OF THE UNIVERSE (1987)
Director: Gary Goddard
Numerous times here at Sutton At The Movies, I've stated my belief that the best time to be a kid was during the 1980s. So many classic cartoons and toys were released during the decade, many of which modern shows can't hold a candle to. And unlike nowadays, there were no clear lines in the 1980s. Were the toys back then created to promote the cartoons, or were the cartoons created to promote the toys? The lines between source material and its advertisement were awfully blurred, primarily due to the efforts of legendary toy company Hasbro. Two of Hasbro's most notable creations, G.I. Joe and Transformers, both started as super-successful lines of action figures that reached new heights of popularity in the 1980s when their respective cartoons began airing on television. Similarly, rival company Mattel jumped into the same game when it created one of my favorite toy lines from the era, the Masters of the Universe. Initially launched in 1981, the action figures branched out into comic books before arriving on television in animated form in the fall of 1983. And as a youngster, I was completely caught up in it. I was hooked on the cartoon, and I had to have all the toys so I could enact my own epic battles for Castle Grayskull. (I actually still have all the toys in my attic, believe it or not.) But while the fad did eventually cool off after a few years, its popularity endured long enough for a live-action Masters of the Universe movie to hit theaters in 1987. Unfortunately, the end result was a low-budget affair that essentially served as the death knell for the franchise.
The mythical land of Eternia has been thrown into chaos. Using a powerful musical artifact known as "the cosmic key," merciless sorcerer Skeletor (Frank Langella) has seized Castle Grayskull, an immense fortress that hosts a wealth of great power. It is this power that he wishes to harness, and thus grant himself godlike abilities that would render him unstoppable. Skeletor has also taken the castle's powerful Sorceress (Christina Pickles) hostage, channeling her essence into his own to augment his own magical strength. However, his occupation of Castle Grayskull will not go unopposed. A great hero known as He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) opposes him, and with fellow resistance fighters Man-At-War (John Cypher) and Teela (Chelsea Field) at his side, he seeks to end Skeletor's occupation of the castle and thwart his plans for Eternia.
With the cosmic key's designer, a dwarf named Gwildor (Billy Barty), assisting them, He-Man, Man-At-Arms, and Teela break into Castle Grayskull and attempt to free the Sorceress. But before they can be overwhelmed by Skeletor's forces, Gwildor uses a prototype of the cosmic key to randomly open a portal that allows them to escape. And just where do they end up? Modern-day Earth, of all places. The key is lost upon arrival, soon found by teenagers Julie (Courteney Cox) and Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill). As He-Man and his group frantically search for the key, Skeletor's forces have made their way to Earth intending to destroy anyone who gets in their way.
I wrote in the opening paragraph that Masters of the Universe: The Movie essentially killed the entire He-Man craze in one fell swoop. And I don't believe there was much hyperbole in that statement. To put it simply, this movie is a total mess from start to finish. Its paltry seventeen million dollar budget afforded the production few luxuries, but those involved seemed like they were uninterested in compensating. The movie suffers from poor storytelling, inconsistent acting, and really bad special effects. I really doubt that even the most devoted He-Man fan will be able to defend it. It's that shoddy.
The direction by Gary Goddard is about what you'd expect from a low-budget action movie from the '80s; it isn't anything remarkable, and it doesn't bring anything to the table that hasn't already been put there by a million other movies that did it a lot better. And really, outside of the small handful of elements the movie has taken from the source material, there's really nothing that stands out to separate Goddard's work from all the other movies like this. And even then, his work seems substandard, primarily due to the crummy special effects, lousy and unconvincing matte paintings, and makeup effects that look like it could have been put together by any random person off the street. It doesn't help anything that Bill Conti's music is pretty unoriginal, sounding more like a cheap ripoff of John Williams's music from Star Wars and Superman than anything else. How does an Oscar-winner who composed the music for movies like Rocky and The Karate Kid end up making music that sounds like this?
What really kills the movie, however, is the dreadfully bad writing by Supergirl scribe David Odell. Odell's script is just plain awful from start to finish. The dialogue is mediocre beyond words and the characters have an average IQ that you could count on one hand, but that isn't even the worst of it. It's been nearly two decades since I've seen the original cartoons, but from what I can recall, every story concerning He-Man and his crew took place in Eternia. But lo and behold, the movie spends nearly fifty-five minutes of its 105-minute running time here on Earth. Yeah, a little less than half the movie is in the franchise's usual backdrop. I understand why the change in setting was made, as the budget may not have allowed them to build any sets outside of Gwildor's house and Castle Grayskull. But putting the movie on Earth just seems lazy. Speaking of lazy, here's something I don't get. Skeletor's forces cause all kinds of havoc in whatever town the movie is supposed to be taking place in. But outside of one nosy cop played by James Tolken, you don't really see anybody else getting involved. You'd think the sight of a giant half-naked bodybuilder waging war with a small army of circus freaks would get the attention of a few townspeople. But nope, they happened to land in the middle of a ghost town. Either the residents of this particular town couldn't be bothered with it, or the production just couldn't afford to hire extras.
Lastly is the actors, whose performances vary (although none of them are helped by the weak material). The saddest part is that Dolph Lundgren is supposed to be the savior of Eternia, but he's almost a non-factor until the end of the movie. Why would they reduce the star of the show to what is essentially a supporting role? For the majority of the flick, He-Man never really seems like the superhero that he's supposed to be, and it's reflected in the amazing lack of dialogue that Lundgren has. He has maybe ten lines in the whole thing, and his delivery on half of them feels really wooden. Then there's Frank Langella as our villain. Langella's performance is inconsistent; he's intimidating at times, over-the-top at others, and with a few moments thrown in that makes it seem as if Langella would rather be anywhere else than making this movie. If that's the case, then maybe, with twenty years of hindsight, he's happy that all that ugly makeup made him completely unrecognizable.
I can't really critique the cast without referencing the movie's answer to the Wonder Twins, Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill. The characters are pretty much useless and painfully idiotic, but Cox (in her first film role) and McNeill are actually not all that bad. These aren't performances that anyone will ever remember them for, but they're definitely likeable, so I can't complain. The rest of the cast simply seems to be spinning their wheels, not really doing anything of note. And just to show they're not really trying, it got the feeling that James Tolken is playing nearly the same character that he played in Back to the Future two years prior. I guess if you've got a formula for success, why deviate from it? John Cypher and Chelsea Field do make a decent go of it as well, but I doubt that either of their performances will be showing up on their career highlight reels. And I just have to point out the absolutely worst offender in the cast: Billy Barty. Barty's performance is downright annoying, and his character (a bad replacement for regular franchise supporting character Orko) seems to be what gave George Lucas the inspiration for Jar Jar Binks.
Masters of the Universe was a critical failure and a box office flop, and for good reason. The movie feels like a cheap attempt to squeeze what few remaining dollars were left in a franchise whose torch was about to be passed to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It never even really comes across as a proper Masters of the Universe movie. It feels more like they just took Castle Grayskull and a couple of important characters and stuck them into a plot cobbled together from other, more successful motion pictures. And since when did He-Man or any other characters in the franchise ever use laser guns? I remember there only being swords and sorcery. But I guess a goofy movie like this is to be expected when it's made by Cannon Films and features Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus as the producers. What other kind of movie would we be getting from the people that brought us such classics as Alien From L.A., Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo? But while some look back on this flick as a nostalgic reminder of their childhood, all I can see is what amounts to a wasted opportunity to make a great movie.
Final Rating: **