Masters of the Universe (1987)
There are many things from my childhood that haven’t stuck with me in my adult years. Various cartoons don’t hold up to those youthful memories, but what has remained an indomitable favorite of mine has been He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I own the entire original series on DVD, and I still enjoy those episodes as much today as I did as a kid in the 1980s. It still rekindles that inspiring morality and heroic admiration in me. The show had a lot of heart and genuine care put into it, and it did have some smart thematic writing amongst its silliness. Beyond that, it was a fun cartoon that entertained me. Obviously, with the success the show had a full scale motion picture was inevitable, but it came at the tail end of the franchise’s 1980s popularity. It bombed at the box office for more reasons than just the franchise’s loss of popularity. I grew up watching this movie repeatedly, and while it has its undeniable problems, I still find something entertaining and worthwhile in 1987’s Masters of the Universe. Beyond anything else, it features one of the absolute best villainous performances in the history of cinema from one incredible actor.
For ages, the Sorceress of Grayskull (Christina Pickles) has kept the universe in harmony, but now, Skeletor (Frank Langella) – the evil lord of Snake Mountain – has taken absolute rule over the Planet Eternia, and Castle Grayskull is under siege from his sinister forces. Now, the mighty hero He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) and his fellow Eternian warriors are the only hope for freedom, but these courageous heroes are soon transported to Earth via the Cosmic Key – the latest creation from the peaceful inventor Gwildor (Billy Barty). Stranded on Earth, He-Man comes to the aid of a pair of youths (Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill), and their two journeys quickly become one as they battle through Skeletor’s mercenaries in the attempt to free the Sorceress and save the universe from the tyrannical domination of Skeletor.
What easily polarizes the faithful He-Man fans are the distinct departures or obvious omissions from the established property. The Prince Adam alter ego is never addressed. Dolph Lundgren is He-Man throughout the entire movie, and no mention is ever made of his secret identity. No one questions where the Prince of Eternia is, and we do not get treated to the bombastic transformation sequence from Prince Adam into He-Man. Thus, there is no Cringer / Battle Cat. Orko, the comical sorcerer who floats around in the cartoon, is essentially replaced by Gwildor. Most likely, that was due to the excessive cost of having an optical composite of a single character appearing regularly throughout the movie. The only regular cohorts of Skeletor’s that appear are Beast Man and Evil-Lynn. Blade, Saurod, and Karg are brand new characters that were exclusively created for this movie. There are other minor things here and there, but those are the meaty chunks. Obviously, new characters meant new action figures to market and make money from. So, I doubt Mattel had many qualms about swapping out established favorites for fresh creations. Of course, for those anticipating a big live action motion picture adaptation of these characters, Masters of the Universe certainly didn’t reach those base expectations.
However, there is still definite quality here that deserves some respect and credit. Apart from the Earth-based sequences, where there’s not much to show off, the production design is highly impressive. A great amount of thought and detail went into the matte paintings, sets, costumes, and props. While budget constraints hindered the story, what we get presented to us shows a lot of hard work and care in what these professional filmmakers did do. These were people who were trying to give us the best film they could, and I think it shows through the shortcomings.
Skeletor himself and his mercenaries look incredible and frightening due to the masterful work of Michael Westmore. He is most acclaimed for his work on numerous Star Trek television series and movies. I constantly find it amazing how exceptional practical creature effects were done on budgets like this film’s $22 million. Today, even with hundreds of millions of dollars, we continually see digital creature effects fall so far short that it’s sad. When you have the talent on board to create these physical masterworks, they cannot be beat. Skeletor is an amazing achievement creating a powerful and textured look that has both a bony and fleshy appearance. The filmmakers made it a point to allow the make-up and prosthetics the ability to have Frank Langella’s performance show through in detail, and that was absolutely the right approach. Beast Man can be ferociously terrifying just at the sight of him, not mentioning the violent things he’s capable of doing. Saurod is just a brilliant creation with a great reptilian style that actor Pons Maar really accentuates with his performance. The addition of the expanding gills just brings so much realistic life to the character. Karg is probably the least fascinating on a character level. He’s written as just a regular team leader, and doesn’t strike nearly as much fear as his cohorts do. Still, the design of him is exceptionally realized. However, my favorite character of the bunch, which features no make-up effects, but has a very sharp and dangerous outfit, is Anthony De Longis as Blade. The character has plenty of vile charisma, and it’s nice to see a character designed to be a challenge for He-Man in a sword fight. De Longis is an exceptionally accomplished swordsman and a master handler of the bullwhip. He later appeared in two episodes of Highlander: The Series in some marvelous sword battles. He was also Frank Langella’s stunt double for the film’s climactic clash. As far as the bullwhip goes? He was the trainer for both Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns and Harrison Ford in the fourth Indiana Jones movie. Anthony De Longis is an amazing talent, and the filmmakers of Masters of the Universe were very fortunate to have him involved.
The visual effects produced by Richard Edlund hold up quite well. Edlund had already worked on the special visual effects for all three of the original Star Wars movies as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, and Big Trouble in Little China. His body of work speaks for itself, and this film showed no fall off from his standards of excellence. The portal opened by the Cosmic Key looks magical and beautiful with its vibrant, swirling colors. It’s amazing effects work that I don’t think even digital technology could improve upon. It’s work done by the masters of visual effects, and that quality is richly evident. The matte paintings are absolutely gorgeous. I really love a beautifully done matte painting, and this film has a few with Castle Grayskull being the biggest standout. Its design is a distinct departure from previous depictions, but it looks no less imposing or mysterious in this film. The optical composites integrating flying objects and vehicles into the live action footage are generally alright. The process always left a little something to be desired. In this film, it’s quite good with probably the most strained quality coming in the hovercraft chase between He-Man and the Centurion. The chase itself is well conceived and flows into the action of the overall sequence well. The compositing itself is just about as good as it got, but the shots of them flying through the city streets and around buildings definitely lack a sense of real gravity or weight. However, I can’t confidently say whether or not it could have been done any better than these filmmakers did it at the time.
I’ve heard people criticize the score done by Bill Conti as being a John Williams rip-off of Star Wars or Superman. Conti did the scores for five of the six Rocky movies and all of the original films in The Karate Kid franchise. The man has more than proven his worth as a composer to me. While I clearly hear what it is those critics have pointed out, frankly, there is no other type of score one should expect from a 1980s science fiction / fantasy adventure film. It entirely suits the tone and style of the film. It’s very rich, colorful, dramatic, and epic. It captures that rousing spirit that should come with a He-Man adventure. There is nothing bad or wrong with the score Conti did for Masters of the Universe.
I do believe that Dolph Lundgren did a fine job as He-Man. Between the script and his performance, the moral heroic nature of the character is maintained. Lundgren projects a good depth of heart and compassion for his friends and the innocent. He’s a hero that will sacrifice himself to protect others, which is purely He-Man. There were plenty of times on the cartoon where He-Man would risk himself to even save an enemy because he believed all life was worth protecting, and much of that is respected here. Lundgren did all his own stunts, and it clearly shows. He handles the demanding and nicely dynamic action of the film very well. Lundgren made He-Man a solid hero to get behind and believe in. I know he had a difficult time shooting the film, but in the eyes of a devoted He-Man fan, I strongly feel he did the character great justice and respect. I also love the quality put into his costuming. Adding the elegant red cape was a very good choice for a live action version of He-Man. It gives him a stronger visual aesthetic mixed in with the other finely detailed elements of the outfit.
However, what truly brings a bold sense of excellence to this movie is Frank Langella’s masterful performance as Skeletor. Langella is a brilliant actor that regularly brings a great theatrical style to his performances, as I’ve also seen in his turn as Dracula, and in this role, he dominates the screen with a presence that enthralls and captivates an audience’s attention. You can feel Skeletor’s lust for supreme power absorbing into every fiber of his being, and how his conquest of Eternia has fueled his ambition. Langella brings an immense depth and power to a character that had always been cackling and comical before. Skeletor is finally the frightening figure of villainy and sorcery that he deserved to be. Vaporizing one of his own mercenaries due to their failure, inflicting vile wounds upon the innocent, and making the heroes suffer under his tyrannical rule are richly evil aspects which build towards a great character. Under Langella’s talent, Skeletor is intelligent and calculating with a confidence that borders on arrogance. The overall design further enhances his performance. The deep contrast between the gorgeous black flowing attire and the stark white skull-like facial prosthetics created a bold, striking appearance that inevitably helped fuel the performance. In my eyes, Frank Langella portrays one of the absolute best villains in all of cinema. Between his performance and the depth of pure, unforgiving evil that Skeletor embodies here, I would even elevate it above Darth Vader. It’s only a shame that it wasn’t in a more critically and commercially successful movie for Langella to get the wide spread recognition he deserved. Thankfully, in interviews, Frank Langella has stated that Skeletor was one of his favorite roles, and that elevates my respect for the man higher than you can imagine.
Of course, Meg Foster turns in a magnificent Evil-Lynn. Her naturally haunting, mesmerizing eyes were a perfect fit for this elegantly evil and darkly bewitching character. She definitely brings a comparable amount of theatrical depth and presence to that of Langella. She has a great intelligent authority about her which immediately puts someone like Karg back in his lowly place. Evil-Lynn clearly has a deep desire and admiration for Skeletor that she hungers to have reciprocated, and she goes through a subtle arc in relation to this which is beautifully done.
John Cypher brings a solid seasoned quality to the weather soldier of Duncan, aka Man-At-Arms, and handles the lighter moments just as great as the heavier drama. Teela is brought to spirited and credible life by Chelsea Field who holds her firmly. Christina Pickles does a fine, convincing job as the Sorceress with what little she can do while held captive, standing still inside of Skeletor’s energy field. Even James Tolkan does an immensely entertaining job as the tough, hardened Detective Lubic who is not afraid to jump into action. The performance is pretty standard for him from similar roles in Top Gun and Back to the Future, but he puts his all into it playing very well off of everyone. He was definitely having fun on this film. Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill have a very genuine and realistic chemistry as Julie and Kevin. Cox showcases the emotional depth she is well known for today, and McNeill offers up a lot of strength and heart opposite her.
However, I do have to agree with many that Gwildor is not a particularly good addition. He’s essentially just irritating comic relief boosting the silliness of the Earth based scenes. Yes, he is a replacement for Orko, but the difference between the characters is simple: charm. Orko was an unintentional trouble-maker and surely not the wisest of the regular heroes, but he was endearing with a wealth of charm and good intentions. He was a little guy with a big heart who could be valuable in the right situations, and always was lovable. Gwildor is just quirky and lacks any endearing qualities in the long run. Billy Barty does add some value to the character with his performance, but ultimately, it’s not a character that leaves a lasting impression. In fact, he’s a conduit for a lot of the cringe inducing bad comedy of the film, which I will get into shortly. To say the least, no one’s ever clamored for Gwildor to be integrated into any other He-Man continuity, and that’s for very good reasons.
Now, the sole major problem with this film is the fact that the bulk of it takes place on Earth. This is where the budgetary constraints impacted the story that could be told. Shooting in practical locations and city streets cut down on costs for sets, more matte paintings, and other convincing fantasy elements in the film. Even elements on Eternia were constantly being cutout due to the tight budget including scenes set at Skeletor’s Snake Mountain. This isn’t so much like Highlander II: The Quickening where the awfulness of the film stemmed from a poorly conceived script. Those filmmakers had the money and talent to make something really good, but just didn’t have the sensible creativity to do so. I believe, if Cannon Films had the lucrative finances to put more money behind this, which was their most expensive movie ever produced, we would’ve gotten a richer and more faithful adaptation of this property. When you’re shackled by a budget to do less than what the property deserves, one can hardly blame the film’s failure on creative ambition. The filmmakers wanted to do more, but were entirely unable to do so. Conceptual artists created numerous excellent drawings for things that were jettisoned including a revamped look for He-Man’s sister She-Ra, and several scripted Eternia-based scenes were never filmed due to the budget. Simply put, their ambition exceeded their resources, but that didn’t stop the filmmakers from doing the best they could with what they had.
The characters of Julie and Kevin are fine, and their story is just fine on its own. Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeil put in very good acting jobs with this material making their characters quite likable and relatable. The fact that they are part of a science fiction / fantasy adventure film is what doesn’t work so well. Everyone intending to see this didn’t go into it wanting to see some teenage drama about a high school rock band keyboardist and his girlfriend who mourns the tragic death of her parents. In its own appropriately themed movie, these would be well done character elements for a decent story, but it’s a lot of unnecessary baggage here to force Julie and Kevin more into the forefront. It gets tied into the main story in a minor illusionary way which was actually done to great comedic effect in Spaceballs, released the same year. Their roles in the film are very well written, and are purposefully integrated into the overall story. Admittedly, I’ve never had a particular problem with the characters or their part in the movie, but I’m approaching it from a standpoint of, “Is this what the film really needed?” The answer is no. It’s one thing to take the story where they did due to budgetary shortcomings, but another to give Kevin and Julie equal screentime to He-Man and clearly more than Skeletor. This is not a film that’s supposed to be about these two teenagers. It’s a film about the heroes and villains of this scientifically advanced and wondrously magical world of Eternia battling for the power of the universe. That’s what He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is meant to be about, and there’s just a little too much diverted away from that epic concept in this movie. There is this fascinating array of vibrant characters to explore and spotlight, but the film gives a large portion of its attention to its two least fascinating characters. It is thankful that good actors were cast in those roles, and they were well conceived and well written characters. It’s just that they don’t belong in a Masters of the Universe motion picture. It would be easier for me to gripe about this if the characters were stupid and badly portrayed, but they’re not. It’s all very well done, but objectively speaking, it’s just not what this movie needed to have to be successful.
Again, the quality of what we get in performance and direction is something I have zero gripes with. Gary Goddard did a very coherent and solid job balancing out these unconventional elements. However, it does get quite silly, and it goes a little over the edge at times due to Gwildor’s comedic antics. Granted, it is nearly impossible to avoid some of this silliness considering there is this stark contrast in juxtaposing a highly fantastical world with one that’s very much grounded in our own reality. Characters are inevitably going to have peculiar, humorous reactions. At this time, there seemed to be a running trend of fantasy movies which transposed sword and sorcery characters into a modern day Earth setting. Beastmaster 2: Through The Portal of Time is probably the next most notable (or notorious) film that did this. It’s a very strange trend that is difficult to understand how or why it repeatedly occurred. This usually resulted in rather ridiculous movies that can’t be taken seriously. Masters of the Universe does fare better because, on the whole, it’s keeping its serious characters on track with the urgent, dramatic storyline, and maintains the integrity of those characters. The humor is just a by-product of that obvious juxtaposition, but Gwildor doesn’t help to reinforce the drama of the film. The comedy interplay with the cow, the stealing of the bucket of chicken with a grappling hook, and the horrendous pink Cadillac introduced by him really push the film into stupid territory. The film could’ve desperately done without those cringable gags. Gwildor alone could’ve threatened to derail the film into farcical territory if the script had gone off the deep end. Thankfully, enough restraint was shown, and we are spared that sort of horrendously bad cinema.
Veering back towards the positive is the excellent cinematography. Listening to Gary Goddard’s audio commentary on the film’s DVD reveals that he had to fight to get the Cinematographer to use more colorful or “hyper-reality” color schemes. So, it is Goddard to credit with the richer neon lighting and slight haze that gives the film a visual vibrancy or atmosphere in many scenes. However, the camera work is very solid. There are plenty of great long shots which sweep around and move in on Skeletor’s face to punctuate a scene, or just one take scenes which smartly keep the actors moving with different shot sizes and compositions. Camera movement is used very effectively. The sets and locations are really well displayed with strong lighting, and we get a good amount of scope where it counts. The film has plenty of artistic visual merit.
There is just some good, solid action in this movie. He-Man is definitely given some steep odds to combat to sell his greatness as a powerful warrior and hero. He’s built up nicely as having nary an equal. He is a valiant champion who fights with all his heart and might. This makes the build up to the climax even better when Skeletor finally has him as his prisoner, and He-Man must battle back after being beaten down and almost defeated. This leads to a very good final duel between him and Skeletor. Surely, something more elaborate was originally intended for this climactic clash, but director Gary Goddard had to plead to get some extra money from Cannon Films, who was in financial trouble at this time, just to shoot this more stylized and limited climax. It’s certainly not as excellent as say Optimus Prime versus Megatron in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie, but it’s a fine duel that caps off the film nicely.
I didn’t realize how long this review was going to be. So many people have panned this film outright that I thought I had another Highlander II: The Quickening to more or less talk about, but once I actually started thinking about it, Masters of the Universe is not remotely that bad of a movie. This is most certainly due to the amazing high caliber talents employed on this picture. You have an Academy Award winning visual effects producer, an Academy & Emmy Award winning special make-up effects artist, an Academy Award winning film composer, and the Academy Award winning film editor of Lawrence of Arabia that all worked on Masters of the Universe! There was conceptual artwork done by the amazing artist Moebius, who also did designs for Alien and TRON before this, and later, Willow and The Abyss. This might have been a Cannon Film produced by Golan-Globus, which were bonafide marks of B-grade 80s action-ploitation cinema, but with that depth of artistic merit behind it, it now does not surprise me that this film turned out as good as it did. This review started out with the thought of pointing out a few positive marks in an otherwise bad movie that I have always enjoyed, and while this film still had far to go to be the exemplary adaptation it should have been, this is a very well made movie. While the concept is undeniably flawed, it is generally well written and executed, save for the sillier bits. Most of the things that are bad in Masters of the Universe are really just bad in concept as the execution is largely very good, even great at times. I know there are people out there that aren’t going to believe that this movie is not as bad as its reputation suggests. Expectations definitely feed a lot into one’s overall reaction to a movie, and maybe I have the luxury of growing up on this from age seven onwards to give it this expectation-free point of view. I still really love the original cartoon to this day, and I might happen to enjoy this movie just a little more now after this in-depth review.
As I’ve just learned, the film will be released on Blu Ray Disc from Warner Bros. on October 2nd, 2012. It is touted as a “25th Anniversary Edition,” but aside from a high-definition transfer and comparable surround sound audio tracks, it features nothing different than what was on the 2001 DVD release.