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Do you like movies about sweaty, shirtless guys punching space aliens? Then Arena (1989, dir. Peter Manoogian) is the flick for you. If not, well, then yer on the wrong website, friend. I’m sure Martha Stewart has somethin’ about puttin’ glitter on pinecones over on her site.
Take Rocky and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (or Babylon 5 if you prefer), toss ‘em in a blender and you pretty much have Arena. On a space station populated with humans and aliens, a human short order cook, Steve Armstrong, dreams of fighting in the station’s popular slugfest.
Now, let’s back up a bit. Our hero, a fighter, is named Steve Armstrong. Get it? That would be like naming Tom Cruise’s character in Days of Thunder, Cole Driveswell, or Roy Scheider in Jaws, Chief Martin Kantswim.
But, given that Steve Armstrong, played by Christopher Reeve clone Paul Satterfield, looks and acts more or less like a poor man’s Flash Gordon, the name works. This is not a serious epic about the tests and trails of a fighter, like in say The Fighter (starring the Batman and Marky Mark). Nah, this is an excuse for a guy to punch a bunch of alien puppets. Need another example? Steve’s best buddy is a short alien guy with four arms, named, of course, Shorty. This film does not take itself seriously, and I mean that in a good way.
It is worth noting that this here flick features plenty of folks from both Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5—science fiction TV shows about life on a space station. Both o’ these shows came a few years after Arena, so maybe we have this flick to thank for a pair of classic science-fiction shows. Or it just helped them all get another job. Typecasting, y’know? Kind of like how Don S. Davis played a fair share of military guys, or how Clint Eastwood never plays anyone who smiles.
Arena starts out with Steve picking a fight with some kinda fish man. Reminds me of the time I tried fishing for catfish barehanded. Steve’s throws and ‘bo’s grabs the eye of a fighter trainer, played by B5’s Claudia Christian, and he gets his wish: to be the first human in 50 years to fight in the titular arena.
But, all ain’t cheery in the arena. A shady fight promoter fixes fights and rules the roost. His henchman, DS9’s Armin Shimerman (once again in full makeup), ain’t too nice neither. Steve fights his way through alien after alien as he works his way to the top of the rankings—and yes, we are treated to a mandatory montage.
Hijinks and shady business plague Steve as he works his way up to the championship fight, but you pretty much know how this one is gonna end. Arena does have a neat plot device in the form of the Handicapper—a machine that averages out the strength between the two fighters. This comes in handy when one fighter is a scrappy human, and the other is some sort of horned cyborg-lizard with a welded on codpiece. Yeah.
The real charm of Arena lies in its alien makeup effects. And, thankfully, some of the aliens ain’t yer basic humanoid shape neither. One of Steve’s first fights is against some kind of large-space grasshopper thing. It is a sight to behold, and makes the flick worth a watch on its own. They don’t make ‘em like this no more. A bit of trivia, Hollywood voice over legend, Frank Welker, provides voices for some, if not all, of the aliens Steve fights.
Tiger says, while Arena is predictable with its underdog fighter plot, it is fun and the makeup effects are great reminder of what movies were like before the overuse of CGI and motion-capture. Give it a peep, and play the Count the Star Trek/B5 Actors Drinking Game.
Check out the trailer for “Arena”