Masters of the Universe is a 1987 sci-fi fantasy film based on the popular toyline and action figures of the time. A huge box office flop, it nonetheless has gained a cult following and continues to earn fans for its campy approach and slice of cinema lore.
There’s trouble on the planet of Eternia, when dark lord Skeletor (Frank Langella) and his minions capture Castle Grayskull, the hub of all good and evil. Worse, they have imprisoned the Sorceress of Grayskull (Christina Pickles), a great and magical being who is the source of power for Skeltor’s greatest nemesis, He-Man (Dolph Lundgren), a superhuman warrior and protector of Eternia. Additionally, Gwildor (Billy Barty), a master locksmith, has created a “cosmic key” that opens portals to any place in the universe and Skeletor has stolen it. But there is another, and He-Man, his partner Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher) and his daughter Teela (Chelsea Field) use it to escape with Gwildor so they can make a plan to retake the castle. Still following?
The problem is, the key opened a portal that sent them to 1987 Earth and in the process, the key is lost. Naturally, it is found by a couple of teenagers (Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill) who, thinking its a “new Japanese synthesizer” accidentally transmit the key’s location back to Eternia where Evil-lyn (Meg Foster), Skeletor’s second-in-command sends four of her baddest henchmen to recover it, pitting He-Man and his team against the goons in a battle on Earth.
Directed by Gary Goddard, Masters of the Universe is a film adaptation of the Mattel toy line that is an odd mix of comedy, action, and drama that can’t seem to find the right tone in any of these genres. It shamelessly rips off other key fantasy films, such Conan, Star Wars, and even Superman, throwing everything it can in a messy attempt at confusing audiences. While the toys are marketed for children, and the film clearly meant to sell tie-ins, it overshoots young viewers and tries to grab the high-school teenage ticket buyers, becoming to dark and violent for kids and yet too childish for teenagers.
One thing it does right though, and something many modern superhero film franchises might learn from, is skip the origin story and go right into a story, though the issue here is that for anyone not familiar with the characters and backstory, it’s a big leap as there are no introductions, to narration, not even a title card with some setup. While the decision to avoid a beginning is welcome, the lack of exposition makes for getting caught up a little less fun. That said, it’s not too hard to figure the basics. The bad guy is a walking skeleton in a black robe.
That ‘guy’ is gifted actor Frank Langella in layers of latex and white paint so thick, he can’t do anything but barely move his lips, and ends up looking far less intimidating than he should. Like others in the cast, he takes the role very seriously, and yet is surely having fun with it, but the mediocre story and often awful dialog sap him of any menace. Then there is Lundgren as He-Man. At the time, an inexperienced actor from Sweden with low English language skills, fresh off his physically impressive stint as Rocky Balboa’s foe in Rocky V, the part seemed tailor made, but unfortunately, the actor is wholly out of his element. Barely getting his lines out (the actor had a contract that allowed him three chances for dubbing his lines), the real problem is his presence, or lack thereof. In striking contrast to his role as Ivan Drago, he seems small here, unimposing, and oddly, not at all superhuman. He simple can’t bring any charm to the role and is lost in a mess of bewildering characters and terribly choreographed action pieces that fail on every level to capitalize on the man’s physique and strength.
Masters of the Universe could have been some campy fun, but is instead one misstep after another, burdened by a weak script and uninspired direction. The cast give their best, yet can’t lift it out of mediocrity. Unlike Flash Gordon, which transcended its awfulness with high wattage charm, Masters of the Universe is just a murky, unpleasant (thankfully) brief 105 minutes. But, like every movie, it has one great moment.
That Moment In
On Earth, the fight to find and keep the Cosmic key brings parties from both sides down to the planet. Changing possession from the teenagers to an abrasive detective (James Tolkan). Meanwhile, Evil-Lyn and her mercenaries continue to scour and face off a few times against He-Man and his gang. The cop takes the key to a music shop where he’s been told the owner can corroborate the story behind how the teenagers found it, and where He-Man and the teenaged girl arrive to take it back. Just then, Skeletor shows up and epic battle ensues where He-Man and the others are eventually overwhelmed. He-Man is forced into servitude and brought back to the Castle. Skeletor is waiting for the new moonrise and the lunar apex to get into position so he can absorb the power of the captured Sorceress.
Skeletor believes he has everything, including the defeated warrior. There, Skeletor has his nemesis whipped at the foot of his throne as the imprisoned Sorceress, slowly decaying under the powerful force-field, watches in dismay. Skeletor demands the larger man kneel before his new master, but the warrior refuses despite his beating and the failing health of the castle guardian. Skeletor mocks him, asking, “Where is your strength? Where has it gone?” and clutches at his staff in giddy anticipation of his coming transformation. Everything is coming to pass and the villain is nearing his destiny.
The moment is all Langella and he is at his best here, easily making it possible to understand why he claims this is his favorite role. Instead of playing the part as omnipotent or even overly malicious, there is a kind of vulnerability as he speaks, a trepidation hiding in his words. Look how he clings to his heavy staff as it seems to both support his weight and provide a post in which to seemingly peek from behind, adding a tremendously creepy feel to his face, as if he’s a ghost lurking around a corner. Langella’s posture is a remarkable addition to the film’s singularly great bit of dialog as well, or at least its delivery as he describes the process of death and rebirth accompanying the coming moon. Contorting his facing into a genuinely terrifying grimace of villainy, this is the Skeletor that could and should have carried the film and the strongest moment in a utterly forgettable movie.
Masters of the Universe (1987): Kneel Before Skeletor
Director: Gary Goddard
Writer: David Odell
Stars: Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Christina Pickles, Chelsea Field, Billy Barty