The Film: Masters of the Universe (1987)
The Principals: Director: Gary Goddard, Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Meg Foster, Chelsea Field, Billy Barty, Courteney Cox, Robert Duncan McNeill, Jon Cypher, James Tolkan, Christina Pickles, Anthony De Longis
The Premise: Based on the Mattel toy line of the same name, this sword and sorcery…and laser gun fantasy adaptation explores the adventures of He-Man (Lundgren), a warrior on the planet Eternia, as he fights the forces of evil headed up by the skull-faced sorcerer Skeletor (Langella). When the Eternian forces are overwhelmed by Skeletor’s army via a cosmic key invented by Gwildor (Barty) that effects teleportation over space and time, He-Man and his comrades, Man-At-Arms (Cypher) and Teela (Field) and Gwildor flee to Earth via another key. They ally themselves with teenagers Julie Winston (Cox) and Kevin Corrigan (McNeill), who find the key in a cemetery. With Skeletor’s forces hot on their trail, He-Man and his friends must reclaim their key in order to return to Eternia to mount a counteroffensive and also protect the Earthlings from Skeletor’s tyranny.
Is It Good: It’s awful. Lifeless, without even a campy charm to it. Badly written, badly directed, badly acted, everything just…badly. I’m a kid of the era in which it was made, yet like Krull, I’d never made the acquaintance of Masters until recently. I’d of course heard it was bad, but thought maybe it at least had the classic “so bad it’s good” vibe going for it. Nope. This is a slog to get through, with almost no redeeming qualities. The only people who are even remotely going to like this movie are those who are nostalgia-goggling it. And I can’t imagine there’s even many of those. Lundgren wasn’t even allowed to bring a camp element to it, for which he definitely has ability. He sure as shit was in shape for the part, though. Little wonder that director Gary Goddard did this one film and then shuffled off into TV with the equally awful Captain Power the same year.
The basic breakdown is that He-Man and his allies are on the run on Eternia from Skeletor and his merry band, which includes Evil-Lyn, in yet another life-suckingly droll performance by Meg Foster. I curious as to how many extras and stunt people that wouldn’t be missed she’s succubused in her time. There’s also Beast Man (Tony Carroll), Blade (Anthony De Longis), and Karg (Robert Towers). Skeletor got the drop in them with one of Gwildor’s cosmic keys and since they’re ass out, He-Man and the others dial a portal to Earth with another key. Skeletor sends his hounds after them, and sits back in his easy chair awaiting reports while sucking the life force from the Sorceress (Pickles) to eventually become lord of Castle Grayskull and Master of the Universe. Gwildor’s key is found by Julie and Kevin, who are planning a breakup as Julie is moving away in the aftermath of her parents’ deaths in a plane crash.
There’s the standard alien fish-out-of-water shtick with the Eternians (although thankfully not as much as one might expect), a bunch of swo0rd and laser battles and a scramble for the key, which seems to find its way into the hands of someone who hasn’t seen the roving aliens blowing shit up all over town until it’s too late. James Tolkan gets in on the action as Det. Lubic, trying to figure out who set fire to the school (that’d be the aliens he keeps missing) and made Julie disappear (ditto). The battles are hackneyed, as Skeletor’s stormtroopers are more inept than Darth Helmet’s crack soldiers. There’s roughly five hundred of the damn things in the movie and I’m pretty sure He-Man, Teela and Man-At-Arms kill them all by themselves. In two particular scenes, one in music store about the size of a studio apartment and another in a climactic battle on Eternia where they’re completely surrounded, He-Man and his pals are busting straight up laser on them fools. Goddard’s complete lack of ability to stage any kind of meaningful or even believable laser battle is comical. Even a flying disc battle and chase – which I’m pretty sure is pointless – can’t save the laughably bad action.
As for Cox’s Julie and McNeill’s Kevin, you’re pretty much hoping they’ll be taken out by a stray laser blast. Even if its friendly fire laser. Especially after Julie falls for the old give-the-cosmic-key-to-the-evil-sorceress-posing-as-dead-mom gag. And I wonder if Chelsea Field filed a complaint with SAG-AFTRA for having to do action scenes in butt floss. I love Langella, but even he couldn’t save this thing. Skeletor has to be just about the laziest cosmic sorcerer villain in movie history (except for Krull’s fisheye Creature From the Black Lagoon baddie). I think he’s out of his chair a total of three minutes. He’s armchair quarterbacking this whole evil plot. I’m also trying to figure out why becoming master of the universe turns him into a bad Bollywood Vishnu. Finally, James Tolkan was totally cashing in his Strickland fame. I half expected him to say “Eat Laser, Slackers!” on several occasions.
On a side note, I was fairly acquainted with the various He-Man cartoons as a lad. I’m wondering why the general need by the filmmakers to toss in characters never seen in the cartoon? Why Gwildor and not Orko et al? From a product recognition standpoint, where’s the logic? But then again, looking for logic in this turd is pointless. Good journey.
Random Anecdotes: The planned sequel was abandoned after Cannon refused to pay Mattel’s licensing fees. And also, the sets and some costumes were recycled on Van Damme’s Cyborg.
Cinematic Soulmates: Krull