For example, some films experienced almost legendary problems in the shooting stage, and the resulting reportage in newspapers, magazines, and/or television interviews of the cast and crew work like gasoline poured onto a raging fire. Their snippets almost demand that audiences flock to the theatres upon the project’s release so that they can witness something barely clinging to life. Other productions benefit from costars always being at one another’s throat, suggesting that the filmed performances alone might be worth a single watch, and viewers can’t resist a good love/hate spiral captured on celluloid. It’s also been suggested through the years that savvy publicists and/or studio marketing people have created similar tales – webs spun out of pure fantasy – and whispered them to journalists in the hopes that such tawdry gossip might elevate a B-Movie to A-Picture box office, but I think that tactic has probably been tried more than it’s ever proven fruitful.
And … then there’s Empire Picture’s Arena.
While the studio that genre auteur Charles Band built might not exactly be a household name, there are those of us – me included – who not so much worship its output as we revere what they represent for a certain time and a certain place in film history. A great deal of the catalogue gets (wrongly) dismissed as exploitation; though some of the features might share elements with that classification, Empire’s titles really only resorted to such pure outright gimmickry on a few occasions. I always saw these as pictures with solid ideas at their core, and maybe – just maybe – they used a bit of visual sauce – like exploitation – to add some flavor, some taste, some publicity tease, if you will. Even storytellers have to have a hook, and Band was a master and not only hooking audiences but reeling them in – along with investors – when the opportunity presented itself. As the producer and the head of a studio, such was his job, and despite how it ended up he knew what he was doing.
Well … up to a point, I suppose, he knew what he was doing.
In any event, Arena has long been spoken about by fans of B-Movies as the film that finally broke Empire’s back. Without going into any great detail, I’d argue that the statement is both true and false (Empire’s fate was likely sealed for some time at that point), and veering off in that direction would take me away from a true review of the film at hand. So for now let’s focus on Arena – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and leave all that Empire talk for another fight.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“A human becomes an unlikely rising star in the biggest fighting tournament in the galaxy that’s dominated by alien species.”
In fact, anyone who grew up with some of the more interesting efforts of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s might very well see some of what fills the silver screen in Arena’s central arena resembles the critters, crawlers, and creatures of some pretty famed animation. These center ring rumblers – part-boxers, part-wrestlers – looked like they had been pulled right from toons, and – despite some functional weaknesses in bringing such puppetry to life – they worked well enough to convince audiences of their realism. These were (thankfully!) practical creations – not CGI, not an amalgamation of cleverly placed pixels – and, thus, they breathed life the way only practical creations can. (In case you missed it, then yes I’m very much a fan of practical effects work. Always have been. Always will be.)
Therein lies the biggest secret to Arena’s ineffable magic: producer Band, director Peter Manoogian, and a crew of small and big screen effects veterans went to great lengths to assemble the masks, bodies, and other required pieces to a great many alien species needed to bring the future to life. Today, this kind of thing is done in post-production, often at great expense, but – if I dare say so myself – it doesn’t seem nearly as vibrant as do some of these oversized puppets. Things that can both touch and be touched just resonate more strongly visually – the brain can always recognize what’s fake on some level, and I’ll take that opinion to my grave – and the viewer is robbed of any authentic suspense. That’s not the case here … and I say that full well knowing that it’s all cartoon anyway!
This is why Arena works, both for the young and still for those like me: the young-at-heart.
Conceptually, the story is little more than something one might call ‘Space Rocky’ or ‘Alien Fight Club.’ Steve Armstrong (played by Paul Satterfield) – a name that also could’ve been plucked from any number of animated properties – is pining for a return to Earth. Life in space is hard, you know, and Armstrong’s only been existing from one dead-end job to the next. After he stands up to defend a fellow outcast Shorty (a convincing Hamilton Camp) from an alien bully, he inadvertently gets them both fired from their jobs. At the end of their rope – and needing money to free Shorty from the clutches of the nefarious gaming boss Rogor (Marc Alaimo) – the good-hearted young man does the only thing he knows he can do, vying to put his fighting skills to good use in the star station’s arena.
As any fight film would do, Arena makes great use of putting Armstrong in the center ring; but what makes Arena a Charles Band film is that these are not your ordinary opponents. They’re giant bugs. They’re lumbering monsters. They’re bionic aliens. Though it might sound a bit ridiculous (and look equally ludicrous at times), it’s all handled as if this were the cultural norm – this is the future, after all – and the technology of the day is magically employed to make the fights ‘fair.’ Granted, none of the exchanges could go head-to-head with the footage of your average Rocky flick, but what’s ultimately rendered works very well thematically with what Manoogian accomplished here.
Arena (1989) was produced by Empire Pictures and Altar Productions. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the good folks at Arrow Films. As for the technical specifications? Though I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the sights and sounds to this reported new 2K remastering from the remaining 35mm elements was very good: there is a fair amount of grain in a few sequences, and the film opens with a qualifier explaining that one sequence (near the beginning) has flaws that they simply left in. As they say: “it is what it is.” Honestly, I didn’t think it was that bad.
Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? This is Arrow, and they rarely disappoint. The disc includes an all-new audio commentary featuring director Manoogian hosted by critics Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain; an alternative full-frame presentation (a curious inclusion, if you ask me); interviews with screenwriter Danny Bilson (who strongly asserts having little to do with the flick as it’s his belief they didn’t shoot his script) and make-up effects wizard Michael Deak; and the usual image galleries and theatrical trailer. It’s a very good collection that should keep fans entertained for a little extra.
Though I think Arena (1989) has its own irrepressible B-Movie charm, there’s still no disguising the fact that it’s also a bit of a narrative mess. Like a boxer in the ring, the story jumps around a bit, bobbing and weaving close enough to the main thread that it manages to remain interesting if not entirely superficial. Performances are largely predicated on the somewhat ‘high camp’ of the relative situations, so much so that it’s easy to see why kids of the video store era (who discovered the title) probably remember it with fondness. Like a live action cartoon in spots, it feels like it was custom made for them … which is good as there’s so little depth to so very much of everything in here. Fun – most definitely – but a bit looney tunes as well.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Films provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray copy of Arena (as part of their Enter The Video Store: Empire Of Screams Collection for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.