Masters of the Universe (1987)

We could have had Star Wars meets Conan the Barbarian. There’s monsters and machines aplenty in the “He-Man” mythos! There’s villains and demons and mystical storylines in the franchise. Except we’re given He-Man in the Hood! This is a man who comes from a civilization with unusual machines, and magic, and war weapons, and he can’t get over the fact that there’s a place that sells meat on bones for human consumption. There’s literally a scene where Teela, Man at Arms, and He-Man marvel at a bucket of chicken and ribs they found at the local restaurant. This is clearly not what we He-Man fans originally envisioned. Of course, that didn’t stop me from watching it at least a thousand times when I was a child, but “He-Man” deserved a space epic the size of “Star Wars” and instead we get so little of it. I’m not asking much from a franchise built solely around selling toys, but there is a lot of mythological potential for making a He-Man movie.

“Masters of the Universe” from 1987 has all the ingredients to make a damn good space epic for the kids, and squanders so much of it thanks to the small thinking of the screenwriters and the low budget. The technical wizard Gwildor has invented a cosmic key that allows anyone to travel through any dimension or galaxy, and in an effort to keep it out of the hands of Skeletor, the trio of Eternians and the grating little character Gwildor are accidentally zoomed in to California. Of course. Saving time on set designs, and keeping the budget respectable, about ninety percent of the film is set in California, where the trio of warriors are reduced to becoming E.T. where they gaze in awe at Earth’s small devices and normal functions, while looking for the lost cosmic key.

For some apparent reason, the script focuses on Earthling Julie Winston, an orphan whose aspiring musician boyfriend discovers the key and confuses it as a Japanese synthesizer. Many a filler later, Skeletor and his forces begin infiltrating Earth, and there is a slew of really hokey and goofy moments that are supposed to equate to action scenes, as well as truly irritating supporting characters like Lubic, an intrusive detective of the small town of Whittier investigating the alien invasion, and Julie’s boyfriend Kevin who spends most of the film thankfully getting physically abused and tortured.  There really isn’t a lot to “Masters of the Universe” except what could have been, and for its faults there is a real entertainment factor to the schlock that ensues, and the set designs are pretty eye catching. What little we see of them, anyway.

Skeletor’s throne room is still one of the coolest set pieces I’ve ever gazed upon, while the make up effects still looks pretty damn excellent. Frank Langella disappears in to the guise of Skeletor and has a good time with such an under utilized character in the film. Characters like Saurod, Blade, Beastman and Karg still look dazzling on-screen, particularly with their prosthetics and latex, while Meg Foster also seems to revel in playing the devious Evil-Lyn. As for Dolph Lundgren he’s basically the right man for the job during the decade. He has the build and the golden locks, so he approaches the character of He-Man with as much charisma as the script allows, since the dramatic weight of the story is handed to the two snot nosed teenagers and character Julie’s hang up over her dead mother throughout the duration of the film. Though the movie does eventually pay off with a showdown between He-Man and Skeletor, a chanting of the character’s famous war cry, and as many special effects as can be squeezed in to fifteen minutes, there just isn’t a lot here for fans of the franchise.

The focus should be on He-Man and his friends, and instead we spend most of the film as well as the climax on two human characters we’ve never met. And the ambiguous “Did it really happen or was it some dream?” fake out ending feels really cheap. Almost like the writer simply had no idea how to end the story. But then, with such a shoddy mixing of tones and genres, who can blame them? Much like the original series, “Masters of the Universe” is a cheap and rushed production seeking to bank on the momentum of the He-Man popularity. The story stinks, and the characters are one-dimensional, but what little it offers up of He-Man and his world is entertaining and dazzling. It is by no means a masterpiece, but it still possesses some keen schlock value for fans of eighties cinema.