Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Films of 1987: Masters of the Universe

Masters of the Universe (1987) is a silver screen fantasy based on the Mattel toy-line and Filmation cartoon TV series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983 – 1985). 

Although the film is decidedly a low-budget one, and it takes some liberties with the “mythos” of the TV series established at the time, the Gary Goddard movie also boasts the underrated benefit of directness

Uniformly, the movie lacks pretension or distraction, eschews the requisite “angst” and obligatory three hour running time of most modern fantasy films, and generally opts for straight-forward action over camp.

While it’s true that Masters of the Universe doesn’t boast much in terms of narrative or thematic depth, it also moves fast enough-- and with enough clarity -- that you don’t really mind.

Masters of the Universe depicts its “fish-out-of-water” story, set on Earth, with a kind of blunt-faced “move along” verve, and that is a welcome approach. For example, you might start to ask questions about why a man in a loin cloth and cape, wielding a sword, is teamed up with high-tech soldiers in futuristic armor.  But by the time you enunciate the interrogative, the movie has moved on to its next set-piece.

Similarly, Masters of the Universe’s production design, make-up (by William Stout) and costumes are actually all pretty strong, and -- per the director’s intent -- seem to directly imply a Jack Kirby-esque cosmos. If you are a fan of Kirby (as I am…), some of the visual and thematic touches here seem to recall his impressive illustrations.

Perhaps Masters of the Universe’s greatest deficit is Dolph Lundgren’s central performance as He-Man. Lundgren looks great, obviously, but resolutely fails to imbue He-Man with any color, shading or personality. 

This big “blank” spot at the center of the action takes away from the film’s low budget virtues and charm.

Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t the world’s greatest actor either, but nonetheless he was able to imbue his Conan with a sense of humor, cunning, and personal charisma. It’s not that you need a great actor for this kind of fantasy role it’s that we need to know who He-Man is, and why he fights. You need someone who projects a kind of inner intelligence or inner life, and Lundgren just doesn’t transmit it in this case.

Masters of the Universe comes from Cannon Films, the house which pretty much put the final nail in the coffin of the Superman movie franchise with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1986).  Masters of the Universe is a much better, coherent film than that sad, sad effort.

This movie fails to emerge, perhaps, as a widely acknowledged cult classic simply because the story is limited somewhat by the budget, and also by the perimeters of its “fish out of water” scenario.  The fish out of water film was all the rage in the mid-1980s but today seems abundantly less interesting than the (expensive) possibilities of an Eternia-based epic.

I prefer not to use the term “guilty pleasure” because if you like something, and it gives you joy, there’s no reason to feel embarrassed by it.

Masters of the Universe lacks the rollicking confidence and opulence of Flash Gordon (1980), and the sheer genius and imagination of writer David Odell’s other fantasy, The Dark Crystal (1982), but there’s nonetheless a cheeky, ask-no-questions jauntiness or zeal about the movie.    

If you allow yourself to “key” in on that note, to reference the film’s musical McGuffin, then Masters of the Universe is sort of a good old fashioned, straight-up fun B-movie.

On distant Eternia, the villainous Skeletor (Frank Langella) nearly succeeds in overthrowing the peaceful denizens of the planet, and he seizes Castle Grayskull. Skeletor also captures the kindly Sorceress (Christina Pickles), hoping to absorb her mystical powers and combine them with his own at the coming moonrise, when the “eye” of Grayskull opens.

Meanwhile, the hero of Eternia, He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) along with his friends, Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher) and Teela (Chelsea Field) encounter a troll-like being, the locksmith and inventor Gwildor (Billy Barty).

Gwildor admits that Skeletor achieved his advantage in battle with a cosmic key that Gwildor made, which can open doorways to any location in the universe. The good news is that Gwildor possesses a second key, and he can use it to transport He-Man and his colleagues inside Grayskull.

Unfortunately, the heroes are not able to save the Sorceress, and retreat into another spatial portal, one which takes them to…Earth.  

Once there on that primitive world, they lose the cosmic key…the only way back to Eternia.

Soon, however, He-Man befriends young Julie (Courteney Cox) and her boyfriend Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill).  These American teenagers have found the cosmic key and are willing to help He-Man get back home.

But Skeletor and his minion Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster) have already sent monstrous mercenaries like Beast Man through the portal to re-acquire the key…

I must confess that my memories of Masters of the Universe’s visuals were flat out wrong.

I remember seeing the film on VHS -- and perhaps on broadcast TV -- in the late 1980s. My memories are that the film appeared dark, muddy, brown and grainy. The print I saw twenty-something years ago looked…lame.

By contrast, the DVD version I watched this weekend to prep this review looked very vivid. The film’s costumes, make-up and sets are all glittering, colorful, and bright. This fact alone makes Masters of the Universe look a lot less “low-budget” than I erroneously remembered it.

While it’s true that we only see one chamber in all of massive Castle Grayskull, it is nonetheless quite a spectacular and vast one.  

Similarly, Skeletor, his minions and shock-troopers all appear pretty menacing, too, and the optical effects involving lasers, mini-wormholes, blazing swords and the like are likewise satisfactory.  The aforementioned Superman IV barely coheres in terms of special effects presentation, production values and editing.  By comparison, Masters of the Universe looks like a masterpiece.

It’s apparent, of course, that limitations were imposed by the film’s budget; limitations which, I suspect result in this mostly earthbound story, which merely book-ends on Eternia.

The story of He-Man on planet Earth is what is often termed a fish-out-of-water story, and examples from the mid-1980s include Back to the Future (1985), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), and Crocodile Dundee (1986].

Like Masters of the Universe, all these films feature protagonists encountering “alien” cultures, or confusing social mores.  The heroes are strangers in a strange land, essentially, combating their ignorance of local customs as well as attempting to complete a mission. 

Unlike those other three films, however, Masters of the Universe doesn’t tread deeply at all into cross-culture conflict, and characters from different worlds hardly seem to ask questions of one another at all. 

Instead, it’s all just a set up for action and more action. The film would have been cleverer if had featured some direct and humorous comparisons between Eternia and Earth, alas. The fish-out-of-water scenario just isn’t used to its maximum efficiency, and this fact reinforces the notion that the setting was, largely, a matter not of creative choice, but of economy.

If humor and social commentary are slighted, some of the visuals remain powerful. 

The moment when Skeletor glides down a small-town U.S.A. Main Street on his clam-shell battle skiff is actually pretty accomplished and resonant.  

Menacing shock-troopers surround him during this night-time incursion, and there’s the legitimate feel of an invasion from another reality. There’s very little that plays as fake or phony about this moment.

Straight-faced and in many scenes lacking self-awareness, Masters of the Universe occasionally showcases a kind of innocent charm.  For example, Frank Langella is terrific as Skeletor and he delivers with panache some subtly amusing lines. 

When waiting for He-Man to appear, for instance, Langella throws away the line “I expect him at any moment,” an under-the-radar reminder that in the (highly-repetitive…) cartoons, Skeletor and He-Man clash repeatedly, and eternally without a clear-cut victor.  

But they always end up facing each other…again. And always just as Skeletor’s plans are finally about to come to fruition.

I also enjoyed Skeletor’s description of Earth as “a primitive and tasteless planet.”

This from a guy with an expressive skull for a face and garbed in a black robe…

In terms of the aforementioned cartoon, Masters of the Universe omits some of the details of the Filmation series. There is no Battle Cat here, alas, and that represents a significant absence. 

On the other hand, there’s also no Orko in the film.

The most memorable image from the Filmation cartoon may be Prince Adam raising his sword and declaring (with reverb): “By the Power of Grayskull…I have the POWER!”

The movie provides audiences a variation on that trademark moment, and it works well within the movie’s context, without being annoying, cheesy or campy. 

Significantly, He-Man never transforms here into his alter-ego of the TV series, “Prince Adam.” 

From a certain perspective, thee absences of Battle Cat or Prince Adam can be easily rationalized away.  In Masters of the Universe, we are treated to a very time-specific tale in which He-Man and his closest friends are on the run, retreating from a surprise attack.

So it’s very possible that there was no time for him to turn into Prince Adam or wrangle Cringer/Battle Cat.

But oppositely, He-Man is such a thin character on paper and on the stage here, that any deepening of him – even in a trite Clark Kent/Superman mode -- would have at least added something to his personality.

The problem with Lundgren’s He Man is that the movie gives us no understanding of his history, personal history, or personality.

Is He-Man a battle-hardened hero?

A knight driven by duty and honor? 

An aristocrat or noble playing at war but becoming a real warrior? 

A cocky superhero?

Lundgren could have selected any approach, from above and tried to bring some depth or definition to the character. Admittedly, the script doesn’t help him much. But nor does his bland, vacant performance help the film overall.

I suppose a key reason to dislike Masters of the Universe is its 1980s approach to fantasy. Here, we get teenagers with mullets, an adventure on Earth, and a relatively un-nuanced battle between good and evil.

There are no epic army clashes, and no radical otherworldly vistas (like we see in Thor: The Dark World [2013]) for instance. Instead, Masters of the Universe gives us a few scuffles, and a view or two of old, familiar Vasquez Rocks.

But unlike the recent Thor film -- which gets bogged down in the technical details of its story and fails to generate any legitimate human emotion, even when Asgard’s matriarch dies -- Masters of the Universe is refreshingly linear, and generously unspoiled by delusions of grandeur. Even with all its deficits, Masters of the Universe, at least, didn’t bore me to death.

On a personal note, I also really dig the Jack Kirby-esque visuals in this 1987 film. 

Take a look at the golden helmet Skeletor wears during the film’s final battle, for one example of this aesthetic. It seems piped in directly from the icon’s Fourth World saga. 

Again, I don’t want to keep making comparisons to Thor: The Dark World, but there really is something to be said for a real life, substantial costume, over CGI armor and the like. There’s obviously a strong Kirby ethos in Dark World, but something about the weight of Skeletor’s helmet here -- the gold and the horns -- that captures a Kirby influence more profoundly or at least more vividly, in my opinion.

Finally, if you believe that movies are like Skeletor’s stated philosophy in the in film -- “I must possess all, or I possess nothing” -- Masters of the Universe might be viewed as a misguided, unfaithful, and low-budget adaptation of a once-popular property.

Like Courtney Cox’s character in the film, you might wish “you could change things…”  

But this He-Man -- while undeniably flawed and small-potatoes by today’s world-exploding, apocalyptic CGI movie standard -- still possesses “the power” to entertain.


  1. I didn't see this film until just a few years ago, but I think it has merit (much more than I think it got credit for upon release), and I appreciate you highlighting some of those positives in the review. I definitely think any film with Frank Langella and Meg Foster leading the baddies has some clear strengths, and Jon Cypher as Man-at-Arms is good in an interesting casting choice. The film was definitely hurt by its low budget, but it stands up as better--and more fun--than Superman IV, which, as you point out, comes from the same company and era. I am sorry they didn't have Battle Cat (though that might not have been that good on their budget), but I was fine with no Prince Adam--the "meek prince" route on the Filmation series always felt contrived to me (and was one of the more derivative parts of the cartoon), so I was okay with a He-Man who was all warrior.

  2. Anonymous11:23 AM

    Pretty terrible movie. I have wondered how Dolph was directed in it, as he generally just isn't that bland.

    As for the fish out of water deal, I put it in the same class as Beastmaster 2. It seems pretty obvious that it's just a way to make money without having to put forth as much effort on sets and the like.

    I may have to watch it again sometime, as I really don't remember much action at all.

    But not every fish out of water movie is going to be Les Visiteurs.