If you were a kid during the eighties (as I was) then you probably remember (as I do) the Masters of The Universe toy line and cartoon program. You may also recall the notorious Cannon Group, who according to one writer were responsible for “some of the shoddiest fare ever foisted upon the public.” Those two entities came together in this 1987 movie that I like a fair amount…but then I also love HOWARD THE DUCK, so make of that what you will.
Mattel’s Masters of the Universe action figures were rodent sized plastic figures with rubber band waits that allowed the torsos to twist. Characters included the muscle bound He-Man, the heavily armored Man-At-Arms, the Skeleton faced Skeletor, the hairy Beast-Man and the witchy Evil-Lyn. A Saturday morning cartoon show featuring all those characters turned up in the mid-eighties, followed by this live action movie from Cannon (and mega-producer Lawrence Pressman), who it seems never found a property they couldn’t exploit the Hell out of.
The film is most notable these days for its cast. Courtney Cox, coming off the short-lived TV program MISFITS OF SCIENCE, headlined, along with Dolph Lundgren, who’d just debuted in ROCKY IV. Chelsea Field, the future star of THE LAST BOYSCOUT and DUST DEVIL, was also on hand, as was Meg Foster, a respectable actress who appeared in this film and John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE around the same time. Note also the presence of the late Billy Barty, performing under tons of makeup, and Frank Langella, who was coming off the Broadway production of AMADEUS and proved here that he could chew scenery with the best of ‘em.
On the distant planet Eternia the evil Skeletor and his sidekick Evil-Lyn have taken over the iconic Castle Greyskull, and are looking to extend their power to encompass the entire planet—and from there the universe. The key to their influence lies in the hands of the dwarfish Gwildor, who has a device that can transport people and objects over cosmic distances—a “Cosmic Key.” Gwildor’s heroic buddies He-Man (a muscle-bound swordsman), Man-At-Arms (He-Man’s armor-plated sidekick) and Teela (a jumpsuit-wearing hottie) are accidentally transported to the planet Earth in 1987 by the Cosmic Key.
The Cosmic Key ends up in the hands of the teenaged Los Angeles resident Julie and her musician boyfriend Kevin, who initially takes it for some kind of synthesizer. This precipitates a massive battle between He-Man and co. against Skeletor and Evil-Lyn, who’ve managed to track the Key to Earth and dispatched their laser rifle wielding sentries.
Lots of shooting and explosions follow before Evil-Lyn tricks Julie into handing over the key. He-Man steals it back, but only for a short time, as Skeletor ends up with it. He makes He-Man his slave and whisks everyone back to Eternia, leaving behind Man At Arms, Teela, Gwildor, Kevin and Julie.
The latter five manage to make their way to Eternia, however, and take on Skeletor. I wouldn’t dream of revealing who wins, but will say that around this point He-Man finally gets to hold his sword over his head and intone his signature line (from the toy line and cartoon series): “I HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAVE THE POWERRRRRRRRRRRRR!”
Obviously Gary Goddard will never be mistaken for Jean-Luc Godard. That guy made classics like BREATHLESS, ALPHAVILLE and CONTEMPT, while Gary Goddard directed MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, a guilty pleasure if ever there was.
The film has problems without question. The budget was reportedly around $17 million, a not-insubstantial sum for 1987, yet (in true Cannon fashion) looks like it cost a fraction of that amount. Many neat concepts are introduced (such as flying platforms) but ruined due to the crappiness of the special effects. The budget may have been fairly robust, but Cannon still found plenty of corners to cut, including an epic swordfight that was jettisoned due to a truncated shooting schedule.
There’s also the fact there are simply too many characters. The sole cast members who make any impression are Langella’s Skeletor and Meg Foster’s Evil-Lyn. As for Dolph Lundgren as He-Man, the ersatz hero, he has so little screen time he barley registers. Only those viewers who (like me) are familiar with the toy line and cartoon series will truly “get” this movie.
Yet in spite of all that I find the film quite entertaining overall. To be sure, there was some extraordinary talent working behind the scenes: composer Bill Conti (of ROCKY and THE RIGHT STUFF), editor Anne V. Coates (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE ELEPHANT MAN) production designer William Stout (CONAN THE BARBARIAN, THE MIST), conceptual artist Jean “Mobius” Giraud (the legendary French comic artist of THE INCAL and BLUEBERRY fame), and visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund (the first three STAR WARS movies). This explains why the film, despite its many shortcomings, flows as smoothly and enjoyably as it does.
In the end, though, this movie will be of interest primarily to those who appreciate 1980s cheese. As such MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE rivals classic eighties ephemera like CONTAMINATION, MEGAFORCE and SUPERGIRL—and that’s no faint praise!
MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE
The Cannon Group, Inc.
Director: Gary Goddard
Producers: Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus
Screenplay: David Odell
Cinematography: Hanina Baer
Editing: Anne V. Coates
Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Courtney Cox, Billy Barty, James Tolkan, Christina Pickles, Meg Foster, Chelsea Field, Robert Duncan McNeill, Jon Cypher, Tony Carroll, Pons Maar, Anthony De Longis