‘Rollerball (Constellations)’ reviewed

❉ Andrew Nette’s excellent monograph of Norman Jewison’s film is “one of the best examples of critical writing I’ve ever had the privilege of enjoying”.

“Rollerball is arguably the 1970s science fiction film that best encapsulated the time in which it was made. Thanks to Auteur publishing’s excellent monograph by Andrew Nette, we now have a detailed, highly readable and – yes – well-argued account of the film’s production and wider cultural impact.”

The 1970s was a great time for Hollywood films. As well as spectacle, what we would now call blockbusters also offered either a political, ethical or moral dimension, and sometimes all three at once. Take your pick: Electra Glide in Blue, The Exorcist (both 1973), The Parallax View (1974) or, perhaps, Jaws (1975) – Roy Schneider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss hunting down a man-eating shark against a background of small town politics, mainly the insistence to keep the beaches open to serve the local tourist economy. When Star Wars (1977) came along, the spectacle was suddenly all there was.

It was understandable: Amercia fell by the million for a film that couldn’t have been more removed from the ignominy of losing the Vietnam War or the shame of the Watergate scandal. In 1975 – a week after Jaws premiered, and shortly after the US military abandoned Saigon – director Norman Jewison’s film Rollerball opened in US theatres. It was part of the tradition of big budget, philosophical science fiction films that included Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972) and Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973) which, for a long time, disappeared after Star Wars arrived with its distractions of laser gun battles and reassuringly cartoon heroes and villains.

Rollerball is arguably the 1970s science fiction film that best encapsulated both the time in which it was made, as well as predicted future global developments with disturbing and depressing accuracy. Thanks to Auteur Publishing’s excellent monograph by Andrew Nette, we now have a detailed, highly readable and – yes – well-argued account of the film’s production and wider cultural impact.

I love to read someone who knows their context inside out. It really is the only way to write accurately about popular culture (or anything, for that matter). Nette has read the archive, held in the University of Arkansas, of William Harrison, who wrote the short story Roller Ball Murder the movie was based on, about a violent game in the future that millions of viewers worldwide are hooked on. Harrison went on to work with Jewison on various drafts of the film script, all of which Nette refers to and considers in his overall analysis. He also includes, as an appendix, a 2016 interview with Jewison in which the director is disarmingly frank about Rollerball’s shortcomings.

Fascinatingly, these mainly originate from the Rollerball game itself. Jewison admits that both he and the production team got too caught up in the fictional sport’s on-screen realisation, to the detriment of the more thematic aspects of the film. Primarily, these concerned the future Earth’s division into territories run by different, all powerful corporations, who use Rollerball as both a safety valve for human aggression, and as a way of exerting social control through the sport’s all pervasive media coverage.

Parallels with 21st century life in Rollerball are immediately apparent – as Nette observes –  even more so in a film about a society where books no longer exist and all human history resides in the database of Zero, a master computer. In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, Zero’s custodian, played by a scene stealing Sir Ralph Richardson, confesses that the machine is breaking down and great chunks of history are being lost. It doesn’t take a vast leap of the imagination to see Zero as the world wide web.

Hot off The Godfather films, James Caan played the film’s protagonist, Jonathan E., an athlete who has survived the Rollerball games longer than anyone else but who, in a world where anything can be bought, is spiritually lost. Interestingly, Nette reveals that the iconic Clint Eastwood was considered for the role. While it’s easy to visualise Eastwood in full, gladitorial Rollerball rig, Caan was definitely the better choice, as he can display a sensitive, convincingly vulnerable side in his acting, which was essential to engaging the audience’s sympathy for Jonathan. The only real criticism I have of Nette’s research is that there’s no new input from Caan himself, but that’s perhaps understandable as (happily) he’s still busy working in Hollywood.

Foe me, the most fascinating part of this Constellations is the disclosure that, in a decade when violence was becoming increasingly prominent in both sport and its audiences, various entrepreneurs approached United Artists, the film’s studio, with the idea of staging real Rollerball tournaments. Reading between the lines of Jewison’s diplomatic comments made at the time, he was clearly appalled by the idea, realising that the point of the film – a criticism of a society that used violent sport and media control – was being comprehensively missed.

It’s this sort of revelation that makes monographs like this one essential reading, both for social historians and students of popular culture. Constellations: Rollerball is so good that I want to read it again. I also want to watch Rollerball again, which is a clear indication that Nette’s book is one of the best examples of critical writing I’ve ever had the privilege of enjoying.

More please.

‘Constellations: Studies In Science Fiction Film And TV – Rollerball’ by Andrew Nette, published by Auteur, RRP £9.99. Order from the UK Amazon page. Readers in the US can get it on Amazon US and also Columbia University Press.

 Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.

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