||Masters of the Universe
1987 - PG - 106 mins. Mins.
|Director: Gary Goddard|
|Written By: David Odell|
|Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Meg Foster, Billy Barty, Courteney Cox, Robert Duncan McNeill, Jon Cypher, Chelsea Field |
|Review by: Ben Samara
The 80s were a hotbed for great cartoons. Shows like 'Thundercats,' 'G.I. Joe' and 'Transformers' never failed to keep children entertained every Saturday morning.
While those shows were certainly special and remain engrained in our pop culture memories, one animated series from the 80s ‘had the power’ to rise above the rest. ‘He-Man and the Masters of the Universe’ told the story of Prince Adam of Eternia and his battles against the evil Skeletor. Prince Adam had the power to turn himself into a Herculean warrior called He-Man. Along with his bevy of friends, He-Man sought to protect Eternia and Castle Greyskull from Skeletor and his vile forces.
The success of the cartoon from 1983-1987 led to the approval of a live action movie entitled ‘Masters of the Universe.’ The film, released in the summer of 1987, follows He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) in his quest to stop Skeletor (Frank Langella) from gaining control of Castle Greyskull and the power it contains. On a side note, it also features a 23-year-old Courtney Cox (of ‘Friends’ fame) in just her second feature film.
It’s obvious the crew was trying to stay true to the source material here, and they do a good job for the most part. Still, there are a few differences, some of which may have ultimately affected the film’s fate. While ‘Masters of the Universe’ does contain a surprisingly tight storyline for what many consider a B-movie, that story seems better suited for a sequel than an original production.
The story jumps right into the action, and those who have no knowledge of the cartoon series may find themselves asking a lot of questions which will never be answered. The filmmakers assume you know what’s going on with He-Man and Skeletor and they don’t spend a precious minute explaining it here.
From the start, we immediately learn that Skeletor has gained control of Greyskull and has imprisoned the Sorceress (Christina Pickles). When the new moon rises, he will receive all the powers Greyskull has to offer and become master of the universe.
As He-Man and his friends, Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher) and Teela (Chelsea Field), attempt to figure out their next move, they meet Gwildor (Billy Barty), a diminutive alien inventor. Gwildor has created a device called the Cosmic Key, which can take its possessor to any place or time in any dimension. He-Man learns that Skeletor gained entrance to Castle Greyskull by using one of these keys and they take off to rescue the Sorceress.
During the ensuing firefight, He-Man and his friends are forced to use the key and are transported to Earth. There, they encounter two ordinary humans, Julie (Cox) and Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill). Together, they must figure out how to get home to save Eternia while evading Skeletor and his minions.
While it is funny at times to see the Eternians deal with the idiosyncrasies of Earth, this is where that idea of the story feeling more like a sequel than an original comes into play. Usually, the first film in a series tells us how the characters came to be. We often see them in their first battles or struggling to come to grips with their situation. In a sequel, the characters we have come to love are usually taken out of their element and have to deal with an unfamiliar situation. Think Daniel’s trip to Okinawa in ‘Karate Kid Part II’ or Rocky’s battle with fame in ‘Rocky II.’ Here, the filmmakers assume you already know and love the characters of the ‘He-Man’ universe and they proceed to throw them out of their element from the start. Perhaps the material would have initially been served better with a more grounded storyline.
Despite this, ‘Masters of the Universe’ is still a decent 80s film, especially for fans of the animated series. Without a doubt, this is Dolph Lundgren’s show and He-Man was the role he was born to play. Am I saying his performance was award-worthy? Of course not. Was it everything fans of He-Man deserved? Absolutely.
After two hits as a supporting actor in 1985 – Ian Flemming’s ‘A View to Kill’ and ‘Rocky IV’ – Lundgren was due for a starring vehicle. With ‘Masters of the Universe,’ Director Gary Goddard and writer David Odell keep to the same theme that made Lundgren successful in those two films: Keep his lines to a minimum.
We all know Lundgren isn’t a great actor. Still – like Keanu Reeves today – if he can get by without saying too much the guy can really play a character. There’s no denying he looks exactly like He-Man. He’s a dead ringer, and as they say, seeing is believing.
To counter Lundgren, the producers went out and got Frank Langella, who probably deserves a lifetime achievement award as much as anyone in Hollywood right now. Langella takes demonic Skeletor to another level, especially during the film’s final act. He really captures the essence of the character: a demented individual, hell-bent on world domination, whose only downfall is his insatiable greed.
Langella steals nearly every scene he appears in during what is arguably his finest performance to date. The contrast between his flamboyant motions and subtle eye movements combined with a picture-perfect mask make his Skeletor one of the most memorable villains ever put on film.
An epic score from Academy Award-winning composer Bill Conti adds the perfect pitch to the film as well. Conti’s melodies are always present, but never overpowering. The ‘Masters of the Universe’ theme would surely be engrained in our heads today – along with themes like ‘Superman’ and ‘Star Wars’ – if the film had generated more success.
Alas, ‘Masters of the Universe’ never did generate that success and it quickly fell into the catacombs of pop culture. After a $5 million opening weekend, it went on to gross just $17 million, squashing all hopes of a planned sequel. Perhaps if the filmmakers had not included sequel elements in their initial endeavor, the ‘Masters of the Universe’ franchise could have lived to see another day. It’s sad to see that after 18 years, Langella’s marvelous performance and Conti’s classic score have fallen by the waste side.