There are certain movies from your childhood that you’ll always love: E.T., Back To The Future, Superman II, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the original Halloween and of course, the first Star Wars trilogy.
Masters Of The Universe is not one of those movies.
Back in the 80s, I was a huge fan of the cartoon show. I never missed an episode. Naturally, I also had dozens of action figures, tiny, plastic, sometimes flexible recreations of the numerous colourful characters featured prominently in the series. Guys like Clawful (half man, half lobster), Cyclone (you could spin the top half of him around), Leech (a green monster with suction cup hands who sprayed water out of his mouth), Two-Bad (a two-headed monster) and plenty more.
When I heard a live-action feature of the show was coming out, I was thrilled. (I don’t remember why I didn’t see The Secret Of The Sword, the animated feature.) I had to go see it in the theatre. That happened shortly after the film’s cinematic debut in August 1987. At the time, I wasn’t exactly super critical. I enjoyed it. The following year when it hit home video, my dad rented it and I enjoyed it a second time. Bare in mind, I was 12 and didn’t believe pro wrestling was a work.
Nearly 30 years later, watching Masters Of The Universe again (this time on Blu-ray) as a grown man in his early 40s, I’m wondering what I found so appealing. Good Lord, it hasn’t aged well.
In retrospect, it was not a good idea to cast Dolph Lundgren as He-Man, the hero of the original series. He looks ridiculous in his skimpy outfit and cape, clearly designed to show off his pecs. His delivery of dialogue is so stiff it’s noticeable. (Lundgren had yet to master English in his thick Swedish accent.)
His arch nemesis, Skeletor (Frank Langella), is a low-rent Emperor Palpatine with a skull for a face. He even has his own version of stormtroopers. The only difference being their uniform is black, not white. Langella does his best to work up some heel heat but I never hated him. No matter how times he pounds that ram-headed staff on the floor I never felt intimidated. I also kept wondering why he doesn’t have any skin. (Did the cartoon ever explain this? I don’t remember. It’s been a while, eh?)
At the start of the film, we learn that Castle Greyskull (which doesn’t look all that impressive today) has been taken over by Skeletor and his army after a war with the people of Eternia. He’s taken the Sorceress (Christina Pickles wearing a silly-looking crystal headpiece) hostage and put her under a spell which will age her rapidly and drain her completely of her power.
Skeletor wants to be, wait for it, master of the universe. (Kinda funny this was released the same year as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, a far superior work.) In order to achieve this goal he needs two things: He-Man’s sword (think Excalibur) and The Cosmic Key. What the hell is a Cosmic Key? It’s a time travelling device that looks like an electronic pineapple. You play it like a keyboard (this is an 80s movie, remember) and it opens up a cheap special effect that allows you to go wherever you want to at any point in time.
Skeletor thinks he has the only one but Gwildor (Billy Barty in heavy make-up), a troll that reminded me of the late Oliver Humperdink, the inventor of The Cosmic Key, has a spare. After he’s rescued by He-Man, Man-At-Arms (Jon Cypher), and his daughter Teela (Chelsea Field), he randomly selects planet Earth as a make-do location after an early encounter with Skeletor’s occupying army at Greyskull.
They end up somewhere in the United States (we never know the exact location but I’m guessing California where the film was shot) where they eventually encounter a teen couple in crisis. Julie (a very young Courtney Cox) is an orphan who wants to make a fresh start in a new city without her musician boyfriend Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill) even though they’re both still in love with each other. (That makes sense.) Her parents died in an unexplained plane crash a year ago. She’s a day away from boarding her own commercial flight.
When He-Man and his pals arrive, they lose The Cosmic Key. Kevin spots it in a crater in a local cemetery and ultimately comes to believe it’s some kind of far out keyboard. (He just so happens to play keyboards in his high school band. Convenience!) Curious, he leaves Julie behind in their high school gym (where the decorations for prom are already set up) to take the device to a friend who runs a local music shop. (Why doesn’t he take her with him?)
Because he was tinkering with it, Skeletor now knows where He-Man and company escaped to. (Does he secretly work for the NSA?) In a scene overly reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back, old skull face lines up a small group of baddies at occupied Greyskull and instructs them to retrieve the key and capture He-Man alive. (Like the CIA, he loves to torture his prisoners.) They’re not exactly competent.
Meanwhile, the passing commotion outside the music shop leads Kevin back to his high school where he encounters uptight cop Lubic (James Tolkin who hated “slackers” like Marty McFly in Back To The Future) who informs him that his girlfriend is MIA. That’s a good thing because of the fire now extinguished.
Masters Of The Universe lurches from scenes like this to a number of pitiful action sequences. None of them contain any tension, suspense, cleverness or conviction. (Despite seeing it a couple of times as a pre-teen, I barely remembered much of it. Not a good sign.) Even when characters start flying around on circular platforms, there is no awe. Also, I was struck by how sparsely populated this unknown American city is. The only people who seem to notice all the unusual commotion going on are the characters themselves.
Inevitably, everything boils down to a final sword fight between He-Man and Skeletor (what’s with the strange lighting?) which is a far cry indeed from Luke Skywalker’s two memorable light saber showdowns with his father. When I saw the movie in the theatre, I’m pretty sure I left as the end titles played. It wasn’t until I saw the movie again on tape that I watched right to the end where I saw that credit cookie for the first time. I’m amazed James Cameron didn’t sue.
Masters Of The Universe is as derivative as it gets. Even the title music by Rocky composer Bill Conti is unoriginal. It blatantly rips off John Williams’ soaring Superman anthem. Hell, they even do the opening credits in a similar way.
But the movie does deserve some praise for its unexpected feminism. Yes, Courtney Cox is pretty much a naïve damsel in distress (no, that’s not your mother, dummy) and her imprisoned Friends mom is reduced to telling the villain he won’t succeed but you can’t say the same for Teela or Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster and her hypnotic eyes), Skeletor’s number two. As the Greyskull occupation starts falling apart, Evil-Lyn (now there’s a good pun for ya) is smart enough not to go down with the sinking ship. You could argue she’s the most intelligent character in the film. She has an excellent bullshit detector. As for Teela, as they say in wrestling, she’s one of the boys. Her abilities are never questioned.
Cannon Films, the distributor of this mess, were actually planning a sequel which would’ve excited my 12-year-old self. Today, there are two reasons I’m glad it never happened: MOTU bombed and the company went out of business. That’s what you get for using junk bonds to make junk movies.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 31, 2016