On a distant space station alien prize-fighters battle each other in the most popular tournament in the galaxy. However, since aliens believe no human could ever make it in the ring, aspiring fighter Steve Armstrong (Paul Satterfield) can only eke out a living as a short-order cook. When Steve heroically intervenes to knock out a violent, hulking alien customer, he earns a friend in four-armed Shorty (Hamilton Camp). But loses his job. Impressed with Steve's remarkable prowess gutsy manager Quinn (Claudia Christian) takes him on as her next champion. Sure enough a string of fights sees Steve flatten monsters twice his size. Unfortunately he attracts the attention of alluring nightclub chanteuse Jade (Shari Shattuck) and her alien mob boss boyfriend Rogor (Marc Alaimo) who has sinister plans for Steve.
Among the last films released by Charles Band's Empire Pictures, Arena sprung from screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, the creative team behind two of the most inventive sci-fi B-movies of the Eighties: Trancers (1984) and Zone Troopers (1985). They went on to pen Disney's retro-flavoured cult favourite The Rocketeer (1991) and co-develop the short-lived Nineties television incarnation of DC comics superhero The Flash. In later years the pair were active in video games and comic books (Bilson is also the father of actress and early 00s pin-up favourite Rachel Bilson).
Essentially Rocky (1976) in outer space, Arena hinges on a goofball concept that Bilson and De Meo's knowing script treats accordingly. Like The Ice Pirates (1984) the film anticipates a tone in sci-fi cinema that would not go mainstream until Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). However, a significant part of its appeal, aside from above-average practical effects and production design, is that the plot follows the story beats of a 'straight' boxing movie. Only not one from the Eighties but rather fifty years earlier. Arena transplants a 1930s Depression-era environment onto a futuristic space station with endearingly oddball alien creatures inhabiting a stock cast of fast-talking hustlers, mob bosses, lovable lugs dreaming of the big time and hard-boiled dames with hearts of gold. Lying on the lowest rung of the social ladder, fighting becomes the means by which Steve elevates himself out of desperation. As he rises up the ranks he becomes an inspiration for an oppressed minority (including Sixties Eurospy staple Ken Clark as an aged human prize-fighter). Ironically (and to modern eyes: jarringly) in this instance: white men. Something that lends Arena's roster of grandstanding alien opponents an unintentionally xenophobic vibe that plays a little uncomfortable.
Mildly troublesome subtext aside, the film benefits greatly from an earnest lead performance delivered by soap opera star Paul Satterfield. While surrounding by campy, wild-looking monsters, Satterfield and his co-stars play it sincere (Claudia Christian went on to win fans in a mildly similar-setting for cult Nineties TV serial Babylon 5 as did co-star Armin Shimerman with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). As a result the story is genuinely compelling and often endearing as it builds towards a rousing, feel-good, even suspenseful finale. Interestingly for a B-movie, Arena has none of the usual exploitation ingredients. Nudity, sex and excessive bloodshed are all largely absent. Even the dialogue is free of profanity. Some of this might explain why the film never really amassed an enduring cult audience. Yet despite harbouring its share of cheesy moments the film boasts snappy dialogue and solid plotting.
On the production side Arena showcases impressive practical effects from a roster of notable Eighties creature wizards (many of whom were a staple at Empire) including John Carl Buechler, Steve Wang and Screaming Mad George. The sets, built in Rome by the largely Italian crew, are also very evocative and at times downright charming for a mid-budget production. Mac Ahlberg, another Empire fixture, supplies his typically vibrant comic book-style photography while Richard Band handles the score. Which has a very Star Trek flavour. Possibly not by accident given some maintain the film is a loose remake of the classic Trek episode 'The Gamesters of Triskelion.' Not oddly enough, as one might have expected, 'Arena.'