Masters of the Universe (1987) / Action-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG for violence
Running Time: 106 min.
Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Meg Foster, Billy Barty, Courteney Cox, Robert Duncan McNeill, Jon Cypher, Chelsea Field, James Tolkan, Christina Pickles, Tony Carroll
Director: Gary Goddard
Screenplay: David Odell
Starting off as a top-selling line of toys (primarily action figures) made by Mattel in the early 1980s, “The Masters of the Universe” proved to be immensely popular throughout the decade, spawning several animated television cartoon series and a major motion picture release in 1987, one of many films of its era to spin-off from the toy world first (Transformers, Care Bears, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc.). Unfortunately, the movie proved to be the beginning of the end for He-Man’s rabid popularity, a critical misfire and feeble commercial venture, although the franchise as a whole has re-emerged from time to time, popular mostly among nostalgia buffs and young children interested in sword and sorcery related items.
The film starts off in the mythical land of Eternia, where the ruthless villain Skeletor (Langella, The Twelve Chairs) has managed, with the help of a powerful musical cosmic key, to capture Castle Grayskull, the source for a wealth of magic and power in the region. Skeletor has taken the powerful good Sorceress (Pickles, The Wedding Singer) prisoner and has been draining her of her essence to channel into his own, making him more powerful as time goes on. However, the great hero of Eternia, He-Man (Lundgren, The Punisher), is still free, and with his cronies, the faithful Man-at-War (Cypher, "Hill St. Blues") and his daughter Teela (Field, The Last Boyscout), he seeks to thwart Skeletor’s plans for dominion over Eternia and restore Castle Grayskull back to its original state.
Their plans go awry when the cosmic key’s creator, the dwarven creature known as Gwildor (Barty, Willow), opens up a portal to modern Earth with a prototype of the same key for them to escape Skeletor’s clutches. The key is lost on arrival to Earth, soon found by a couple of high school aged teens named Julie (Cox, Scream) and Kevin (McNeill, "Star Trek: Voyager"), who activate it thinking it must be some newfangled musical device. However, using the device alerts Skeletor as to its whereabouts, and once he has pinpointed its location, he sends a band of mercenaries to recover the key and ensnare He-Man, of whom he plans to make an example of in custody to break the will of any would-be heroes left in Eternia.
Masters of the Universe is, by and large, a weak fantasy/action film, full of leaden plotting, bad acting, and hokey characterizations that will most likely please no one but the most forgiving fans of the He-Man mythos. Many liberties are taken between it and the pre-existing cartoons and comic books, including science fiction elements, such as having He-Man and other Eternian residents fighting primarily with laser guns, instead of the customary sword and armor battles. It can be annoying to those that expect the film to follow closely in the spirit of the cartoon, although, treating the film as its own unique entity, there really isn’t much here to suggest that complete adherence to existing canon would have made the quality of the film any better. Surprisingly, many fans of all incarnations of the “Masters of the Universe” forms still embrace it, despite its flaws.
One of the more curious things about Masters of the Universe is the very sterile presentation. Despite the fact that the events within the film are sweeping, covering two universes and dealing with high-concept issues such as time travel and tipping the balance of good and evil for all eternity, the war feels more like a minor skirmish among small, specialized factions. Part of this comes from the fact that He-Man is able to take on Skeletor and his minions with little more than a handful of allies, some of which aren’t particularly useful in battle. Another reason is the lack of extras within the film – the entire city on Earth that the film takes place in is curiously devoid of any people, save for Julie, Kevin, their immediate friends, and some cops. You’d think that the futuristic and militaristic invasions right in the city streets would gather at least a few spectators, if not the majority of the inhabitants of the entire city.
It’s clear that Masters of the Universe is a derivative film, from the very Superman-like opening credits and theme song, to the Star Wars type confrontations, and some even cite Jack Kirby’s “New Gods” comic books as a primary source, although my belief is that the film’s creators merely ripped-off other sources that were influenced Kirby’s creations rather than a direct lifting of characters and themes. The film feels very much like a low-budget version of another big screen Star Wars-tinged film based on existing franchises, Flash Gordon, with its cheesy sets and costumes, and juvenile presentation.
At this point, it should be clear from the review that this film is a limited appeal project only for unwavering fanboys and perhaps those looking to see early work by future television stars Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeil. Lundgren fans will also give it a look, although this is definitely one of his worst roles as an actor, displaying little screen presence (He-Man seems to be a minor factor in the film until the climax), stiffness with the stunts and choreography (he did all his stunts and moves since no one could match his physical stature), and lifeless mumbling through the dialogue (subtitles are a plus, if you have that option). If you enjoy low-budget sci-fi of dubious quality featuring squabbles on the level of your typical professional wrestling match, you’ll get much more mileage out of Masters of the Universe than most.
©2006 Vince Leo