An intergalactic fighting competition between different worlds has never been won by a human before due to the much larger and stronger aliens that compete. So when human Steve Armstrong falls foul of the corrupt promoter Rogor as he tries to earn money to return to Earth, he must compete in the tournament and attempt to overthrow the system.
Cheesy and mildly entertaining, Arena is a bizarre mish-mash of Rocky and Star Wars which tries its hardest to defy its low budget and prove that you don’t really need millions of dollars to make a convincing science fiction film. It nearly manages to achieve its goal. Where else can you see some sort of UFC-throwdown between a human and a giant slug-like alien?
Arena is nowhere near as exciting as it appears to be – it’s a low budget production which spends most of its cash in the fight scenes and so has to make up ground elsewhere. Cue lots of padding between the fights as Steve Armstrong works his way up from nowhere to fight the champion ala Rocky. The story isn’t as riveting as it could be and there’s a predictable narrative which allows Armstrong to win a few and then fall foul of the scheming Rogor. You’ll know how it all ends up and there are boxing flick clichés to write a book about here but it’s not that bad a journey to get there. Arena is rarely dull, though at times it pushes the boundaries a little bit, but you wouldn’t exactly call this a ‘lively’ film and at 115 minutes long, it’s got far too much filler than necessary. There are some amusing moments but it is never outright camp. Arena finds itself trying to corner a niche market that doesn’t exist.
The real joy to Arena lies in seeing how a bunch of filmmakers, evidently without a massive pot of money to dive into, rely on old fashioned techniques to really bring to life this alien universe that the film tries to convey. Think back to Mos Eisley in Star Wars, the first real time we saw a living, breathing intergalactic universe all come under one roof, with fleeting glimpses of multitude of alien creatures and cultures giving us the tiniest suggestions of each of the races on show. Arena does just as good a job as that in showcasing all manner of giant beasts and aggressive competitors to the fighting competition. The fights themselves are dated, hardly slug-fests like Apollo Creed versus Rocky Balboa, but do the job in conveying the brutality of this sport. Particularly pleasing is the fact that the stunt men do get down and dirty with the fisticuffs and wrestling and everything you see is real, rather than CGI’d in a later date.
Credit goes to the effects department who piece together a whole low budget world of unusual aliens with different masks, costumes and even various added appendages. Most of the aliens are just guys in latex masks but one or two of the monsters that Armstrong has to fight are animatronic models which look amazing. It’s really heartening to see a production put so much effort into making everything look as good as possible, despite the obvious limitations. Whilst the costumes may look the part, the rest of the effects in the film don’t look that impressive. The sparsely decorated and overly-used sets are way too small to convey the sense of futuristic scope I’m guessing the director was going for and look like they were made for an old science fiction TV series rather than a full blown film. The outer space shots of the station and various ships flying around look awful too. There’s no mistaking that this is an 80s science fiction film!
The cast is solid. Lead man Paul Satterfield is the weakest link, relying on his tall and muscular physique to sell the part rather than any real acting ability. He looks and sounds like some drugged-up version of Christopher Reeve and spends most of the film fighting in some terrible jock strap-like combat tights. Satterfield’s bland performance is sort of like a black hole of charisma, forcing those around him to appear worse than there are. It’s no coincidence that the film is better when he’s not around, or failing that, talking. Claudia Christian (of Babylon 5 fame) attempts to provide the sexual attraction and is far better than the material she’s given. The bad guys are the ones who have all of the fun and it’s nice to see future Star Trek alumni Marc Alaimo (who went on to play Gul Dukat in Deep Space Nine) and Armin Shimmerman (most famous as the Ferengi bartender Quark in Deep Space Nine as well) ham it up in villainous roles – well it’s nice to see them under copious amounts of latex as per usual. Having watched Alaimo on Deep Space Nine, the man is a great actor, particularly good at roles like this where he is required to emote under layers of make-up.
So that’s the 80s nugget that is Arena. It’s nowhere nearly as good as you’d hope it is but you’ll have a hard time hating it. Providing perfect low budget, no frills sci-fi action nonsense with no real pretensions of grandeur, it’s a decent timewaster and, in all honesty, does deserve a bit more fame than it has for the great array of practical make-up effects on show.