In the future, an intergalactic, inter-species fighting championship is held in a shoddy looking space station. Since the contestants are kept on the same physical level (except for things like size and number of limbs which won’t ever be important in a fight, no sir) by magical scientific handicap beams, a level playing field should be guaranteed for all. In truth, the championship is in the hands of evil Rogor (Marc Alaimo for a change being the evil boss instead of the evil boss’s first henchman) who cheats, lies and sucks the sportsmanship out of the sports wherever he can. Under these circumstances it comes as no surprise Rogor’s rude fighter Horn (Michael Deak) is the Champion of the Universe right now, and there’s no chance for the only honest trainer in the universe, Quinn (Claudia Christian), to ever lead one of her fighter to the title.
That is, until a series of complicated circumstances including a punch-up in a Space McDonald’s, an illegal gambling den and the human’s four-armed buddy Shorty (Hamilton Camp doing his best Ernest Borgnine) turns Earthling Steve Armstrong (Paul Satterfield in the beginning stages of anime hair) into her main fighter. Steve is not just as pure-hearted as Quinn, but also, as it turns out, the fighter who will once and for all lay the space sports rumour to rest that humans can’t fight, even if he has to survive sex with and a poisoning attempt by Rogor’s (space, one supposes) girlfriend and (definitely) space singer Jade (Shari Shattuck), and other evil plans of Rogor and his assistant Weezil (Armin Shimerman) to get and win his title fight.
People who know me won’t be at all surprised to hear that one of the few movie genres that doesn’t do anything at all for me is the sports film. Turns out I don’t care who can throw the ball hardest or kick his opponent in the reproductive organs the most subtle, and find the whole ideological shtick of these films rather unpleasant. Hell, I usually don’t even enjoy tournament martial arts films, unless they feature a yogi with retractable arms.
But put the sports film onto a space station and make most of the fighters cute little alien freaks, and I get all excited. It seems as if the best method to convince me that the general silliness of sports movies is fun lies in transporting them into even more silly space opera SF surroundings. And who am I to complain about it, seeing as I get a very fun time out of it, at least in Arena‘s case?
One of the best features of Arena is how serious it takes its own silliness, with nary a moment going by where the film isn’t decisively not winking at its audience, even if winking would be the most natural thing to do given the circumstances. However, delivering the weird and the silly with a straight face is often the best technique to make it fun to a viewer instead of just annoying. One doesn’t, after all, go into a movie to witness how much the filmmakers look down on their own work (and implicitly the audience paying to see it). Here, the knowledge of the silliness of the film’s basics is taken as self-evident but not as a reason to half-ass anything.
In fact, half-assing is quite the opposite of Arena‘s way of going about things. Instead director Peter Manoogian (also responsible for the awe-inspiring Eliminators), working for Charles Band when Charles Band was still doing his best to be Roger Corman and not a puppeteer, scriptwriters Danny Bilson (also responsible for a few other fine bits of fun low budget movie writing before he became a videogame company suit) and Paul De Meo (Bilson’s long-time writing partner), and the usual Empire Pictures gang do one hell of a job of piling weird, interesting and often funny detail upon weird, interesting, and often funny detail. There might not have been much money going around, but what these guys had, they put visibly on screen in form of a surprising number of different aliens with actually different body types (no Star Trek “facial lumps” only aliens here), sets that may depend on the audience’s goodwill yet are also built with love and effort, haircut and make-up crimes that make for a distinctly 80s kind of future, and more sight-gags than anyone could notice in a single session with the film.
Arena is the sort of movie that goes so out of its way when it comes to creating its world (even if its is a very silly world), it even features two pretty alien musical numbers for its not-all-that-alien singer Jade where most films would have contented themselves with a mock swing number with synthies instead of horns. The film isn’t creating a believable future (not that it’s out to do that), but it sure builds a place out of cheap sets, concepts and ideas plundered from Hollywood films of the 30s to 50s, pulp SF, and energetic enthusiasm.
That the few fights the film contains aren’t all that great to watch (it seems Steve’s fighting prowess consists in his ability to actually move faster than a snail) isn’t much of a problem in this context, for who cares about the quality of the fights when everything that happens on screen is so fun to look at?