Masters of the Universe Review
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was introduced to the world in 1982, courtesy of Mattel whose line of plastic action figures with rubber heads sparked off a craze that would see billions of toys sold world-wide.
Mattel had begun to hire animators to produce short advertisements to promote the latest toys before suddenly being hit in the face with an idea that would further encapsulate sales. They approached Filmation studios who would go on to make 65 full animated episodes. The cartoon was as successful as the toys and the legacy of He-Man has continued to this day with its latest revival.
During the early 80’s, Conan the Barbarian producer Edward R. Pressman presented young screenwriter, David Odell with an idea to turn Masters of the Universe into a live-action movie. Still looking for a studio to take on the production he found director, Gary Goddard who helped fine tune the script with Odell over the course of the long studio search.
Finally, Cannon studios agreed to finance Masters of the Universe with a tender budget of $17 million. Production on the movie started late in 1985 in Southern California and wrapped up shooting in 1987. When it opened in cinemas it was a huge flop, barely managing to cover production costs. Critics hated the film and it seemed even children and adults were not heavily swayed by it either. The gamble to turn the toy franchise into a futuristic Wizard of Oz didn’t pay off.
The story: Masters of the Universe follows a simple tale of good vs. evil.
Eternia is being threatened by Skeletor (Frank Langella), an evil tyrant who wishes to overthrow Castle Greyskull and take rule of the entire planet. As he wages war a group of heroes set out to stop his plans. Led by He-Man (Dolph Lundgren): Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher), Teela (Chelsea Field) and Gwildor (Billy Barty) find themselves in a struggle to save the Sorceress (Christina Pickles) who has been captured by Skeletor.
During the battle against Skeletor’s minions they find themselves outnumbered until Gwildor, using his Cosmic Key transports them to safety on Earth. Skeletor, now without the key that will make him “Master of the Universe” seeks to hunt down He-Man and friends who, now on Earth, find themselves in a strange new environment and without their key that has disappeared.
Two teenagers, Kevin and Julie are visiting the graves of Julie’s parents when they soon find the Cosmic Key nearby. Activating the object they unknowingly alert Skeletor back on Eternia, who proceeds to send his troops to Earth to retrieve the lost weapon. He-Man and company soon find and befriend Kevin and Julie and then attempt to get themselves back home, but not before facing Skeletor, Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster), a bunch of weird creatures and James Tolkan.
The Masters of the Universe franchise should have been enough to secure a healthier budget but clearly there was a risk factor in making a movie of this proportion, in a time when special effects were not what they are today. In an effort to stay within the budget, director Gary Goddard had to cut many corners while bringing He-Man to the big screen.
Things start off promisingly enough as we’re led into what should become an epic struggle between good and evil but it’s upon the arrival on Earth that things begin to fall apart. Early on in the film, Eternia is quickly substituted for Earth and night-time shots. In fact when you watch the film you will notice that Earth seems to be devoid of any people. Our heroes walk around at night waiting for the baddies to attack them.
It’s unfortunate that the studio called for the film to be set on Earth for much of its running time because it left Goddard to try and come up with situations that would work with the small budget he had at his disposal. Relegating He-Man and his friends to the background for too long during the first 30 minutes in favour of two teenagers no longer makes anything magical. There is too much of a focus on Kevin and Julie and the fact they are not exactly interesting characters makes the experience little more than tedious.
Trying to balance out much of the problems in setting the entire middle of the film on Earth, Goddard chooses to turn it into a fish out of water scenario that sees our heroes trying to accustom themselves to Earth tradition. It makes for very few moments that put a smile on your face, though the actors are trying their best to make it work with the weak script.
With regards to the casting I believe some of the choices are truly inspired. Dolph Lundgren certainly looks the part as He-Man. His character design is not far removed from that of his cartoon counterpart and he makes a believable hero. The downside is that he just isn’t given enough to work with. Lundgren is a very charismatic guy in my opinion, with an enormous amount of enthusiasm for what he does. He delivers his lines well and tries hard with his dialogue, clearly he enjoys the role he’s playing and I can’t see any other actor looking quite as good as He-Man as Dolph did when it was made.
Frank Langella is Goddard’s choice to play the pasty faced, Skeletor. Hidden behind a none too convincing rubber mask, Langella gives it his all. His eyes are about the only things that come through for most of his performance and somehow he manages to project an evil persona very well, given the limitations of what his make-up can offer. Again, a fine choice to play He-Man’s adversary. In the series I always felt that Skeletor was a little too effeminate sounding so it’s good to see Langella play around with the character more and bring out his own style in portraying him.
Meg Foster as Evil-Lyn does a good job in portraying Skeletor’s favourite naughty girl. Meg certainly has an interesting look about her. Her eyes are perhaps her most piercing feature and a few of her subtle facial features throughout the film bring out a sadistic quality that her character needs. Evil-Lyn is conniving and out for herself but remains loyal to Skeletor because he could just as easily zap her into oblivion.
Man-at-Arms and Teela are given fairly poor treatment. This father and daughter pair have very little to do. Jon Cypher does what he can to elevate his character beyond a few jokes and looks like the cartoon character to a certain degree but his screen time is relatively short and he’s only required to pop up from time to time to fight. Chelsea Field as Teela is wasted, to the point her character might as well not even be in the movie. She is nothing like the original character was in the series and she has practically nothing to do in this production. It’s not through the fault of the actress, she’s just been put to one side in favour of detailing other characters.
Courtney Cox, in her first feature film comes across as a lively young girl with big eyes. For all the time her character has on screen the viewer gains very little. The same can be said for Robert Duncan McNeill, playing her boyfriend. It becomes less of a He-Man film and more a series of Julie’s guilt trips until the end when everything works out happily.
James Tolkan makes an appearance as a tough cop doing what he usually does in all his films. Veteran actor, Billy Barty under heavy disguise makes a not too memorable Gwildor - an attempt at bringing a quirky character to the screen that would replace the cartoon character, Orko, who would have required many special effects that just weren’t ready at the time.
Christina Pickles also has very little to do. A case of scripting too many characters and trying to give them equal amounts of dialogue but ultimately forgetting a few along the way. Finally there are the rest of the supporting actors who are all disguised as creatures and make up some of the more memorable characters like Blade (Anthony De Longis) and the lizard guy with quite good make-up whom Skeletor zaps.
If nothing else, Masters of the Universe should have at least been a good actioner.
Unfortunately it isn’t and too much of it is heavily edited so that little excitement is generated. Dolph Lundgren might look like He-Man but close-ups of his chest in battle and a few sword swinging moments don’t make him much of a convincing fighter. At times he looks a little lost as he’s fending off baddies with his laser gun. The final fight sequence between He-Man and Skeletor is also lacking in the “wow” department. Much of it looks clumsy and the fact that director Gary Goddard pretty much did a lot of one take shots shows in its overall look and feel.
The same thing can be said for the rest of the film. There’s no denying the amount of passion that everyone involved had for the project. I can understand having a sense of fondness for it. I still have that fondness for it after all these years but it mainly comes down to the fact that everyone involved worked hard and made it as best as they could. It’s not a major excuse for what turned out to be a very average movie because it isn’t any more enjoyable when bearing their limitations in mind. Today I can appreciate the movie but I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t hold up as well as it did when I was ten years old.
Masters of the Universe is presented by Warner Bros in one of their typical, annoying snapper cases.
The transfer looks decent, presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film hasn’t been deemed worthy enough for a digital clean up and there are moments of evident dirt and print damage. There is also a fair amount of noticeable grain but despite all this the image is sharp enough, though some night scenes suffer from poor black levels and there appears to be a low contrast.
Only a 2.0 Dolby Surround - Pro Logic track is on offer for the main feature. Surprisingly it sounds better than expected but of course a 5.1 track would have been a nice addition. The volume needs to be turned up considerably to appreciate it fully but it doesn’t do anything special to test your speakers.
The original theatrical trailer that that shows all the best bits that aren't even that great in the first place.
Cast and Crew
A Pointless list of actors and crew members on one page.
Audio Commentary by director, Gary Goddard.
This is the most surprising feature to see on the disc. At least the effort has been made to get someone to give some insight into the production. Gary Goddard manages to provide some interesting comments but seems more interested in defending his film. Often he simply describes what is happening onscreen and other times he goes into a little about the production design, including the sets and features that are given no explanation during the film, for example the gods of technology - the statues in Greyskull that we’re supposed to have taken notice of. He is all too aware that he had a small budget and is proud of the final movie considering this.
Despite the cast and crew's hardest efforts Masters of the Universe ended up as a film that was made way before its time; a victim of over ambitious ideas and not enough of a budget to pull them off.