Dolph Lundgren - He-Man
Frank Langella - Skeletor
Meg Foster - Evil-Lyn
Billy Barty - Gwildor
Courteney Cox - Julie Winston
Robert Duncan McNeill - Kevin Corrigan
Jon Cypher - Duncan (Man-at-Arms)
Chelsea Field - Teela
James Tolkan - Detective Lubic
Christina Pickles - Sorceress of Castle Grayskull
Genre - Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Running Time - 106 Minutes
Anyone who grew up for the majority of the 1980's knows of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe animated show. Prince Adam would raise his Power Sword in the air and turn into the warrior He-Man to protect Eternia and Grayskull from the evil Skeletor. He-Man even had a twin sister named She-Ra, who had a more popular cartoon in the mid-80's, creating a bunch of toys and merchandise that made millions due to children wanting to be part of the phenomenon. Who knew that a failed toy line for 1982's CONAN THE BARBARIAN, which was seen as too violent for children, would create a cash cow for Filmation and Mattel.
Due to the success of the cartoon, it was no surprise that Cannon Films' Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus would produce a live-action movie based on the characters. Cannon Films were pretty successful in the late-70's and early-80's, with their Chuck Norris action flicks, DEATH WISH sequels, and some ninja movies. The mid-80s hurt the studio, as the three-film deal with Tobe Hooper [LIFEFORCE, INVADERS FROM MARS, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2] all bombed at the box office. SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE was a huge failure in 1987. Cannon figured that putting some decent money into MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE would help rebuild the studio. If CONAN THE BARBARIAN was a hit with adults, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE would be a hit with children, right? Unfortunately, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE underperformed, pretty much spelling inevitable doom for Golan and Globus.
I actually watched both SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE and MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE back in 1987 in a double feature during their releases weeks apart. I enjoyed both films as a six-years-old, although I think SUPERMAN IV is a piece of crap as an adult. However, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, as flawed as it is, still manages to be a pretty fun watch for the most part. Who knew Eternia cheese still holds up 27 years later?
On a planet called Eternia, the villainous Skeletor (Frank Langella) has taken the Sorceress of Castle Grayskull (Christina Pickers) hostage to gain some of her universal power. A warrior named He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) and his allies Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher) and Teela (Chelsea Field) fight off Skeletor's troops to save a trollish inventor called Gwildor (Billy Barty). Gwildor tells He-Man that Skeletor wants to capture him to obtain an invention called the Cosmic Key, which can open portals to any time and/or place by playing musical notes. When ambushed, Gwildor takes He-Man and his allies through a portal, landing on Earth. However during the travel, the Cosmic Key drops somewhere else. Two teenagers (Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill) find it, thinking it's a Japanese synthesizer, playing certain notes on it. When Skeletor learns of its location, he decides to bring himself and his troops to Earth to retrieve it - leaving He-Man to save the day once again.
I honestly don't remember much about the Filmation cartoons that were about the He-Man or She-Ra characters. So my opinion on this adaptation is probably skewed due to my ability to separate the film from the cartoons. But as a live-action film aimed for children, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE doesn't do that bad of a job. The main issue with it is that Golan and Globus planned for something much more epic, like STAR WARS or SUPERMAN. But MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE never comes close to reaching that due to budget and narrative constraints. But I don't think it's as terrible as its reputation would have you believe.
Like I mentioned earlier, the story is a mixed bag for MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE. Fans of the cartoon will dislike it since it changes certain aspects of the character. For one, he's never known as Prince Adam here. He-Man never needs the Power Sword to transform into a great warrior. Hell, He-Man barely even uses his Power Sword here, relying more on laser guns that seem out of character. He-Man's Battle Cat friend, Cringer, is nowhere to be seen unfortunately. No Orko either! BOO! And probably the worst thing is that Eternia is only in the beginning and the finale of the film, with the film taking place mainly on Earth rather than a more special setting that would make the film stand out. In fact, the only thing we really see of Eternia is Skeletor's castle, which looks as generic as one would aspect. I get that there was budget restraints and screenwriter David Odell had to focus on the Earth scenes because they would be cheaper to film. But because of the majority of the setting, it doesn't really feel like a genuine MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE film. It feels like a regular fantasy/sci-fi film with He-Man characters in it.
And while the Earth stuff isn't really all that bad if you give it a chance, I'm not a fan of the film focusing more on the teenagers and the bumbling cops rather than He-Man and Skeletor. I get that the Kevin and Julie characters were added in to have the younger audience identify with someone in the movie. But you're telling me a Swedish buff dude in a codpiece fighting a charismatic skeleton wouldn't bring in an audience?? What kind of world were we living in 1987? Seriously, I can see where Michael Bay found inspiration for the human characters in his TRANSFORMERS franchise. The only difference is that Kevin and Julie are actually likeable characters, who shouldn't be in the story, are at least useful and some way. And Lubic, our skeptic cop friend, is your typical cop who doesn't believe in lasers and talking skeletons even when he's looking at them. But I do dig the accent.
But still, this film should be about He-Man vs. Skeletor! And we barely even get that. Hell, they were only in like one-third of the film to begin with. At least in a TRANSFORMERS film, I see Transformers. You could barely call this a He-Man adaptation. And don't get me started on Gwildor and his Cosmic Key. What can I say? Trolls are big in the 1980s. And he is quite decent as the comic relief. Plus, the idea of the Cosmic Key is cool, Too bad it looked like a Japanese synthesizer.
But I can definitely say that the narrative is fine for what it is. It's not He-Man, but at least it tells a fairly entertaining and easy story to follow. You got some good action sequences, like the music store set-piece and the attack on the city where He-Man rides a hoverboard. You got some decent romance between Kevin and Julie, Skeletor and Evil-Lyn, and Gwildor and the Cosmic Key. You got Teela wearing a tight outfit [growl]. And there is some genuinely humorous stuff going on in the film. I can't fault a film whose heart is in the right place. SUPERMAN IV felt like a cash cow. MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE is a cash cow trying to be a good movie. It just didn't have the right budget and the right way to bring the cartoon to life to make it happen.
The special effects in MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE are pretty dated now. But even so, I thought there was an actual budget put into this film, sort of creating a charming time capsule of 1980's visual effects. We get laser beams. We get explosions. We get characters dissolving out of thin air. We get green screen with He-Man riding a hoverboard through Los Angeles, and Skeletor and his army entering through time portals. The real good stuff comes with Eternia, with some FLASH GORDON inspired sets and costumes, especially Skeletor's gold costume that many dislike, but I actually enjoy quite a bit. Speaking of Skeletor, I think the make-up and costume for the character is pretty near-perfect. Back in 1987, I thought the live-action Skeletor looked great. And I still believe that in 2014. Michael Westmore did some great make-up effects on MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.
But MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE belongs to Frank Langella, who brings a theatrical vibe to the role of Skeletor. Langella takes the role completely seriously, having a ball playing the villain, and hamming it up. If Langella wasn't in the role, I think MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE would be a disaster acting-wise. But Langella, who did the role for his children, brings a classic cartoon villain to life perfectly. I wish there was more of him in the film, but when he is on, he's fantastic.
By the way, what was up with those cheap looking SUPERMAN-like credits and score? That's how you try and stand on your own two feet - copying a more popular franchise in a different key. Oh well.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE HAVING THE POWER OF GREYSKULL
- Any foe of Skeletor is a friend of He-Man and his allies. I had no idea so many hated Lara Flynn Boyle.
- He-Man would rather shoot his gun than swing his sword. While this may work in battle, He-Man's girlfriend is probably unsatisfied in bed.
- Julie was attacked by Skeletor's monstrous forces inside of a school, only to be saved by He-Man. While this entire scene was taken seriously, it's still funnier than any episode of Friends.
- Skeletor and Evil-Lyn have a long thang going on. Then again, Skeletor's probably the perfect guy who can give good bone.
- Evil-Lyn and her forces broke in and destroyed a music store that bought and sold instruments. Considering claims that rock is dead, I think Skeletor is really Gene Simmons.
- Julie was tricked to give Evil-Lyn, who looked like her dead mother, the Cosmic Key. Nice to see Ghostface evolve his M.O. That's more convincing than just using a voice changer to sound like Sidney Prescott.
- To save his friends, He-Man willingly let himself be Skeletor's slave back in Eternia. Man, what a drag...oh.
THE FINAL HOWL