Review: Arena (1989)

arena 1989 poster

Two thousand years from now we’re gonna be living in space and watching aliens, robots and cyborgs kicking the shit out of each other. But not humans. In fact, there’s been no humie combatants in the Arena for nearly 50 years. Mainly because we suck compared to the rest of the universes’ badass warriors. Enter Steve Armstrong to change everything.

This is a film I’d supposedly seen before. Back as a kid, my mate Phil introduced me to such classics as the Evil Dead movies, Disney’s Black Hole, and once cruelly told me that Empire was the last Star Wars movie. But I had no memory of Arena. Selective amnesia perhaps? Maybe my child-like mind was just too fragile to accept vicious alien-on-alien combat? Watching it again I couldn’t say that it all came flooding back either.

The intro is hardly special. The titles come up in a barely readable scrawl, followed by a slow burn credit sequence. We’ve got plastic model spaceships zipping by all with the radio or TV on listening/watching the Arena fights. The blue screening is blatantly evident, and the music (more on this later) barely rousing. Like poor amateur porn, it just doesn’t get you excited.

Looking at the actors names I barely recognized any save for Claudia Christian (a 90’s sci fi vixen). But then BOOM Marc Alaimo! He’s in this?! Shit yeah! He’s a classic movie/TV bastard, with great appearances in Total Recall, Tango & Cash, The Last Starfighter and as the main villain in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (my favorite Trek iteration). Moments later we get another holy shit moment – Armin Shimerman is in this too! Another DS9 regular, Shimerman is more recognized for his TV and video game voice work (including Bioshock and Mass Effect).

arena 1989 armin shimerman weaselSo despite the cruddy titles, I was feeling alright. I’m among friends going into this 80’s memory capsule. One thing I’ll note about the casting is that this movie well predates MMA. So we don’t have a plethora of trained killers-turned-“actors” clogging up the screen. I’ll admit, some can pull it off (I for one liked Rampage in the A-Team remake), but when you’re getting mid-card fighters in your movie, you know it’s gonna be dross.

Still, some martial arts experience would have been good. There is no mention any where of main star and Christopher Reeve lookalike Paul Satterfield (Bruce Almighty) having any black belts or anything. And it shows. But these were unsophisticated times. Director Peter Manoogian (The Eliminators) probably reckoned that he could not compete with any of the chop socky movies now infiltrating their way into the main stream. So instead of actual martial artists fighting, he pits crazy fucking aliens against each other in the arena.

arena 1989 movie horn

Any way, we’re in space. The future. The Starstation. A giant floating thing somewhere in the cosmos. Loads of aliens and people come and live in this giant city-in-space. It’s also the home of the Arena – the intergalactic battleground and number one TV sports draw in all corners of the universe.

We’re immediately thrust into the midst of a title fight. We’ve got the challenger, Spinner, a bipedal robot with spindle arms, rotund waist and domed head battling the reigning, defending, undisputed king of the arena, Horn. He’s half…horn alien and half robot. A cyborg of brutal badassness. Literally half of his body is robotic. Like he was split in half like a coconut. How he lost half his body isn’t really explained, but he just looks cool. And he’s beating the crap out of Spinner, to the bored bemusement of the attending crowd. 

Horn knocks Spinner out of the ring using a blatant low-blow, winning a point and ending the round. I guess like in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, not all aliens have their balls in the same location, so this kind of shit is not totally unforgivable. Or maybe it’s just par for the course, like in Bloodsport for this kind of thing.

arena 1989 marc alaimo

Back in his corner, Spinner’s coach Quinn (Christian) is concerned he’s gonna get killed. Meanwhile, some shadowy spectator high above in a private box – Rogor (Alaimo) watches. He looks like some crazy space Dracula. He calls down to his boy Weasel (Shimerman) on the ground, and he gives a suspect looking syringe to Horn’s corner. They inject him and it seems to perk him up even more.

Drugs, in the future? Well it’s gonna happen I suppose. But then it doesn’t matter, as both fighters are governed by the Arena handicapping system (TM). This reduces or increases the relative power of each combatant to keep things competitive.

This whole concept, while interesting, really bugs me. It’s designed so that humanoid aliens can actually stand a chance against giant slug creatures and whatnot. I get that. But by adjusting it round-by-round kind of makes things unfair. It totally makes roiding up between the rounds pointless. Plus half the spectacle of something like Rocky is all about the underdog taking all that punishment to come back with a final knock out blow. If Apollo Creed was made weaker and weaker and the end of each round, and Rocky stronger and stronger, the end result would seem forced and lame.

arena 1989 spinner

We’re not boxing though, we’re areana-ing.

One other particular guy is watching the fight, in the middle of work no less. Steve Armstrong is a big-ass human short order cook in one of Starstation’s take out joints. And he’s crap at his job. No wonder, considering he’s pouring over the fight and no concentrating on making the dilithium eggs or whatever.

Round three begins and Horn starts channeling WWF’s Ultimate Warrior. He clean and presses Spinner above his head, then literally throws him into the crowd. Not satisfied with his total domination, he follows him into the crowd, much to Spinner’s surprise, Quinn’s annoyance (“Where is the commissioner?!”) and the crowds exultation. They’re going crazy for this stuff.

Back at the McStarstation, Steve’s boss Shorty (Hamilton Camp – Dr. Dolittle), a four armed Nebulon with 28 kids to feed, is getting grief due to all the fucked up orders. He snaps back at too particularly spoiled little punks, whose dad, Fang gets involved. He’s one mean looking fish alien with a good two feet on the small dude. Fang threatens to kill Shorty, but Steve jumps out of the kitchen and kicks Fang’s ass. Everyone is all “holy shit a human can fight?!” He finally boots him through a glass window using a double-footed drop kick.

arena 1989 fang

Starstation’s automated senses detect the fracas and auto-terminate Steve’s employment contract. This has a knock-on effect of getting him evicted from his space apartment. Shorty, unconcerned with the fact that it was Steve’s inattention at work that caused the fight, believes that he now owes the human one for “saving his life”. He tells him to move in with him and he’ll help him find a new job. Seems a bit weird, a bit suspect, a bit sexual predicated by old Shorty. He’ll later tell Steve to avoid the sexy women of Starstation’s underworld, while offering to give him a four armed rub down.

To make things worse, Shorty lives in the “cube”; an underground section of the station where all the drug dealers, perverts and weirdos live. It’s sort of like where the scraps and Denis Learly live in Demolition Man. Seeing something in his two-armed buddy, Shorty thinks Steve should enter the arena. But Steve isn’t interested.

It turns out he came here two years ago to do just that. He even won a bunch of fights in the human division, but the real deal is all corporate and corrupt and shit. He wants none of that. Thinking about it, Arena is actually a pretty accurate parody of modern boxing. That sport has been corrupt for years, with promoters exploiting fighters for decades. In Arena, it’s Rogor who manipulates everything so that his fighters stay the champions. With his dude the champ, he controls the sport. Now if you know anything about boxing, you’ll realize that not much has changed two thousands years into the future, save that it’s a space Dracula who is running shit and not the likes of Don King or Bob Arum.

arena 1989 claudia christian quinn

But I don’t understand Steve’s reticence about stepping into the ring. Later, when Quinn offers him a fighter contract, he turns it down. Fang turned out to be one of her fighters, and Steve busted up his arm and neck. Despite the heavy makeup, he still manages to pull off the “it’s not my fault” expression, which made me laugh. Plus Spinner needs some costly parts to repair. Those micro relays ain’t cheap. I feel real bad for Spinner here. We later see what happens to Fang (he’s watching Steve and Horn’s championship match with his kids), but Spinner is totally forgotten. He’s just some dumb robot egg who probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place. He didn’t even get a chance to do any fucking spinning, for Christs sake. Later, in the back, he’s all “don’t deactivate me boss”. Quinn doesn’t want to, but we never see him again. Poor bastard.

Steve meets Marcus Diablo, the last human arena champion from 50 years ago, who is now rattling around the cube. “It was still a sport back then. But there’s no room for real fighters anymore. It’s just a show and not for human competitors.” Sort of a weak ass justification. Later, when he takes the contract to save Shorty’s life, he becomes a successful fighter. He also starts becoming a bit of a dick, slacking off his training and media obligations to mess around with the seductive Jade (Shari Shattuck – On Deadly Ground), a night club singer. Basically, I found Steve to be unlikable. Yeah we root for him because he’s human, but isn’t there someone better we could get into the ring besides this gimp?

arena 1989 shorty

Wanting to run back to Earth, Shorty decides to gamble what little money Steve has left in an illegal underground casino (also run by Rogor). When it’s rumbled by Starstation police (basically cops wearing white skull masks), Shorty steals the money. They reconvene at a bar and Shorty gives him a ticket home. “Our debt is paid…so before you go why not do some cool Arena matches first?” But Steve still isn’t interested. What has got his attention is the girl on the vid-screen singing. Now the singing is awful. All the music in this film is bad, but this is especially terrible. Composed by synth maestro Richard Band (brother of Robot Jox and 80’s B-movie god Charles), it’s at once forgettable, uninspiring and grating on the nerves. 

When Weasel dobs Shorty into Rogor, Steve is given an ultimatum; get the money in 24 hours or Shorty loses a finger every hour thereafter. Rogor is pretty shocked when Steve returns with the full amount less than 20 minutes later. He’s doubly shocked when the human turns up that night at the Arena.

In fact everyone is. Steve’s first duel is against a giant sloth monster. Seriously, his front legs are longer than Steve is tall. Note the costume chosen for him. I figure it’s a cartoon accurate but abandoned prototype for He-Man’s costume in the Master of the Universe live action movie. Only with some Taekwon Do pads thrown in.

arena 1989 steve armstong he-man

They touch gloves (seemingly the UFC tradition has lasted two thousand years into the future) and it’s on. Steve is a bit overwhelmed to begin with and is forced out. The commentators and everyone are just thinking “more proof dumb humans shouldn’t be doing this fighting shit”. Quinn gives him some tips during the break, and he goes out and wins it via flying kick knock out. Everyone is on their feet and Rogor is concerned his boy Horn might have a challenger.

Fearing the worst, he meets Steve and offers him loads of cash if he’d just join his stable. Steve naturally refuses and goes off to party. Cue a montage of him defeating various other aliens and he’s about ready for a title shot. But make no mistake, Rogor is going to do everything in his power to keep Steve from winning, including having his babe Jade poison him and Weasel and the local cube crack addict Skull tamper with the handicap system. With the odds so clearly stacked against him, how the hell is Steve gonna win??

arena 1989 movie still

Come on, the gladiator concept is hardly new in cinema, and is only one horse that was beaten to death in the b-leagues of the 80’s and 90’s. To be fair, there are some classic remnants from that era. American Samurai, Best of the Best, Robot Jox. However, Arena is the only one that I know of that throws aliens in to the mix. And for all it’s faults – the unlikable lead, the budget special effects, the weak story – it really does go to town with the aliens and the weirdness.

Arena far outshines any Star Trek episode for sheer variety in aliens, hell more so than the modern alien madness Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets. Fuck, considering that Arena was all done with conventional make-up effects and no CGI, that’s impressive. Well done to John Carl Buechler (who also did the effects from the cult From Beyond). It’s a shame that the fight choreography, costumes, and set building were not as up to scratch.

Another bugbear is that it’s hardly super violent or gory (though Weasel’s death – thrown from a high gantry by shorty- is pretty shocking). Nor is the fighting really intense. So I can’t really pin-point who’d get off with this kind of thing. In fact the fighting is almost childish, lacking the bone-breaking of Bloodsport or the passion from Rocky. Yet there are some adult elements, including the social and racial commentary and some brief nudity from Shattuck. Sadly, this is really only implied nudity. Nothing to pause the VHS for (though I’m sure some of you tried).

arena 1989 marc alaimo shari shattuck

Sometimes these old films still have an appeal because they have no real modern equivalent. Sadly, the hugely underrated 2011 Real Steel is superior to this in every way. So you’ve only really got nostalgia that may bring you back to this unusual film. Maybe the reason why I couldn’t remember it was because it was pretty forgettable. Still, seeing pre-DS9 Alaimo and Shimerman together, on another space station no less, was pretty fun. I bet they used to reminisce about the time they made that crappy alien boxing film between takes. Unless they were trying to forget. Like I must have been doing.

The film is certainly part of a lineage of movies, all being produced by Charles Band’s production company, Empire International Pictures. Similar to the Cannon group movies of the 80’s, it used the “throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks” philosophy of mass produced low budget movies, typically of a sci-fi, horror or action theme. They were responsible for some decent stuff, but a lot of dross before folding. Arena is probably a pretty standard film of the company, being released a few years after it went into bankruptcy.

arena 1989 paul satterfield

One final thing I want to say is that not enough time is focused on Horn. No only is he the ruthless champion, he’s also secretly the real MVP, playing a great heel character to Steve’s face. When Steve turns up late to their title fight, Horn goes out first (despite being the champ), to warm up the crowd. What a pro. There’s no hug or handshake moment at the end when he’s beaten, but still, you gotta give it to the cyborg. So do him the honor and get it watched.

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