Before Sunday afternoon, I hadn’t watched Masters of the Universe since I was about twelve years old. Between the cable box’s copy rating the movie at one star, and a 13% aggregated score at Rotten Tomatos, I wasn’t expecting much. And big surprise, this 1987 big screen adaptation of the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe isn’t nearly as good as I remember it being. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t even find some sort of redeeming subtext a la Krull, which at least had the decency to be a not so subtle conversation on the merits of fantasy over science fiction. So by all accounts, Masters of the Universe is a bad movie. Yet if we set it against the components of contemporary action movies it doesn’t seem quite so terrible.
At an hour and forty-three minute runtime, the movie is about twenty minutes too long. The narrative is a poorly constructed waltz whose three beats of exposition-battle-repost repeat only through the inability of Skeletor’s goons to shoot straight. While we’re on the subject of Skeletor’s cannon fodder, his robot minions look to be a cheap knock off of the “Slayers” in Krull. Nine out of ten speaking characters get shit dialogue up to and including young Courteney Cox and young Robert Duncan McNeill. For example, when a bunch of Snake Mountian’s finest kick down a door revealing a lone Tom Paris Earth mortal named Kevin Corrigan, he proceeds to throw a tea towel at them and scream, “Get outta here.”
There’s even a flagrant red card worthy fourth wall violation when Teela shoots a baddie only to look at the camera and say, “woman at arms.”
Hey, you know what this movie is starting to sound like? EVERY ACTION MOIVE EVER MADE FOR THE LAST 30 YEARS.
The problems endemic to this movie really seem to be the sort of thing common to all sci-fi action movies. Would anybody accuse The Running Man of being burdened with brilliant writing? Does The Last Starfighter boast particularly well developed characters? I know I am a product of late eighties and early nineties youth culture, and therefore prone to occasional bouts of nostalgia therein, but I don’t think that’s the case here. If we’re going to condemn Masters of the Universe as a bottom of the barrel movie then we need to revaluate a whole lot of other movies from that time period as well.
For 1987, Master of the Universe’s special effects, make up, and creature creations are quite good. Though I could swear one of Skeletor’s named minions was actually played by Linda Hunt. Still, the effort that went into creating the reptilian thug Saurod remains impressive to this day (PS to the writers, I’m sure nobody noticed that this guy’s name is almost Sauron).
Despite its origins, Masters of the Universe scores points for presenting itself as somewhat distinct from the animated series. Yes, the master locksmith Gwildor (voiced by Billy Barty) was likely created because there was no budget to produce a visually acceptable screen version of Orco the Magnificent; the same goes double for why Cringer/Battle Cat didn’t make an appearance. On a positive note, the movie drops the childish Prince Adam/He-Man double identity. In fact, the only person to make any transformations in the movie is Skeletor once he succeeds in siphoning the Sorceresses’ connection to the all powerful mojo of the cosmos.
Rather than working with the cartoon’s perpetual Eternia/Snake Mountain cold war, the film begins with Skeletor vanquishing the armies of Eternia and sitting upon the sorceresses’ throne within Castle Greyskull. Meanwhile He-Man, Duncan aka Man at Arms, and Teela are leading a guerilla resistance against Skeletor and his forces. And while Skeletor’s minions remain perpetual fuck-ups, the scourge of the universe is infinitely more effective in the film than he ever was in the cartoon. If only the plot had stayed on Eternia and not come to Earth. He-Man the rebel would have been infinitely more interesting than He-Man the tourist in Smalltown, USA.
Some critics have argued Masters of the Universe was nothing more than an attempt to sell toys. This would be a great point except the film’s release in August of 1987 was two years after Filmation ceased producing new episodes of the He-Man animated series. Moreover, if we want to look at cheap gimmicks to sell toys we must turn our attention to the 1986 Transformers feature film. Said movie didn’t just introduce new characters for toyification, it killed every other beloved transformer, including Optimus Prime, of Transformers’ first two seasons to make way for Hasbro’s new robots in disguise. So when the big book of “film as marketing gimmick” is written, Masters of the Universe certainly won’t be the worst offender.
But if there is one reason to watch this film, knowing it to be the sort of thing best viewed on a lazy Sunday afternoon, it must be Frank Langella as Skeletor. Yes, I said Frank Langella, the man who twenty years later would play Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon. In a movie whose “virtues” are talked about through the lens of lesser evils, Langella nails it as Skeletor. His performance falls in the sweet spot between genuine character acting and shameless scenery chewing. It is exactly the sort of over the top performance necessary for a megalomaniac who wants to rule the universe. Even Skeletor’s dialogue seems better than the rest of the cast’s speaking parts. We could chalk that up to Langella’s delivery and natural talent as an actor. Truthfully, I suspect it has more to do with Evil Lyn being written as the movie’s Lieutenant Worf. Whenever Evil Lyn shares the screen with Skeletor it’s mostly to be told how she is doing it wrong. Unfortunate for actress Meg Foster, but great for the rest of us.
To say that Masters of the Universe is a “stupid” movie is to partake in the worst sort of critical double think. Most sci-fi action movies are stupid to some degree. But here I am thinking we learned that lesson from Last Action Hero. What we should say about Masters of the Universe is it’s an over the top piece of action sci-fi lacking the charm of its period contemporaries. The absence of narrative je ne c’est qua is arguably what leaves the foulest taste in a viewer’s mouth. Like most action movies, Masters of the Universe’s characters are shallow, and the dialogue would have to try to be mediocre. It’s dark when it should be light hearted, and whimsical when it should be serious. But for the late eighties, the special effects are fantastic. And setting all other considerations aside, Frank Langella as Skeletor is nothing if not a guilty pleasure.
Worst movie ever? Hardly. Worst of the eighties? Doubtful. Good because it’s bad? Not quite. Masters of the Universe is garden variety bad rather than any particular breed of hot house awful.
Masters of the Universe was directed by Gary Goddard. It starred Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Meg Foster, Billy Barty, Courteney Cox, and Robert Duncan McNeill.