25 July 2011


United States - 1989
Director - Peter Manoogian
RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video, 1991, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 37 minutes

The list of mostly forgettable science-fiction popcorn films produced by Charles Band’s Empire Pictures in the ‘80’s is for the most part an unchallenging intellectual vacuum. In many cases that is what makes them so mindlessly entertaining. With a naïve innocence that can only come from sincerity and a (relatively) low budget, Arena is a shining example. It doesn’t require any mental acrobatics or ask any hard moral questions, but it was a little better made than most of the Empire Pictures catalog. Arena is at some six years distance, clearly riding on the coat-tails of Star Wars. It is not surprising then that in addition to its Empire pedigree, Arena should suffer from many of the same philosophical shortcomings as its source material.

With nowhere else to go after losing his job on a space-station somewhere in the universe, Steve Armstrong (Paul Satterfield) bunks with his former coworker Shorty in the slums. Here he meets a destitute bum, the last human champion of the Arena, an intergalactic boxing competition that has been dominated by aliens for the last five decades. He anoints Steve as the next human champion of the Arena making him quite literally the Great White Hope in space.

The man in the Sloth suit is future director Steve Wang

There are two categories of aliens that populate Arena and highlight Steve’s messianic status. Both are visibly differentiated from the protagonists. The first are helpers, house-aliens who are silly and or dumb but totally harmless. To remove any ambiguity, the second group, Steve’s rivals, are not only visibly different but especially hideous, making them even more clearly unsympathetic and evil, and giving the good aliens excuse to support the collective restoration of a properly ordered hierarchy  without appearing overtly Uncle Tomish. Steve’s final opponent, the present champion Horn is also a cyborg. As such he is not only a direct threat to and reaffirmation of human physical purity, but a confirmation of the physical corruption and immorality of the non-human which has to “cheat” in order to win. And in fact, that’s precisely what Horn’s manager Rogor does when it becomes clear that Steve is going to beat his fighter.

Jade (Sharri Shattuck) a sultry nightclub performer (Shattuck actually performs several of Richard Band's songs) and Rogor’s lapdog is sent to seduce and poison Steve before the championship fight. Yet despite a romp through the futuristic spacy mylar sheets in Jade’s cat-box, her eroticism does not bode well for the normative settled family relationship. Instead, there is Quinn (Claudia Christian,) a reserved, practical woman carrying on her father’s legacy as a boxing manager. It is with her faithful encouragement and training that Steve will restore hetero normative values to the universe. Can there be any doubt that our ubermensch will succeed in setting all of this straight when the distinction between right and wrong is so clear-cut?

The ultimate Buck?
Despite all of this 50’s era conservative paranoia, Arena is still enjoyable for a number of reasons. The practical special effects provided by Screaming Mad George are better done than most of Band’s films. Arena is also distinctly more working-class than its big budget franchise predecessor. Boxing, which is really all the Arena fights are, has always been viewed as a proletarian sport. Related to this is my final assertion that Arena’s settings capture perfectly the appeal of the mundane. From the diner of the opening sequence, to the slums where Steve is verbally identified as the hero (it’s always been visually obvious), to the contest itself where order is restored, Arena is fiction made tangible. Without throwaway details like burned eggs and garbage, it would be just another space movie. Narrative details that speak to perceived experience are what make good fiction. Unfortunately that’s why audiences rarely question such obviously reactionary symbolism when couched in throwaway sci-fi fluff.

This beautiful VHS insert comes from Japanese VHS Hell, go visit 'em!


Trevor said...

I always like Arena, especially the alien special effects, and still like the idea of it. This is prime for a remake nowadays and with a little reworking could be a very solid flick. Also it's available right now on streaming on Netflix for anyone that wants to catch it.

The Goodkind said...

Absolutely. That's always been one of my justifications. Despite its simplicity Arena is still one of my favorites of the genre.