In Praise of Arena

1989’s Arena is, inarguably, the finest alien wrestling/boxing/gladiatorial fighting film produced in 1989. And, I venture to prognosticate sight unseen, it is arguably a finer film than Real Steel.

 

And here’s why:

  • Cyborgs! The fighters take so much damage in the ring, they must get replacement mechanical parts to keep on fighting. Or I assume. Doesn’t matter why — they designs are pure 80’s sci-fi clunky cool.
  • It’s like a Babylon 5 / Deep Space Nine pre-reunion, with Bab 5’s Claudia Christian (Ivanova) and DS9’s Armin Shimerman (Quark) and Marc Alaimo (Gul Dekat) in major parts. Plus it’s set on a space station. Spooky, eh?
  • The hero’s sidekick/mentor has four arms — the lower half obviously belonging to a guy standing behind him, hidden by the character’s giant loose cloak.
  • It’s a Charles Band production. It’s one of his bigger-budget ones, too. Say what you will about Charles Band, but when he has money for a production, he throws all of it on screen. While the sets, props and costumes aren’t A-level, they’re certainly at the top of the B-level. Better than most contemporary TV shows.
  • There’s actual science fiction in it. Sure, it’s mostly just your average 1930s boxing movie with a plot about a crooked promoter with sci-fi trappings, but writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo sprinkled in some thought here and there. Little things like the fighters being handicapped by forcebeams to make fights more even between physically disparate species, non-humanoid aliens (played by puppets!), and some alien/human-relation politics.
  • There’s the obligatory cheesy nightclub scene — with a “sci-fi” singer belting out a space music torchsong. (It’s a well known 80s sci-fi movie rule: You must have a nightclub scene. I blame Battlestar Galactica‘s casino with the four-eyed alien “Supremes” and Return of the Jedi‘s Jabba Palace ho-down.)
  • But mostly, it’s because the hero is named Steve Armstrong. He’s a fighter. And his name is Armstrong. Let that sink in. Armstrong. Arm. Strong. Priceless!

In Praise of Starcrash

I love Starcrash.

Seriously.

Some movies are great. Some are good. Some movies are bad. Some are very bad. And some movies are so awful you just have to watch them every so often to remind yourself that no matter how bad the stuff you create is, it can never possibly be as bad as, say, Starcrash. No, creating something as bad as Starcrash took more than just the violently negative amount of talent of all involved, 70’s inflationary greed, and, likely, illicit drugs, but also took an insane amount of bad luck. I only wish I could make something this bad.

It is inarguably a cheap mess, across the board: acting, sets, props, script, SFX, all of it looking and feeling like it came out in the 1940s instead of a year after Star Wars. The story makes little sense. Never is there actual drama or suspense, although the music tries very hard to convince us otherwise. It drips incompetence from every frame.

So, as far as Italian knock-offs of Star Wars go, it’s one of the best.

Yet I love it. I love the stop-action robots that are just “this” far away from looking decently animated. I love the fact that the bad guy’s mothership closes like a fist for no reason whatsoever. I especially love how the good guys use ballistic, soldier-carrying torpedoes to infiltrate the bad guy’s mothership. And let’s not forget the robot sheriff that delivers lines like “Circuits don’t fail me now!” and gets flummoxed by simple human attraction. And how about that main character who can see the future but won’t tell people what’s going to happen, mostly because he’s just a dick? Or the fighters that fly in a straight line like pull-ducks on a string (which I’m pretty sure they actually were). And then there’s Carolyn Munroe’s cleavage and legs. And a planet of Amazons (more cleavage and legs). And a giant naked robot. And a pre-Knight Rider Hoff (thankfully no cleavage there). And Christopher Plummer collecting a paycheck as the Emperor of the universe. His ending mono-log is just… well… Boris Karloff’s Bride of the Monster speech spectacular, if all too brief. I’m pretty sure he might have been drunk, as well as nailed to his throne so he wouldn’t slip off.

I love it because I want it remade. And not by any old hack. By me. If Hollywood comes to me in the future and says name your movie project and we’ll do it, it will be a reboot/reimagining of Starcrash. And it will kick ass. Or be the second worst movie ever made. Either way, victory is mine!

 

In Praise of Conan the Destroyer

Ah, Conan the Destroyer. The Rodney Dangerfield of Conan movies.

CONAN THE DESTROYER, 1984, (c)Universal

But you know what, at the risk of being labelled an idiot, I have to admit I kinda like it better than Conan the Barbarian (the original one, not the new version, which I haven’t seen, and I’m still on the fence about seeing — ever.) Sure, Destroyer could have more blood and T&A, but if you go in with the foreknowledge that it’s not really a sequel to Barbarian and more of a reboot (it had a whole different creative team behind it after all), there’s a lot to love in Conan the Destroyer. Seven things, at least.

  1. The Casting – Come on, how can you not love a movie that casts non-actors Grace Jones and Wilt Chamberlain? Add in Sarah Douglas — yep, Ursa from Superman II — as the main baddie, plus Mako and Tracey Walter, and you’ve got movie magic.
  2. The Tone – Where Barbarian was almost entirely, except for the setting and trappings, John Milius’ primal-man vision, Destroyer is Howard’s adventurer vision from top to bottom. In both tone and characterization, it’s more like the original Howard stories and the subsequent comic books. Much more. And so much better for it. It’s lighter, more adventurous, and has much more magic… and much more Lovecraft-influence. (Howard and he were friends. Look it up.)
  3. Ahnuld “Acting” Drunk – I can see the story meeting now. Ahnuld, flush with box-office success, wanted to stretch his new acting chops, show his range. So he pounded on the conference room table and declared: “Write me a scene where I get drunk for no reason! I can so pull that off!” And man, does he.
  4. Olivia d’Abo – In diaphanous, low-cut, form hugging gowns.
  5. The Sidekicks – Tracey Walter’s thief, Mako’s sorcerer, Jones’ warrior woman. The interplay between them is pitch-perfect. Funny, character-driven, and plot-specific. This is how sidekicks should be done.
  6. It’s Really a Dungeons & Dragons Movie – When it first came out, I remember reading somewhere–Starlog, probably–the idea that at heart Destroyer was a dungeon crawl, with its magic and its traps and its trick rooms and underwater passages, and probably the best Dungeons & Dragons movie we could expect until someone got around to making an official D&D movie. Can’t argue with that. And then of course when they did get around to making an official D&D movie and it sucked, Destroyer retained its crown as the King of All Dungeon Crawl Movies.
  7. The Climatic Battle – Conan fights a man in a rubber monster suit. And it is awesome. How could it not be?

–JIG