Masters of the Universe (1987) -***
I had forgotten that Masters of the Universe was a Cannon Group production, but I can’t say that I was surprised to see their company logo before the main titles. Who else but Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus would have been fool enough to spend $22 million on a live-action Masters of the Universe movie in 1987, a good three years after the Mattel toy line had reached its peak in popularity? The inopportune timing isn’t the only puzzling thing about Cannon’s Masters of the Universe, either. By 1987, there had been three distinctly different interpretations of the Masters of the Universe mythos: the weirdly grim and brutal version from the mini-comics that were including with the toys during their first year on the market; the somewhat toned-down DC Comics version, toward which the Mattel mini-comics were assimilated when the toy line was expanded beyond the initial nine figures, two vehicles, and one playset; and the version put forth by the Filmation cartoon series produced (and to a great extent voiced) by Lou Scheimer, which ran five afternoons a week in syndication during the 1983 and 1984 television seasons. The cartoon wasn’t just the most recent and most popular of the Masters of the Universe media. Mattel’s leadership liked Scheimer’s take on the characters and their story so much that his became the official version until the toy line was discontinued in 1989, superceding and negating all of its predecessors. (Filmation’s revisions were not insignificant. For example, whereas the earliest mini-comics treated He-Man, the principal hero, as a nomad from a primitive tribe who found his destiny when a sorceress whom he rescued from a ravening monster repaid his intervention with a cache of enchanted arms and armor, Scheimer turned him into the sword-and-sorcery genre’s answer to Captain Marvel. The cartoon posited a truly superhuman He-Man who came into existence only when Prince Adam, his weak and helpless alter ego, uttered a magic incantation.) Consequently, you’d naturally expect the live-action movie to follow Scheimer’s lead— especially since The Secret of the Sword (the feature-length bridge between the second season of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” and the first season of its successor series, “She-Ra, Princess of Power”) had already enjoyed a brief run of the theaters in 1985. Instead, though, the Cannon film hews closest to those first four mini-comics, with their darker tone, less powerful heroes, and crueler and far more capable villains. That was fine with me, you understand; I had no patience for Prince Adam, Orko the comic-relief pixie-wizard, or a He-Man strong enough to toss buildings around. However, I was and remain surprised that it was also fine with Mattel. A lot of effort had gone into sanding all the points and edges off of a premise that ultimately turned on people hacking at each other with swords, and now here were writer David Odell and director Gary Goddard trying to sharpen a few of them up again.
At the center of the universe, or so we are told, floats the planet Eternia. (One assumes that’s more of a first-order approximation than a precise statement of locality, since Eternia has a sun that it gives every indication of orbiting like any normal world.) All the lines of physical and metaphysical force in the cosmos pass not merely through Eternia, but through its ancient capitol, Castle Grayskull. Someone with the right arcane knowledge could make themselves— wait for it— master of the universe with access to that kind of power, so it is well that the castle’s current resident is a kindly and rather reclusive sorceress (Seizure’s Christina Pickles) with no apparent worldly (or indeed otherworldly) ambition whatsoever. Unfortunately, the power of Castle Grayskull is also coveted by Skeletor (Frank Langella, from Dracula and The Ninth Gate), a demon-wizard whose ambitions take a distinct bent toward the megalomaniacal. Skeletor has been trying for who knows how long to force the castle’s ensorcelled gates, and damned if he isn’t in the process of succeeding at long last as the movie opens. His armies of robot-like soldiers have overrun the whole planet, crushing all opposition save that of an increasingly beleaguered resistance movement led by a mighty warrior known as He-Man (Dolph Lundgren, of Universal Soldier and Jill the Ripper)— who despite the best efforts of Skeletor and his minions, is still at large with his two closest comrades, the man-at-arms Duncan (Jon Cypher, from The Food of the Gods and Spontaneous Combustion) and his daughter, Teela (Chelsea Field, of Prison and Dust Devil). Those heroes on the loose aren’t going to be much good to anybody, though, if they can’t do something to drive Skeletor out of Grayskull before moonrise. It’s bad enough that the evil warlord is slowly siphoning the sorceress’s lifeforce into himself, but when the moon comes up, the Great Eye of the Galaxy will open (whatever the hell that means), and Skeletor will become the next best thing to a god.
That could be where Gwildor (Billy Barty, of Legend and Willow) comes in. One of a peace-loving and deeply naïve tribe of leprechaun-like people, Gwildor is reputedly the greatest locksmith on all Eternia. In fact, Gwildor has picked the locks on the very fabric of space and time with his latest invention, the Cosmic Key, a techno-magical device that can encode the relationship between any two points in the universe as a melody, and open a doorway between them by playing it out. That, it turns out, is exactly the problem. Skeletor’s right-hand woman, Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster, from They Live and Leviathan), sweet-talked Gwildor into giving her the prototype Cosmic Key (I can only assume that she never introduced herself; trusting people who have the word “evil” right there in their fucking names seems like so obviously unwise a bet that not even a gill-breathing hobbit would take it), and thus it was that the aspiring universe-conqueror was able to circumvent Castle Grayskull’s normally impregnable defenses. He-Man, Duncan, and Teela learn all that when they happen to meet Gwildor in the midst of evading one of Skeltor’s patrols, but more importantly, they also learn that the freaky little munchkin had built two Cosmic Keys, one of which is still in his possession. Gwildor, for his part, recognizes that he has fucked up literally everything by being such a poor judge of character, and he’s eager to redeem himself in any way he can. He-Man consequently hatches a plan to have Gwildor space-fold the four of them into Grayskull’s main hall, at which point the locksmith will similarly spring the sorceress from her magical confinement while the three rebel warriors hold off Skeletor’s troops. Sounds good in theory, and maybe it would even have worked if He-Man, Duncan, and Teela had another fighter or two— Ram-Man, say, or Stratos— to back them up, but 265 zillion to three makes odds too long even for this crew. The sorceress stays in her soul-sucking cage, and the only reason her aspirant rescuers don’t join her is that Gwildor is fast enough on the keyboard of his Cosmic Key to rip open a portal to somewhere else before defeat becomes total and irrevocable.
And where might “somewhere else” be? Neither Gwildor nor the rebels have any idea, and because they somehow lost the Cosmic Key in transit, they can’t even examine its operating log to find out. (No, it really doesn’t make any sense at all that they could lose the key and still get anywhere, but just roll with it for now, okay? We basically don’t have a second act here otherwise.) We, however, will be pretty sure we know the neighborhood when the next change of scene takes us to the barbecue stand where eighteen-year-old Julie Winston (Courtney Cox, of all people, from Scream and Cocoon: The Return) is wrapping up her last day at work. Julie’s parents died a year ago, when her dad crashed his little puddle-jumper plane on the way to the beach, and she’s been all fucked up with survivor’s guilt ever since. The reason she wasn’t on the plane herself was because she had skipped out to spend the day with her boyfriend, Kevin Corrigan (Infested’s Robert Duncan McNeill), instead. That may have something to do with why she’s fixing to move far, far away tomorrow morning— punishing herself by breaking up the happy relationship to which she essentially owes her survival, and on which she therefore irrationally blames her parents’ death. Either way, the two kids do at least plan to spend Julie’s last night in town together; the main event is a dance at the high school, where Kevin’s new wave band is going to perform, but they’ve got a couple of hours to kill before that happens. Inevitably, it’s while they’re killing those hours that they stumble upon the Cosmic Key, which Kevin takes for some super-sophisticated Japanese synthesizer.
It’s very unfortunate that Kevin spends so much time fiddling with the alien device, because back on Eternia, Skeletor is keeping a close watch for the sort of space-time disturbances that the Cosmic Key produces when used. With all the noise Kevin’s making, Skeletor has no trouble pinpointing the key’s position, and he dispatches a team of four bounty hunters— Karg (Robert Towers, from Terrified and Stewardess School), Blade (Anthony De Longis, of CyberTracker II and The Sword and the Sorcerer), Saurod (Pons Maar, from The Blob and Dead Heat), and Beast-Man (Hercules in New York’s Tony Carroll)— to Earth on a mission to collect the key and capture the rebels. This leads to Julie being chased all over Hell’s half-acre by weirdos from outer space while the unsuspecting Kevin compares notes on the Cosmic Key with Charlie (Barry Livingston, of Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence and Tremors 3: Back to Perfection), proprietor of the local music store. It also leads to the school burning down, the mercenaries getting their asses kicked by He-Man, Charlie and the kids getting caught up in another planet’s civil war, and a teen-loathing cop named Lubic (James Tolkan, from Wargames and Wolfen) jumping to the conclusion that Julie and/or Kevin is behind the arson at the high school. The conflict between the Eternian factions on Earth escalates quickly, until Skeletor himself is on the scene at the head of at least a company of cyber-android-whatsit soldiers. Eventually, He-Man is taken back to Eternia in chains, Julie is infected with a gangrenous curse that only the sorceress can cure, and the remaining rebels are left stranded on Earth with the Cosmic Key’s memory wiped out. Man, if only one of our heroes were a new wave keyboardist with perfect pitch, who can reproduce practically any melody after hearing it once or twice…
Among die-hard Masters of the Universe fans (no, seriously— they exist!), the most commonly uttered gripe about the live-action movie is a refreshingly legitimate one: why the hell do we spend so much time on Earth, watching Karg and his bounty hunters chase irritating teenagers around? The answer, of course, is that even $22 million didn’t buy all that much Eternia by the late 1980’s— and the $17 million that Golan and Globus intended to spend before Gary Goddard went nearly a third over budget would have bought even less. Be that as it may, the Earthbound second act is frustrating not merely because it isn’t what we paid to see, but also because the production design for the Eternia stuff is shockingly good and not the slightest bit cheesy-looking. There’s every reason why it should be, too, because the man behind it (credited with “special design”) was Jean “Moebius” Giraud, a French comic book artist who had been making his living dreaming up and drawing such environments for a quarter of a century by the time he was hired for Masters of the Universe. (Moebius also had a hand in setting the look for those parts of Alien that took place aboard the Nostromo.) Considering Cannon’s track record, it’s awfully impressive that anyone on the Golan-Globus payroll had the good taste to recruit a designer of Giraud’s abilities, and even more impressive that the Go-Go Boys themselves had the good sense not to demand someone cheaper instead.
The other department in which Masters of the Universe surprises by being honestly pretty good is the characterization of the major villains. Frank Langella looks like he’s having the time of his life as Skeletor, unleashing all the Big, Hammy Evil that was so lamentably absent from Dracula eight years earlier. And while I’m thinking of 1970’s vampire movies, not since Scream, Blacula, Scream have I seen a comparable triumph of committed performance over crap-lousy monster makeup. Meg Foster was an excellent choice for Evil-Lyn, too— and not just because she has without question the freakiest eyes of any living actress. The main point in Foster’s favor is that she and Langella are so good at playing off of each other. Watching them, you get a much stronger sense of their characters’ history together than anything in the script itself even faintly suggests, an impression of two people (for lack of a better term) who have known each other for years and have whatever passes among the diabolically evil and thoroughly untrustworthy for a strong and stable on-the-job friendship. Indeed, Langella and Foster get the best moment in the whole film, right after Skeletor interrupts an unexpectedly gentle interlude with Evil-Lyn in order to vaporize Saurod in the usual arch-villain “making an example of failure” bit. Evil-Lyn, standing beside Skeletor’s throne, offers her opinion on how best to deal with the others, at which point Skeletor grabs her, drags her down to stand with the surviving bounty hunters, and informs her that she’ll be in command of operations on Earth from now on. “I was not suggesting that I go,” she says, to which Skeletor retorts, “Then you should not have spoken.” It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s all in the delivery: Skeletor’s sternly affectionate confidence in Evil-Lyn and her ability to accomplish what Karg could not, Evil-Lyn’s complete lack of confidence in the very same thing, the enormous danger inherent in having someone like Skeletor believe that you’re good at your job.
For the most part, though, Masters of the Universe is exactly what you’d expect of a toy-spinoff 80’s fantasy movie from Golan and Globus. Dolph Lundgren demonstrated a rare degree of perspicacity for a Hollywood action star of the era when he told an interviewer from Comics Scene, “Playing He-Man was pretty much my lowest point as an actor,” in 1989. Lundgren is awful here, an actor of limited ability utterly defeated by a nearly unplayable role. An “inspiring” leader who speaks solely in inane platitudes; a “fearsome” warrior whose corporate owners won’t allow him to be seen harming a carbon-based lifeform; a fantasy hero from a techno-magical milieu, but stuck for much of the film in prosaic settings that make him look totally ridiculous— Sylvester Stallone had been wise to turn down the part, and he was a much better actor than Lundgren in those days. The action set-pieces are pretty weak throughout, although it’s difficult to pinpoint why. Most of them look like they were shot with an eye toward disguising either poor choreography or lack of experience on the performers’ parts, but considering that that applies even to the clashes between Lundgren (trained in karate and previously employed as both bouncer and bodyguard) and Anthony De Longis (a veteran stuntman who certainly knew his way around a swordfight— look at The Warrior and the Sorceress to see him in top form), you have to wonder if maybe the problem wasn’t more that Gary Goddard just had no idea what to do with a fight scene. Courtney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill consistently behave as if they know they belong in some other movie— which, in point of fact, they do— and although James Tolkan does his best not to join them, there are times when even he looks like he’s thinking, “Jesus, what is this bullshit? Am I really playing a gruff small-town cop in a kid-friendly Conan wannabe?” Billy Barty understandably seems comfortable enough as the movie’s main purveyor of odious comic relief, but that doesn’t make Gwildor any easier to endure. And if you’re not a fan of fantasy movies that hit the “reset” button to make sure that nobody ever has to, you know, deal with any of the world-shaking events that they just lived through, then you’re going to hate the way Masters of the Universe ends.