Updated: Jul 3, 2018
As I write this, the Blu-ray of The Cannon Group cheesefest Masters of the Universe, sits idle in my still-warm player. As a kid, I was never a big fan of the Masters of the Universe cartoon. Actually, I wasn't allowed to watch it. (In some ways, I was pretty sheltered, which is probably why I grew up with a fascination for horror films.) To illustrate my lack of caring about the franchise, just over a month ago I cashed in my Castle Greyskull at a local vintage toy store. Although I am not a He-Man aficionado, I am an expert on the '80s, movies, and movies from the '80s. As such, I can wholeheartedly recommend Masters of the Universe as a fun, guilty-pleasure experience. In the film, He-Man and crew are transported from planet Eternia to earth, to find the cosmic key which will prevent the evil Skelator from becoming the most powerful being in the universe. (Some might say, the master of the universe.) They are joined on their quest by some spunky, early-twenties high school seniors.
I rented the film with zero expectations. The back of the Blu-Ray jacket was conspicuously missing any glowing critical quotes, and even Super Mario Bros. was able to scrounge up a couple of those. But I was caught pleasantly unaware, so much so that had I seen the movie at seven years old, it probably would have made me a lifelong fan of the franchise. I really do wish that I had seen this film thirty years ago. Masters of the Universe has it all, from knocking off sci-fi staples, to big hair, hot '80s chicks, arcade games and Dolph Lundgren starring as the poor-man's Schwarzenegger. The film oozes the excesses of the decade like perhaps no other. One of many examples: We get to see a poster advertising keytars. I loved every minute of Masters of the Universe.
For a film based on the Mattel toy line, Masters of the Universe is surprisingly dark in tone and content, which isn't bad at all. It should come as no shock that the movie has a ton of fantasy violence, but human characters are also in real peril at times, there's some rather gristly gore, and a disproportionate amount of coarse language. I understand the decision to toss a couple of choice words into a kids' movie. This was still a relatively new industry trick for the time, most famously utilized in 1986's Transformers: The Movie. Getting a PG rating was crucial for getting your film to play in a post-matinee time slot, ensuring more revenue. Toss in some language, and you're in prime time. However, Masters of the Universe didn't stop with two or three instances of profanity, as did Transformers: The Movie. Rather, it seemed to use its adult words more for legitimate thematic effect than for shock value. In my opinion, that's more commendable, although with this source material, it seems to border on taking itself too seriously. Still, the language and violence is pervasive enough that I was surprised the film didn't get a PG-13 rating, which had existed for three years by that point. I assume some parents dragged their disappointed kids out of the theater. As I said, I would have eaten this up when it was released.
Masters of the Universe backs some recognizable talent, and time has been especially kind to its casting of Courney Cox as Julie. At this point in her career, she was still a rising star, working mainly in television roles. After Masters of the Universe, she would continue to appear on the small screen, landing among other shows, nineteen episodes of Family Ties. (We'll come back to Family Ties in a bit.) In Masters of the Universe, we see Courtney long before she became a household name with Friends, no doubt just trying to pay the bills. It's always refreshing to see celebrities when they were “climbing the ladder.” It gives me hope that one day I might become famous. Hey, I'm on IMDB, just like she is!
Remember when I said we would revisit Family Ties? It wasn't that long ago, so if you don't, you might want to work on that ADD. Masters of the Universe shares another Michael J. Fox connection... a bald one. That's right: James Tolkan, Back to the Future's Mr. Strickland himself, has a sizable role in this film, seeming to get more screen time than he did in the entire Future trilogy. He plays no-nonsense Detective Lubic, determined to stop Skelator and his marauding army, despite the fact that Lubic has no idea of what's happening. Tolkan even packs a shotgun at one point in the film, very much like he would do in 1989's Back to the Future Part II.
Frank Langella makes a great Skelator, complete with fangs reminiscent of his 1979 role in Dracula. He takes the role seriously, effecting a genuinely intimidating presence. According to Wikipedia, he took the role because his son was a big Skelator fan. Billy Barty, whom I will always remember as Noodles MacIntosh from “Weird Al” Yankovic's genius 1989 entry UHF, actually gets top billing as Gwildor. (Speaking of UHF, it received a PG-13, with no vulgarity and no realistic violence. Again, Masters of the Universe was about violence and got away with a PG. I would argue that ratings are almost irrelevant to films from this era.)
Ironically, Masters of the Universe obscures some of its most notable talent, with Langella and Barty completely unrecognizable in makeup, their voices carrying a good share of their performance. Sadly, some of Barty's dialog is not synced properly to his character's lip movements. It's barely noticeable, but maybe this technical issue went towards his Razzie nomination for the movie.
In terms of plot, you've seen this movie hundreds of times before. It's the generic struggle between good and evil over an item. In this case that item is the cosmic key, which is mistaken for a high-tech synthesizer by Julie's musician boyfriend Kevin, played by Robert Duncan McNeill. This key is the classic plot device which Hitchcock always referred to as the “McGuffin.” By Hitchcock's definition, the McGuffin could be anything; its sole purpose is to give the contrasting forces something to fight over. (Think of every Jackie Chan movie ever made.) However, the odds are that you aren't watching Masters of the Universe for engrossing plot twists and soul-searching performances.
I'd love to be able to say that the film is a totally original spectacle, but there are a lot of more-than-passing resemblances to other, more established films in Masters of the Universe. The theme music in my opinion sounded a lot like the classic strains of Christopher Reeve's Superman films, with just a little of John William's Star Wars themes thrown in for good measure. Star Wars, in fact, seems to be the one franchise to which this film most pays homage. (That sounds better than “rips off.”) Skelator's foot-solders wear uniforms that could be mistaken at a glance for Darth Vader. Billy Barty's Gwildor character is very reminiscent of Yoda, and it could be argued that He-Man's girlfriend Teela's personality is similar to that of Princess Leia's. Another sci-fi francise, Predator, seems to get a nod in the form of one of Skeletor's warrior, Suarod. Beast Man? Straight-up Wolfman. Karg, another Skelator lacky, reminded me of the creatures in the low-budget horror flick Critters.
On the other end of the originality spectrum, Masters of the Universe has characters riding on Hoverboards over two years before they were seen in Back to the Future Part II. And yeah, that's pretty much it.
At the end of the credits, we are treated to a “stinger.” Having a post-credits scene wasn't as common in 1987 as it is now, when it's almost expected. In this short, one-shot sequence, the head of Skelator emerges from what was presumed to be his watery grave. He breaks the fourth wall, promising the audience that he'll be back. Well, Skelator may be evil incarnate, but he's not a liar. It's taken a while, but a new live-action Masters of the Universe will be released in 2019. I don't see how it could possibly be more epic than this one.
Don't leave yet! Check out my article on the Breakin' films, two other low-budget treasures from The Cannon Group.