Retro Review: Masters of the Universe (1987)
Retro Review: Masters of the Universe.
Masters of the Universe is director Gary Goddard’s theatrical take on Mattel’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe line of toys and cartoons. Now, due to recent Bay travesties, the idea of a movie inspired by a toy line should send you running for the exit, screaming obscenities at whichever movie studio is attempting to urinate on your childhood (in this case, the studio is our old friends Golan and Globus, of Supergirl infamy), yet Masters of the Universe deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Sure the script was written by the same guy who did Supergirl…but that guy also did The Dark Crystal. Gary Goddard never directed a movie before or after MotU, but was on record as wanting to make a movie inspired by great comic book stories like New Gods by Jack Kirby, going so far as to try to get Kirby hired with creative control, but the studio nixed it. Frank Langella who plays Skeletor went on to play Richard Nixon in the excellent Frost/Nixon. Dolph Lundgren must break you… you know, in a good way. And the movie has a young Courtney Cox, and the always entertaining James Tolkan (as what else, an authority figure with an attitude problem.) So let’s wash the taste of Michael Bay out of our mouth, buy some popcorn, and take a look at Masters of the Universe.
A Universe Unlike Our Own
The story of MotU is given succinctly by the narration, and doesn’t require knowledge of the toys or cartoons. Similar to the tower in The Dark Crystal, Castle Grayskull sits at the center of a nexus of cosmic power on Eternia, keeping the universe balanced and ordered. A benevolent sorceress oversees the normal unfolding of events from Grayskull, and He-Man and his companions protect both her and the castle. It’s not stated, but being the 80’s, the job probably came with health and benefits. At the very least gym privileges.
“He’s got muscles on his muscles for crying out loud.”
At the outset of the film, He-Man’s arch rival Skeletor, has finally ended the stalemate of good vs. evil by breaching the castles defenses and imprisoning the sorceress. When a conjunction of celestial bodies occurs in a few days, Skeletor will take possession of all of the powers of the castle. He-Man fights a guerrilla campaign with his few remaining companions, but is unable to retake the castle. He manages to rescue a creature named Gwildor, played by the famous Billy Barty but with too much focus on comedy relief. Gwildor is a scientist and inventor, who created a teleportation device- the Cosmic Key- based on musical tones, which Skeletor stole in order to bypass the castle’s security. Gwildor leads the companions into Grayskull, but they are surrounded by Skeletor’s troops, and must make an emergency escape via the Cosmic Key, which randomly strands the heroes in 1980’s California on our Earth. The key is lost, human companions are met, Skeletor attempts to retake the key and capture He-Man, and James Tolkan establishes that 1. He really hates slackers. 2. Nobody takes pot-shots at Lubic! Eventually the heroes return to Eternia in order to free He-Man and confront a newly empowered Skeletor.
“If you’ve seen the cartoon, yep, he’s saying his catchphrase. You’re boned Skeletor. He He.”
Jesters or Masters?
Despite being critically panned and a box office flop, I feel this movie is unfairly trashed. The story is fairly good as far as fantasy is concerned, showing quite a few similarities to The Dark Crystal (1982) and Dune (1984): a coup by the powerful evil forces leave a young hero to attempt a daring return to his rightful place of power by storming a castle. The level of special effects (with the exception of an extended hover disc air fight through city streets that Highlander II goes on to steal and not improve) are impressive for a 22 million budget. The costumes are good, and the villains, while mostly new creatures instead of fan favorites, look as good as 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. The action is good in most places, though strangely the blaster fights are much better than the iconic sword fights, probably due to costumes limiting mobility. The acting is uneven, with most performances just so-so, a few cringe worthy moments from Man-At-Arms and Gwildor for laughs, and some actual believable work from Lundgren when protecting the two teens on Earth who find the key, and some really great villainous scenery chomping by Langella who plays Skeletor with Shakespearean gusto.
The movie does have flaws: after the introduction to the story and the action scenes on Eternia, the next half hour on Earth is tedious and dry, spending way too much time setting up the two human characters’ stories. Billy Barty is over-used as a running gag, the head of Skeletor’s mercenaries is too simpering and worthless, and Evil-Lyn is mostly wasted as Skeletor’s top general. Late in the movie, a ridiculous scene involving a keyboard and the Cosmic Key is groan inducing in its attempt to pander to teen culture. The sword fights are a let down, especially compared to other sci-fi fantasy like Krull, Highlander, and The Beast Master. The side tracked story on Earth seems like it could have been lost and we would have ended up with a tight, action movie all set in the He-Man universe.
The Nexus of Time
This movie is for me a surprise to revisit. I anticipated I would enjoy it in the same manner as re-watching Zardoz, the simple joy of watching something so bad it ends up being good. But I was shocked to find myself actually enjoying the movie itself, and wondering why it is remembered as such a failure, despite it feeling like it belongs in the same sentence as many of the 80’s beloved sci-fi fantasy adventures. Maybe time will rehabilitate this movie’s reputation, and perhaps we can learn to treasure adaptations like Masters of the Universe before Hollywood comes along and makes a new one, starring Shia Labeouf.
“By the Power of Grayskull, I…suck. I still suck.”