Yesterday I discovered ‘Arena’ in Netflix’s treasure trove of forgotten eighties capers. I enjoy few things as much as combat sports and cheesy eighties genre films. 

‘Arena’ incorporates all of that into a surprisingly strong sci-fi sports movie. Let’s explore what is great and what is utterly terrible about this fun little gem.

Aliens competing in an intergalactic combat sport is not a new concept. It was not new even in 1989, comics have been doing it for years. However, the execution of the concept is really imaginative.

A space station broadcasts a live tourney in which the various life forms from throughout the galaxy fight for supremacy. A restaurant waiter used to dream of competing in the arena but the sport has since become deligitimised by corruption. 

Upon seeing his talent for fighting, a promoter calls upon Steve to break the streak of bad luck humanity has had in the arena for decades.

Rather than being a futuristic gladiatorial arena, the film takes inspiration from MMA and boxing. As a combat sports fan, those signs of its influence were really enjoyable.

Some of the costumes and creature designs are actually really impressive. There is an adorable eighties sheen to every aspect of the visuals.

An interesting detail of the world is that the fighters have their strength capped, to make it a fair fight. This became a plot point later on as the villains used it to foil the protagonist.

As is typical of eighties sci-fi, some of the one-liners are charmingly corny. Other quirks, are less charming. For example, there is a painfully long song and dance number during the second act, for no real reason.

In the first scene, the heavy costumes and prosthetics are clearly slowing the actors down; the editor responds by speeding up the footage. 

The finale of the film involves a moment where the protagonist is on the ropes. The villain hoists him up above his head and throws him across the platform. The wire attatched to the actor is plainly visible.

Aside from the directorial oversights, the film’s fight scenes are well directed and choreographed. I found myself invested by the third act, despite the B-movie silliness. This shows that the sports movie aspect was effective.

If you enjoy madcap retro sci-fi, ‘Arena’ is a must watch. It is silly and flawed but when you are not legitimately entertained, you are laughing at the absurdity.

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