Masters of the Universe
What He said:
I know exactly what you are thinking, “That crappy Dolph Lundgren movie?” Yeah, that’s the one. Just hear me out. Even if you aren’t a fan of the franchise or genre, I bet I can convince you why I am. You might still laugh at me for liking a series about a guy who runs around in his underwear fighting evil and has about a generic name as you can get, but you’ll respect me dammit.
The movie stars off on the planet Eternia. Eternia is at the center of the universe and that means it’s all mysterious and magical. I kind of took it as the planet being close …well everything. It’s loosely implied that a lot of the answers to life’s great mysteries can be found closer to the center of the universe and because Eternia is close to “the source” there’s strong magical presence and sense of importance there.
Anyway, the evil tyrant, Skeletor (Frank Langella), has recently taken control of Castle Grayskull. Grayskull is home of the good guys and is watched over by The Sorceress (Christina Pickles). She is sort of the spiritual advisor of Eternia in the cartoon and comics, but I believe she’s the (benevolent) ruler in the movie. She uses her powers to defend Eternia from the evil intentions of Skeletor (Frank Langella) and his minions. However, Skeletor has recently seized control of the castle and The Sorceress, and plans to use the power of both to rule Eternia with an iron fist. It’s hinted that this is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, victories of Skeletor’s reign.
Unfortunately for him, He-Man and his companions won’t allow that. He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) is a champion for good and Eternia’s greatest warrior. He is the protector of the castle, keeper of Sword of Grayskull, and all around good guy.
He is joined by Duncan (also known as Man-at-Arms) and his daughter Teela (Chelsea Field). They are veterans of Castle Grayskull’s army. Duncan is a wily, yet honorable, old veteran. He’s been doing this a while and is a good soldier. Teela is his feisty daughter. The chick has attitude. There are times when even He-Man lays down his weapons to live and fight another day and Teela objects.
The three of them are on the run from Skeletor’s forces. Most of the good guys have been captured, but they are hiding out in the home of a little fella named Gwildor. Gwildor (Billy Barty) is an inventor and locksmith. He has invented something called the Cosmic Key, which allows the holder to travel through space and time. He uses the key to take He-Man, Duncan, and Teela to Castle Grayskull in an attempt to free The Sorceress and kick Skeletor’s evil ass out. Things don’t go so well though. They are severely outnumbered and forced to retreat. Not having much time pick a location, Gwildor just starts punching keys on the Cosmic Key.
They end up on Earth in the 1980s. A plot device like this is a classic 80s move and could and should really work against it, and arguably does consider the rich world of the He-Man franchise, but it was the 80s and this kind of cheese was only possible during that decade.
While on Earth, they lose the key. It is found by two teenagers. Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill) and Julie (Courtney Cox) are high school sweethearts about to embark on different paths. Julie’s parents have recently died in a plane crash and she simply wants to move far away from anything and everything that reminds her of them. She doesn’t really want to break up with Kevin, but the thought of staying in her hometown is simply too much. She needs a clean slate. While saying goodbye to her parents at the cemetery, the two of them come across the key and soon become involved in the war between He-Man and Skeletor’s forces.
I like a movie that entertains me. It does not have to be a “quality film.” If it is, that’s fantastic, but I could honestly care less as long as I’m entertained. That’s what is most important to me. We watch movies to be entertained and if a movie does that for you, mission accomplished. I also like things that make me feel like a kid again. As a kid, I was always pretending to be “fighting evil” or “saving the day.” Don’t get me wrong, as an adult I like some dark and gritty stuff too, but there’s just something about an idealistic movie with a sense of adventure that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside and this movie has those qualities. In that sense, it has always reminded me of Star Wars (the original trilogy) or Richard Donner’s Superman. It’s about heroes doing the right thing simply because that’s what heroes are supposed to do.
Fortunately the movie distances itself from the cartoon, which was awful. The old comics are fun and DC Comics has a fantastic reimaging of the series that is currently running, but that cartoon so many boys grew up on was brutal. There’s a reason stuff like this exists. Don’t believe me? Check some of these videos out from the show itself. Skeletor alone is a source of many laughs. He’s totally inept and a rambling boob. I’m sorry if that destroyed your childhood, but there’s a reason this cartoon has become one of the most mocked on the web. There are countless clips and memes about this franchise – many focusing on some of the rather suggestive stuff (which is always weird in a kids cartoon). Some of them are really funny too.
I feel your pain too. Growing up, Masters of the Universe was one of my big three along with Transformers and GI Joe (which is also pretty bad in retrospect). I can’t believe I was duped into watching that crap. I know as kids we had lower standards, but yikes! That cartoon was truly awful.
Besides what I mentioned above, the other thing that I really enjoy in this movie is the theatrical aspect of it. With a very limited budget, they managed to do a very good job of not only replicating the look and feel of these characters – and even surpassing it in some ways (Skeletor’s makeup and costume were awesome). Yeah, some of the costumes are pretty silly – He-Man’s in particular – but again consider what it’s based on. The music is also very theatrical and dramatic. It very clearly borrows heavily from Richard Donner’s Superman and Star Wars, but is enough of its own thing where I wouldn’t call it an outright ripoff.
Then of course there’s the acting. I dare you to watch Frank Langella’s Skeletor and tell me it isn’t genuinely good. The guy put everything he had in the role and it shows. You don’t believe me? The guy loved the role and even says so in this interview. He took a very shallow and poorly written (but funny) character and turned him into something reminiscent of Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine. His performance was truly wonderful. He delivered some epic dialogue in this movie. He’s easily one of my favorite villains of my childhood. He’s right up there with Vader, Palpatine, Queen Bavmorda, and General Kale (the latter two being from Willow). It’s a powerhouse of a performance. There's a reason I put his picture first in this review.
The rest of the performances were just fine too. Aside from the bad haircut, Dolph Lundgren really wasn’t that bad (given the role). He-Man’s the good guy who will not rest until evil is put to rest. He fights for good just because it’s the right thing to do. Sure he’s idealistic – and not a particularly deep character – but the actor can only work with what he’s given and Lundgren was fine. It’s a nice change of pace from all the dark, damaged, and sometimes unlikeable heroes of today’s pop culture. Lundgren also brought a much needed boost of manliness that the cartoon lacked. I can’t believe so many little boys actually thought this tool was cool growing up.
Along for the ride in supporting roles are Chelsea Field (Mrs. Scott Bakula) as Teela, Jon Cypher as Man-at-Arms, and legendary 80s character James Tolkan (AKA Principal Strickland) as detective Lubic. Field was great as the tough as nails, yet kind of hot, warrior Teela. Jon Cypher was excellent as her wily veteran soldier father Man-at-Arms. He was the second best performance behind Langella.
And despite the fact one of the biggest flaws of the movie is that most of it takes place in 1980s Earth instead of Eternia, we wouldn’t have had the awesome performance of James Tolkan This dude simply looks hard. Detective Lubic was a bad-ass all the way. I get criticism of taking the movie to Earth. It’s a totally cheap gimmick meant to mask the fact they didn’t have a budget to make sets that look like an alien world, but also happen to think it’s hilarious. The movie is hokey mix of culture clash and fantasy adventure. It’s the kind of premise we laugh at today, but it was the 80s and movies from that decade were known for their high cheese factor.
I also thought young Courtney Cox’s performance was decent. Despite being a girl, and girls being icky to the target audience of this movie, I always identified with her. Of course, I pictures myself fighting alongside He-Man and not being scared like she was, but I still found her to be relatable as a child. The guy that played her boyfriend wasn’t bad. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t bad either. It was a very 80s performance and if it wasn’t during that era, I’d have probably criticized it more. I always got a kick out of this part. First, who puts trash in the sink? You’re only going to have to take it out later and put it in the trash can? Additionally, what exactly doesn’t he like about those perfectly good oranges? Haha, it’s so dumb that I like it.
So, if you like fun, cheesy, space/fantasy type of stuff, with a classic 80s feel, the kid in you should love this. It’s like a B-level Star Wars.
Rating: Thumbs up.
This movie review was originally written for your reading pleasure on October 21, 2011. It was revised on June 16, 2013 and again on January 8, 2015.