classic science fiction movies, from a time when this term didn’t necessarily denote some high-octane CGI adventure blockbuster, but rather something that might contain a few interesting ideas. Jewison’s film admittedly exploits the very ultra-violence that it condemns –  and if we’re honest with ourselves as viewers, we have to admit Rollerball‘s appeal lies just as much in its scenes of bone-crunching violence as in any of its more philosophical themes. And why not? These scenes are masterfully orchestrated by true cinematic craftsmen, made so believable, we learn from Nette’s researches, that Jewison and UA were actually contacted by a number of parties interested in forming real-life “Rollerball leagues.”

Rounding the study out with a brand new interview with Jewison (included as an appendix) beautifully leaves the last word on the subject to the Rollerball director himself. In his introduction, Nette states that the book is an “attempt to redress the lack of critical work on Rollerball,” and in this he’s knocked it out of the park. Devour this book immediately and look out for the next work from this superb film writer – not to mention further entries in the Constellations series, if they’re all of this quality.

About Rob Talbot

Returning from early days of Diabolique, Rob Talbot is a compulsive writer and cult cinema obsessive. He also writes for UK horror magazine Scream, including the popular 'Eurohorror of the Week' column for their website, and has also been published extensively in Starburst and Bedabbled!: British Horror & Cult Cinema, amongst others. Other obsessions include Italian soundtracks, Krautrock, and hard SF novels.

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