Today’s movie is Empire Pictures’s mostly forgotten sci-fi boxing flick from 1989: Arena.
Arena was written by Danny Bilson, who also penned Trancers, Trancers II, The Flash, and The Rocketeer, and Paul De Meo, who wrote flicks like The Vipers, Eliminators, and The Sentinel.
The director on Arena was Peter Manoogian, who was also behind movies like Demonic Toys, Eliminators, and Seedpeople, among others.
The cinematographer on the film was the veteran Mac Ahlberg, a frequent Stuart Gordon collaborator who has shot such films as Evil Bong, Re-Animator, Space Truckers, Good Burger, The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, DeepStar Six, Robot Jox, King of the Ants, Dolls, and From Beyond.
The producers on Arena included Empire Pictures head Charles Band, Debra Dion (Dolls, Trancers, Troll, Ghoulies), Irwin Yablans (Men at Work, Halloween, Halloween III), and J. Larry Carroll (Laserblast, Diagnosis: Murder).
The music on the film was provided by Richard Band, the brother of Charles Band and noted music composer who has worked on such films as Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dreams In The Witch House, Castle Freak, Troll, and Laserblast.
The makeup effects team for Arena included Scott Coulter (It’s Alive (2008), Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, Friday the 13th Part VIII), Bruce Barlow (From Beyond, Leviathan, Ghoulies II, Dinocroc), Adam Hill (On Deadly Ground, Leonard Part 6, The Abyss, Masters of the Universe), and Alessandro Jacoponi (Troll).
John Carl Beuchler (Troll, Carnosaur, Dolls, From Beyond) was in charge of the creature effects for Arena. The rest of the special effects team included Michael Deak (Pick Me Up, The Lawnmower Man, From Beyond, The Dentist), Mike Elizalde (Lady In The Water, The Frighteners, Total Recall, The Happening), Jeffrey Farley (Wolf, Carnosaur, Robot Jox, Shocker, Evil Bong), Steve Wang (Hell Comes To Frogtown, DeepStar Six), A.J. Workman (Moonwalker, Look Who’s Talking, Mac and Me), Renato Agostini (The Core, Leviathan), and ‘Screaming Mad’ George (Space Truckers, Jack Frost, The Dentist 2).
The visual effects team for Arena was made up of David Stipes (The Lawnmower Man, The Stuff, Creepshow) and Jeff Pyle (Waterworld, On Deadly Ground, Volcano), who primarily did miniature work for the movie.
The cast for the movie included Claudia Christian (Babylon 5), Marc Alaimo (Total Recall, Tango & Cash), Paul Satterfield (Bruce Almighty, Creepshow 2), Hamilton Camp (Joe Dirt, Almost Heroes), Armin Shimmerman (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), and Shari Shattuck (On Deadly Ground, Death Spa).
The plot of Arena takes place in a distant future, where a number of alien races from throughout the galaxy interact. This society includes a popular form of entertainment: a modified version of boxing. The story follows a human as he becomes an unlikely star in the arena, and challenges the defending champion. Basically, it is Rocky in space.
Arena currently holds a 5.2 rating on IMDb, along with a 34% audience score on the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator. However, these both come from pretty small sample sizes, as Arena definitely qualifies as a forgotten feature.
Personally, I was impressed with the creativity and the vision behind the monster designs in Arena, particularly given the fact that there was an extremely limited budget for the team to work with. Most of the aliens are just humans with some makeup effects, but a handful of them are more insect-like or otherwise complicated puppets or rubber suits.
That said, the voice over work (for the monsters that required it) was absolutely atrocious. Horn, the primary antagonist, sounds absolutely ridiculous when he is supposed to come off as intimidating, and comes off as incredibly cartoon-y rather than menacing.
Late in the movie, there is a femme fatale who is introduced over the course of what is supposed to be a seductive musical number. However, just like the monster voice over work, it is absolutely awful. Honestly, he song is almost unbearable to listen to, with or without the lackluster singing, and it plays in the background of an entire scene. It is pretty surreal to watch, given the lead character is absolutely enamored with the impossibly terrible performance, and is distracted by it throughout the scene. Even worse, he acts like he is totally unaware that the singer is affiliated with his enemies, despite the fact that they were introduced by his primary antagonist. Just like Rocky, the hero of Arena (appropriately named “Armstrong”) isn’t the brightest of bulbs.
Overall, there are definitely some highlights to Arena that make it worth watching through, but I think the real value of the movie is in the outlandish premise. A run-of-the-mill sports movie set in outer space against the backdrop of a dystopian society turns a flick that is otherwise pretty basic into something incredibly bizarre. I feel like this is the most true sequel to Rocky IV, as the only way for a boxing match to have greater consequence than ending The Cold War is for a match to literally save the universe.
For bad movie fans, Arena is a good deep cut to check out. I think it would make a pretty good pairing with Robot Jox given the similar sports-movie styles, though Robot Jox is definitely the better movie of the two.