Arena (Italy, 1989)

October 31, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Arena Poster

Arena is one of those movies where there’s a strong temptation to assign a one-star rating (or less). Indeed, based on “traditional” reviewing metrics, this 1989 sci-fi throwaway is undeserving of any degree of respect. The story is a hodgepodge of recycled sports and science fiction clichés, the acting sometimes has trouble rising to the level of TV soap operas, and the score (credited to Richard Band) is an obvious James Horner rip-off. Yet, there’s something in the vein of “it’s so bad, it’s good” here. The movie is surprisingly watchable and at times (perhaps unintentionally) quite enjoyable. A bad movie is a waste of two hours. But, although I won’t wax philosophically about the virtues of spending that much time sitting through Arena, I will admit that I didn’t bemoan a lost evening.

Despite being made in Italy, Arena uses mostly American actors speaking English. A nod to the Spaghetti Westerns? Regardless, budgetary limitations are immediately evident with Doctor Who-level special effects and cheesy set design that would make the Styrofoam planets in the original Star Trek appear sophisticated. I seem to remember that there were a fair number of these cheap, silly science fiction movies sitting in the direct-to-VHS bins at Tower Records in the late 1980s. Apparently, Arena got a theatrical release but not until about three years after photography was completed. Since Box Office Mojo doesn’t have an entry for it, it’s a safe bet that it didn’t clean up in multiplexes. I don’t think it cleaned up on home video either. But since it appears to have cost about as much as a subway ticket to make, it might have made a profit. (It can currently be found in Amazon’s Prime Video stable of movies whose rights are negligible to obtain.)

The movie transpires in outer space – something made obvious by the bad special effects depicting cardboard space ships (an indication that director Peter Manoogian was working with a budget not that much north of $0). We’re introduced to Steve Armstrong (Paul Satterfield), not to be confused with Stretch Armstrong, a short order cook on a space station who longs to make enough money to afford a ticket to Earth. When Steve gets into a fight (and beats up) an alien named Vang, he and his friend, Shorty (Hamilton Camp) are fired. But Steve’s job prospects aren’t as bleak as he fears. Vang is a top fighter in the station’s Arena tournaments and, when his handler, Quinn (Claudia Christian), learns that a human has defeated one her best in a bar brawl, she seeks him out. Initially, Steve is reluctant to sign with her, recognizing that the Arena is corrupt and dominated by Horn (Michael Deak), the property of fight manager Rogor (Marc Alaimo) and his sidekick, Weezil (Armin Shimerman). But, in order to pay off a debt, Steve is forced to agree and he quicky becomes an Arena sensation. This irritates Rogor, who has a lot riding on Steve’s failure, and he commands Weezil to do anything necessary to ensure that Horn wins the big match.

For the lead, the filmmakers chose Paul Satterfield, an actor with a thin resume. This movie wasn’t a ticket to instant stardom. Although a little more animated than a cardboard cut-out, Satterfield comes across as an unintentionally comedic second-rate knock-off of Christopher Reeve. Physically, he bears a passing resemblance to the Superman lead and his mannerisms and line delivery are similar. Reeve, however, gained a career boost by appearing in a movie that everyone saw. The same was not true of Satterfield and, after Arena, he was lucky to get episodic TV work.

For fans of ‘90s sci-fi television, there’s a curiosity to be found in the cast of Arena. Claudia Christian was a few years away from becoming a regular in J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5. Armin Shimerman, who had already played a Ferengi in a 1987 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, would become a regular in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which launched in 1993. He was joined in the DS9 cast by Marc Alaimo, who played the villainous Gul Ducat. Presumably, the collaboration of Christian, Shimerman, and Alaimo in Arena was coincidental to their subsequent career-defining roles.

Director Peter Manoogian’s career (to the extent that it can be called that) began in 1984 with a segment for the critically-panned The Dungeonmaster. Arena didn’t kill his attempts at filmmaking – he continued working through the ‘90s, ‘00s, ’10s, and ‘20s. His latter works were all direct-to-video but there’s something to be said for his tenacity, even if some of his more recent efforts have had titles like Sci-Fi Slaughter, DevilDolls, and Bunker of Blood. In truth, Manoogian was probably born a 10-15 years too late. He would have been perfect for the Grindhouse era, although his preference for PG-13 ratings would have been a limiting factor. (Although there is a cheesecake scene featuring partial nudity in Arena.)

Arena is one of those films that, despite its overt shoddiness, presents an opportunity to absorb something supremely silly without having to devote much attention to the proceedings. The film works in the dubious “so bad it’s good” category because of the earnestness in Manoogian’s approach and because, beneath all the corny dialogue, horrible set design & effects, and wince-inducing acting, there are actually some interesting (albeit familiar) concepts about the corruption of sporting events and the desensitization of viewers to the most violent of them. It hasn’t aged like fine wine but at least the resultant vinegar can boast a tangy taste.

Arena (Italy, 1989)

Director: Peter Manoogian
Cast: Paul Satterfield, Hamilton Camp, Claudia Christian, Marc Alaimo, Shari Shattuck, Armin Shimerman, Michael Deak
Home Release Date: 2023-10-31
Screenplay: Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo
Cinematography: Mac Ahlberg
Music: Richard Band
U.S. Distributor: Trans World Entertainment
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Home Release Date: 2023-10-31
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Content, Brief Nudity)
Genre: Science Fiction/Action
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1