Masters of the Universe (1987)
Dir. by Gary Goddard
Starring Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella and Courteney Cox
Galactic warrior He-Man and his allies find themselves trapped on modern-day Earth after a battle with their sworn enemy Skeletor on the planet Eternia. They must enlist the help of two Earth teenagers to recover their portal-creating device and return to Eternia before Skeletor can use the power of Castle Greyskull to become a god and rule the universe.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was my absolute favorite Saturday-morning cartoon when I was six or seven years old. I knew every character by name, and had all of their action figures. I don’t recall seeing the live-action adaptation at the time, though given my age that’s not too surprising. I know I saw it well before high school, though, as even then I was aware of its reputation for being a giant turkey of a film.
This movie REALLY wants to be the Star Wars of the mid-80s. It’s got the epic sets, epic galaxy-saving swordfights, epic music….but what it doesn’t have is an epic budget. Or filmmaking talent. But it does try, it really does, to be more than its source material, a cartoon produced for the sole purpose of selling toys. And I’m actually surprised on this rewatch how close it comes to succeeding at its ambitions.
First, the bad. The plot premise is definitely pretty silly overall. Three space warriors, only one of whom has an actual name (they retain Man-at-Arms’s name from the toys/cartoon, which is more of a title than a name), have to suffer through a Star Trek IV-esque fish-out-of-water comedy plot while stuck in suburbia on Earth. I guess they decided that there had to be teen protagonists for the audience to identify with (another nod to Star Wars), even though the cartoon didn’t have them, or Earth for that matter.
It doesn’t help that I can’t watch Dolph Lundgren play a shirtless, sword-wielding warrior named “He-Man” with a straight face. He definitely looks the part of the cartoon hero, but his acting is probably the worst in the film. It also doesn’t help that the script doesn’t give him a whole lot to do during the middle hour of the picture.
The Earthlings are a bit better, played by a pre-fame Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeil, both already looking too old to play teenagers a decade before Friends or Star Trek: Voyager. And James Tolkan pretty much plays the exact same character as he did in Back to the Future, only this time he’s a cop instead of a school principal. There’s also a plot contrivance of Cox’s parents having recently died in a plane crash which feels tacked on solely to provide a way for the villains to trick her into giving them the Cosmic Key, in a scene that is literally, beat for beat, the same as a scene from Spaceballs, even more noticeable for me having watched them back-to-back.
So yeah, the plot is ridiculous, and the acting of most of the leads ranges from so-so to flat out bad. So why, then, did I say that the movie comes close to actually being a success?
Two words: Frank Langella.
His Skeletor is one of the most gloriously over-the-top, scene-chewing villains I’ve ever seen. It’s obvious that he’s having a blast in the role, even under a heavy robe and facial makeup. The opening and closing 15 minutes, which are set on Eternia and feature him much more heavily than the Earth sequences, are head and shoulders above the rest of the movie. I wish the entire thing had been set on Eternia, as I think that the movie would have been much stronger for it and would have played more like something like Willow for me (it even has Billy Barty, the Nelwyn wizard from Willow, in a significant supporting role).
Unfortunately, even if they’d have wanted to they wouldn’t have had the budget. Masters of the Universe was produced by Cannon Films, whose modus operandi was to be an action movie equivalent to Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. They’d option rejected B-movie scripts for pennies, put them into production quickly, and then over-market and over-hype the results hoping to get a huge opening-day gross before people realized that they’d been had.
Most of their movies were made on shoestring budgets, and this one was no different. They spent more than half of the budget on the elaborate Castle Greyskull set, and then completely ran out of money before they could film the climactic swordfight between He-Man and Skeletor. The director had to shoot the ending on his own dime, the weekend before they were going to demolish the set, which is why the whole fight is done without major lighting (though I’d always assumed that it was to hide all of the scenery that Frank Langella had chewed up previously).
So, while this definitely wasn’t a good movie by most definitions, I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I had actually expected to based on my memories of it. I’d say it’s worth a watch, for Frank Langella if nothing else.
-Langella is actually on record as naming Skeletor as one of his favorite roles in his long acting career. Dolph Lundgren, on the other hand, likes to pretend that Masters of the Universe never happened.
-Embarrassing He-Man Related Story Time! When I was around four years old, my mother took me to a movie theater that was playing Pinocchio on a Saturday morning. The theater was (as she tells it) completely full. When Pinocchio gets swallowed by the whale at the end, I jumped up onto the back of my seat, and shouted “I’ll save you, Pinocchio! I have the power!” in my best He-Man voice. She snuck me out of the emergency exit about 20 seconds later.