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Should I Watch..? 'Masters of the Universe'

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

Masters of the Universe is a sci-fi fantasy movie released in 1987 and is based around the line of toys produced by Mattel. Directed by debutant Gary Goddard, the film follows the rebel forces of Eternia battling the malevolent dictator Skeletor suddenly displaced across the galaxy to our planet. The film stars Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Meg Foster, a pre-fame Courtney Cox, Robert Duncan McNeil, Billy Barty and James Tolkan. The film is based on the toys and not the animated TV series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe which ran between 1983 and 1985. Released to a hostile critical reception, the film failed to find an audience and bombed at the box office with domestic earnings of just $17.3 million; it ultimately helped to bankrupt its distributors Cannon Films a few years later. In the years since, however, the film has become hailed as a cult classic with Langella's portrayal of Skeletor popular among fans.

Forgettable

Trailer

What's it about?

On the distant planet of Eternia, the militant forces of Skeletor have overrun the fabled Castle Grayskull and captured the Sorceress who is the source of potentially unlimited power contained in the castle. As Skeletor prepares to absorb the Sorceress' power at the rise of the next moon, the Eternian forces are scattered by his robot armies. Skeletor's arch-nemesis He-Man manages to survive with veteran soldier Man-At-Arms and his daughter Teela and together, they rescue a diminutive locksmith and inventor by the name of Gwildor from Skeletor's forces. Gwildor has invented a device called the Cosmic Key which has the potential to transport its wielder anywhere in the galaxy, understandably important to someone like Skeletor.

After a failed attempt to rescue the Sorceress, He-Man and his companions are forced to use the Cosmic Key to escape. Finding themselves stranded on Earth and losing possession of the Cosmic Key, they are forced to work with lovelorn teenagers Julie and Kevin in order to find the Key again. Unfortunately, they are pursued by Skeletor's forces led by the cruel Evil-Lyn and a number of mercenaries who care little for anyone or anything that gets in their way.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Dolph Lundgren

He-Man

Frank Langella

Skeletor

Meg Foster

Evil-Lyn

Courtney Cox

Julie Winston

Billy Barty

Gwildor

Robert Duncan McNeil

Kevin Corrigan

Jon Cypher

Man-At-Arms

James Tolkan

Det. Hugh Lubic

Chelsea Field

Teela

DirectorGary Goddard

Screenplay

David Odell

Running Time

106 minutes

Release Date (UK)

26th December, 1987

Rating

PG

Genre

Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi

Razzie Award Nomination

Worst Supporting Actor (Barty)

The film works hard to escape its low budget limitations and it actually doesn't look that bad. Really!

The film works hard to escape its low budget limitations and it actually doesn't look that bad. Really!

What's to like?

It's sometimes difficult to approach a cult film such as this because people may appreciate it for different reasons so objectivity can be tricky. Fortunately, I'm used to looking at films like this and to be honest, I find a surprising amount to be positive about. Masters of the Universe was never going to become the blockbuster it intended to be, nor was it going to propel Dolph Lundgren onto the A-list. But as I say, there is much to enjoy here - Langella puts in a terrific performance as Skeletor, turning the power-hungry villain into a character of almost Shakespearean elegance. That may sound like hyperbole but compared to some of the cast (who I'll get to in a minute), his appearance lifts the film by itself. He looks relatively convincing beneath his skull-faced appearance and costume which actually looks very similar to that from the much-loved cartoon.

In fact, the costumes and cosmetics on show make a mockery of the film's restrictive budget. Take the lizard-like mercenary Saurod played by puppeteer Pons Maar - I was impressed with the prosthetics that allowed the creature's throat to expand and contract whenever they breathed. Little touches like that mean a lot in a film that has a generally devil-may-care approach to reality. The interior design and sets of Castle Grayskull also look good, feeling reminiscent of similar looking sets on Flash Gordon. There's no denying that the film badly loses its way when the action is moved to Earth because when the film starts, it feels like it could be some sort of sci-fi epic - a cross between Star Wars and Conan The Barbarian that might have been more interesting than what we ended up with.

Fun Facts

  • Both leading men had a very different feeling about the film. Lundgren hated his time on the movie, calling it 'a nightmare' and complaining about two months of night shoots. Langella, however, has stated that Skeletor has been one of his favourite roles of his long career, even improvising some of his own lines. He agreed to appear as soon as he read the script because his son was a huge fan of He-Man at the time.
  • Mattel ran a competition during the shoot for one winner to win an appearance in the film. As the shoot was running late and over budget, Goddard struggled to find a spot for young Richard Szponder. In the end, he played Pigboy - a henchman who gives Skeletor his staff when he returns from Earth and is even listed in the official credits. However, his experience was not a happy one as the makeup he had to wear was glued to his face and just pulled off when the shoot had finished, leaving him in agony.
  • Christina Pickles, who played the poor Sorceress, would be reunited with Courtney Cox years later. Cox, of course, played Monica Geller in the sitcom Friends while Pickles went on to play Cox's mother Judy in a number of cameo appearances throughout the series.

What's not to like?

After a promising opening, the film tanks very quickly. Through the use of the Cosmic Key, it's all the excuse the filmmakers needed to bring the film to Earth and the story becomes mired in the domestic drama Courtney Cox's character introduces and the semi-comedic buffoonery of Tolkan's trigger-happy cop following the trail of chaos and McNeil's mullet-sporting boyfriend. Throw in some silly action sequences involving a number of laser guns that I don't recall He-Man using and the film feels like it's rapidly falling off the rails. I didn't care about the human characters or some stupid music shop getting blown to bits. I wanted the film to stay on Eternia and perhaps feature actual characters from the franchise instead of these fairly uninspired originals or idiots who thought that the ornate Cosmic Key is some kind of Japanese synthesizer.

I concede that as a franchise, Masters of the Universe isn't that blessed with much depth or backstory but even so, all these characters feel underwritten. Lundgren's He-Man, despite looking the part, feels as though he has substituted charisma and personality for muscles and a fetching loin cloth. He's a hard hero to root for, especially opposite Langella having as much fun as possible or his bland-as-mayonnaise cohorts. And the film's camp interpretation of the source material just doesn't feel right, making the whole thing feel like a confused sequel to the aforementioned Flash Gordon - which didn't exactly float my boat either. At least the film doesn't outstay its welcome but by the time the ending arrived, I felt disinterested and disappointed. The film lost its way badly when it relocates to the US and it never recovers from the goofiness that ensues.

Langella's gleeful performance as Skeletor saves the film from becoming a total wreck and is far better than the film deserves.

Langella's gleeful performance as Skeletor saves the film from becoming a total wreck and is far better than the film deserves.

Should I watch it?

Given that most people interested in the Masters Of The Universe franchise are likely to be children of the Eighties anyway, it's a difficult proposition to recommend this big screen outing to viewers today. For viewers old enough to appreciate the effort or remember watching it the first time around, Masters of the Universe provides a light-hearted nostalgia trip that is every bit as cheesy as you remember. But for anyone wondering why a film of a once-popular franchise failed to get followed by a sequel, one viewing of this should answer that question.

Great For: children of the Eighties, Frank Langella's son, helping to bankrupt film studios

Not So Great For: fans of the franchise, Mattel's sales figures, making a star out of its leading man

What else should I watch?

Normally at this point in the article, I would discuss other films by the director. Sadly, Goddard has not helmed another feature length production since so it's a moot point. It's also tricky to think of films based on existing toys and games to recommend - Clue is a ramshackle experiment of a murder mystery that doesn't really satisfy and the less said about Battleship, the better. I can recommend The Lego Movie which is a very funny tale that resembled the sort of adventures a kid would have with their Lego (well, mine anyway) while Trolls made an instant splash when it was first released in 2016. I asked my niece at the time and she preferred it to Frozen!

Of course, some films can turn into toys themselves and I'm not talking about the flood of merchandise that came in the aftermath of Star Wars. I'm talking about the carpet-bombing that followed the first Toy Story film in 1995 as shelves were stacked with Buzz Lightyear and Woody figures. With the money-making machine Disney behind them, Pixar continued to mine the seam with another three films so far as well as other properties like WALL-E and Finding Nemo. Today, they are arguably one of the biggest film studios in Hollywood with fans like me eagerly awaiting each release. And I never played with any of their toys! Honest!

© 2021 Benjamin Cox

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