MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE is a Golan and Globus production starring Dolph Lundgren, but it’s a little more mainstream than that implies because it’s for the children, it’s based on action figures and on a cartoon based on action figures. I was looking for that same authorial voice and unique perspective we saw represented in the TRANSFORMERSes and GI JOE, but it turns out that’s Hasbro, this one is based on the works of Mattel. That’s like mixing up H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. I feel like an idiot.
I guess Cannon was trying to make their version of a STAR WARS type fantasy sci-fi-deal. You can tell that when a character says “You got us here, you Thumerian wurbat, now get us home,” but it was already clear from the opening credits over a starfield and the STAR WARSy themes by Bill Conti. Then the credits explode into a shower of sparks. How could this not be exciting?
The place: the vegetarian planet of Eternia. The battle: for Castle Grayskull, a castle that has a skull on the front, that has now been taken over by a skull-faced villain called Skeletor (Frank Langella, Academy Award nominee for FROST/NIXON). He sits on the throne and has the castle’s on-site sorceress (Christina Pickles) held hostage in a magic bubble. He makes evil declarations to his army of Darth Vadery troopers and his platonic life partner Evil Lynn (THEY LIVE’s Meg Foster), but this brings up an important question. Why did somebody else make a castle shaped like a giant him? You’d think there’d be a backstory about how the castle was taken from him in the first place. Or, since he refers to the others as “the Eternians” he must be from another planet. Maybe he comes from a race of ancient astronauts who all looked like skulls and they built this castle and now he’s reclaiming it for his people.
But I guess if any of that was true he would’ve mentioned it. All he explains is, “I must possess all, or I possess nothing!” Later he’s referred to as “the Lord of Snake Mountain,” so maybe that’s the beef here. If he’s gonna get to have the skeleton castle he should have to give the snake mountain to some sort of a snake-faced man. It’s not fair if he gets both.
There are good guys too. Dolph plays He-Man, a half-naked muscleman. His lifestyle I guess is summed up by the sword in his right hand and the laser pistol in his left. A poser barbarian, maybe. Nobody else seems to be wearing a leather thong on this planet. He has two friends, Duncan (Jon Cypher, VALDEZ IS COMING) and Teela (Chelsea Field, THE LAST BOYSCOUT) who are also warriors, but who wear shirts and pants and stuff.
In order for Skeletor to achieve his goal of possessing everything he has to steal “The Cosmic Key,” a musical laser-cannon-looking contraption invented by a squeaky-voiced goblin dude called Gwildor (Billy Barty). But before Skeletor can get it, Gwildor randomly pushes a bunch of buttons on it, and it causes him, He-Man, Duncan and Teela to warp to another world…
OH MY GOD IT’S EARTH. That’s fuckin crazy because we live on Earth. What are the chances? Skeletor calls us a “primitive and tasteless planet,” but still it’s an honor to be included in this story.
I guess it’s kind of like THOR, because a musclebound warrior with ancient weapons plus magic plus some futuristic technology accidentally gets transported from another world to a small American town where not very many people seem to ever be outside. But instead of falling in love with an earthling He-Man just becomes acquainted with a teenage couple, Julie (Courteney Cox, SCREAM 1-4) and Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill, Star Trek: Voyager). Julie is a waitress whose parents were recently killed in a small plane crash. This is a big day for her because tomorrow she’s leaving town forever. For Kevin it’s a big day because his girlfriend is leaving him and because he’s gonna play keyboards at the school dance. Then they get attacked by mercenaries from space looking for the Cosmic Key.
I always enjoy when mundane daily routine is suddenly invaded by inexplicable mayhem, so there’s a couple laughs here. Before they know anything out of the ordinary is going on here Kevin is doing a sound check in the school gym and he leaves Julie alone there saying, “Don’t let anyone in here except Carl.” So, not Saurod, Blade, Karg and The Beastman, then? ‘Cause that’s who shows up, a bunch of dudes in space armor with knife hands and monster faces and shit. When Carl (the gym teacher, I think?) runs into them he says, “Listen, you kids can’t just come in–”
That’s when Julie gets attacked and saved by He-Man, but Kevin isn’t there, so he gets to have a good moment in his apartment. They need to depict him in his every day life so they have him putting Burger King garbage into his sink (?) and then wiping the counter off. AND SUDDENLY THE BEASTMAN EXPLODES ROARING THROUGH THE DOOR. Like that terrible feeling of an unexpected loud knock on the door from a cop or a fireman. Actually more like a home invasion, but with fur and fangs.
One thing that’s not really covered in the movie, but maybe it’s in the cartoon: who the fuck is He-Man? What is he supposed to be? What does he do? Here he’s just a nice guy with a sword that apparently is magic, but we don’t know why he has it or what it does. He is good at sword fighting and at kicking guys. They treat him like he might be the leader, but leader of what I’m not sure. And actually he doesn’t do that much in this movie. He does save Julie from the mercenaries, but only after a good chunk of the movie where the other characters are exploring Earth and talking about it and then they cut to a couple shots of He-Man just walking around by himself. He doesn’t even have animals to talk to like The Beast Master. In another section of the movie all of them are inside a pink Cadillac for a while, and you just see shots of it driving around. It would be funny if you could see He-Man through the window, but you don’t even get that.
Then at the end he fights Skeletor and knocks him off a precipice. In fact, he doesn’t really knock him off, they just cross swords and then for some reason Skeletor falls.
If you look at the whole battle for the Cosmic Key it seems like both sides are overcomplicating things. Skeletor is trying to get the Key, but Gwildor runs off to Earth with it, so Skeletor sends the mercenaries to get it. When the mercenaries do get it instead of bringing it to Skeletor on Eternia, Skeletor comes to Earth to have a parade, then bring it to Eternia. (Everything must close down by 6 pm in this town, because nobody except the handful of main characters ever see any of this cosmic battle and parade that goes down.)
The whole point of hiding the Key was to stop him from opening up this black hole thing that turns him into Super Skeletor. But then he does get the Key, he does turn into Super Skeletor, but He-Man beats him anyway. So really that whole Earth part of the movie was a completely irrelevant tangent, a pathetic escape attempt that just wasted everybody’s time. They should’ve just given him the Key and beat him and got it over with in 10 minutes.
I guess on the positive side they did meet this teenage girl and use time travel to make her parents not die in a plane crash. But who knows what kind of butterfly effect ripples that will cause? Maybe her parents go on to become double Hitler. The whole matter of the plane crash is pretty weird. Why does Kevin keep a newspaper clipping about it laying around in his apartment? Why does Karg know that he should steal the clipping and carry it around with him? Why does Julie not seem in any way suspicious when her dead mother suddenly shows up and explains that she actually faked her death and is a secret agent and needs her to go steal the space weapon from the alien muscleman? And does Evil Lynn feel like, even though her name is Evil Lynn, that was kinda mean to pull that trick on a kid?
Writer David Odell (SUPERGIRL, THE DARK CRYSTAL) and director Gary Goddard (HERSHEY’S REALLY BIG 3D SHOW, DEEPO’S UNDERWATER 3D WONDERSHOW) may not have had much say in the basic premise, which killed this thing from the beginning. The idea of combining this fantasy world with small town America is just dumb. Imagine if instead of STAR WARS George Lucas had made a movie about Luke, Han, Chewie and Leia getting zapped to earth to befriend some teens, and the local police have to fight storm troopers and Darth Vader. I don’t know about you but I’m against it.
There’s alot of hacky humor about how Earthlings react to Eternian shit. When Kevin finds the Cosmic Key he immediately says “This is one of these new Japanese synthesizers.” Then he carries it around and “plays” it. I thought that “assuming that advanced technology must be Japanese” thing had happened in some other ’80s movie, but then I realized I was thinking of the first TRANSFORMERS.
The best is Detective Lubic (BACK TO THE FUTURE principal James Tolkan), the cop who sees He-Man and friends and keeps trying to arrest them. He explains all these battling alien warriors are a “loony fringe group” or “cultists” and says “I was in Korea. I never saw anything like this,” and “I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone or something!” but after he goes to Eternia for a brief 5-10 minute skirmish he decides on the spot just to stay there to live for now on. In the skull-shaped castle, possibly.
There are some pretty cool effects in the movie. When He-Man is flying around on a little water ski type thing it’s stop motion and if you look closely you can see that he’s pretty much posed like a He-Man action figure. It all looks really nice on blu-ray. There’s one close-up of Skeletor that made me laugh because it’s so clear that his nose is painted on black, not an actual hole. They didn’t know about hi-def when they shot this.
I also feel kinda bad for them that they had to make sense out of Skeletor. I think the cartoon guy just has an actual skull for a head, no eyes or anything. They didn’t know how to do that so they have latex makeup on Langella, but what is he? He has eyes, not sockets, but his nose looks like a nose hole. But it looks like skin, not bone. I don’t know what he is. And unfortunately Langella is not as cool as he is as Dracula. He’s doing an “evil” voice that’s not as cool as his normal one.
This is one of these movies from the ’80s that is pretty much all around bad, except for all the work in designing and building everything, but somehow the combination of effort and misguidedness makes it interesting enough to dig up and enjoy every once in a blue moon.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.