Movie: Arena (1989)

Unexpectedly, I had fun watching the first three films on Arrow’s blu-ray box Empire of Scream: Enter the Video Store.  These were low-budget films with aspirations well beyond their budgets.  Each actually had some effects, dialog, performances and plot developments I had not anticipated.  Then I got to the fourth disc, Arena, and it was lacking any of those.

This is a terrible film, largely because it feels so cynical.  Unlike the previous movies on the box set, this was the first one that treats its audience as if they are imbeciles who will watch anything.  For the first time on this set, I felt nobody behind the scenes cared enough to put any significant effort into a film.

The plot concerns an arena in a space station, where fighters of different alien races are pitted against each other.  There’s a handicapping system employed which levels the playing field, though it isn’t explained exactly how that works.  All we need to know is this system can be hacked, making this Chekhov’s alien fight arena handicapping system.

Also on this station is Paul Satterfield as a short-order cook who is obsessed with the fights, and who dreams of being in the arena.  I found it odd the elements he is using to make dishes for aliens seem to be entirely Earth-bound and appropriate for human consumption.

He will get his chance to fight after getting fired from his job, though it will apparently be a novelty to have a human in the arena.  It was never clear why that would be such an anomaly when they have that handicapping system.  If that system works, a T-rex could be reduced in strength until a 100 year old woman could have a fair fight against it.

His trainer will be Claudia Christian, a veteran manager of fighters.  She inherited her first roster from her father, who worked in the same capacity.  Christian isn’t given much to do here and the most remarkable aspect of her screen appearance is her resemblance to Stockard Channing.  Often, Christian looks a tad confused.  Maybe she is wondering if she is Stockard Channing.  Maybe she’s why the wardrobe mistress went batshit with a Bedazzler on one of the outfits they stuck her in.

Shari Shattuck seems more assured, in comparison, as the moll of space gangster Marc Alaimo.  She seduces Satterfield as part of Alaimo’s scheme to exert even more control over the fights.  There are a couple of odd musical numbers where Shuttuck sings, one of which is as a hologram on a bar counter, in a bit which reminded me of nothing less than Diahann Carroll in The Star Wars Holiday Special

None of these actors seem to be having much fun.  Only Hamilton Camp, as a low-level grifter who has four arms, seems to have accepted this is a crap movie and relishes his part of it.  It is odd the film gives him those two additional appendages only to never really do anything with them.  This aspect isn’t interesting, it’s not used for anything funny and it doesn’t even seem to factor into the plot.  The best the writers can do with this is, when a guy has him at gunpoint: “Put your hands up.  All four of them.”

Camp is one of the residents of “The Tubes”, which is an underground area…of a space station.  Given this is a world populated with the outcasts and destitute, one would think there would be a plot development regarding class conflict.  But no, much like everything else in this film not directly related to the fights, this goes nowhere.

Since those arena matches are the focus of this picture, one would think those would be better.  I love miniature work, but what was done for the wide shots of the venue is embarrassing.  The spectators in the stands are so static they might as well have been green army men.  The effects people just move these back and forth a bit in a sad attempt at stop-motion animation.

More work is put into the creature designs, though these are less than convincing.  Perhaps the most impressive is the first thing our hero has to fight, which is weird enough that I can’t find the words to do it justice.  I’ll just have to settle for “Lovecraftian”.

But the worst aspect of the fight scenes is I never sensed there was an actual conflict happening.  Punches are thrown which never seem to connect.  Various latex appendages flail, but I never believed they actually hurt our hero in any way.

The previous films I watched on the Arrow set had aspirations which exceeded their budget.  Unfortunately, Arena shows what happens when a film has neither aspirations nor budget.

Dir: Peter Manoogian

Starring Paul Satterfield, Hamilton Camp

Watched as part of Arrow Video’s blu-ray box set Empire of Screams: Enter the Video Store