Film Retrospect: Masters of the Universe
by Barry Wurst
June 2, 2007
Think you're geeking out over Transformers opening up in July? Try being a 10-year old and learning that they made a live-action movie based on one of the coolest cartoons in all of filmation! Truly, you've earned your geek badge if you can recall your after-school afternoons, basking in the land of Eternia, followed by He-Man's cousin, "She-Ra, Princess of Power", a round of "G.I. Joe", then "The Transformers", then the rip-off, "Go-Bots", and 30-minutes of "Rambo" in PG-rated adventures, where he'd put his bandana on in a montage… even though he was always wearing one already! Sorry, I just had a violent 80's flashback, set to the tune of Bananarama. Okay, back to the subject at hand.
Here is some hardcore geek info (if you already knew this, then consider yourself a personal friend of mine): the He-Man toys were created when Mattel developed a spin-off line of action figures for the movie Conan the Barbarian! The line was cancelled when it was decided the R-rated film wouldn't sell action figures to children effectively, but instead of destroying the already established figures, they were re-painted! Thus, "Conan" became "He-Man", the line was re-distributed and the rest is history! Okay, I'll cover my back and state that this is a popular urban legend that Mattel neither confirmed nor ever denied, but still, aren't you glad you know this?!
Seeing the coming attraction previews on television, with Dolph Lundgren wielding a sword in a blue mist, was enough to make me forget that Orco and Battlecat weren't going to be in the movie. In fact, with the new villains, modern day setting and casting of "Ivan Drago" and "Dracula" in the leads, all was forgiven and I couldn't wait until opening day.
Die-hard "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" fans have mixed feelings about the film itself, though most have fond feelings about what is rightly acknowledged as a camp classic. What works: Lundgren is undeniably a perfect choice as He-Man, the now-dated special effects are fun, the Superman: The Movie rip-off score by Bill Conti is enjoyable, James Tolkan makes almost any movie watchable and, above all, Frank Langella is terrific as Skeletor. Even though he's covered by a glorified Halloween mask, Langella's forceful, operatic performance is something to see. Chelsea Field and Meg Foster bring a lot to their roles as Eternia's resident hotties, Teela and Evil Lyn, and look out - it's Courtney Cox in her film debut! The action scenes are fun and the movie itself has something for the 10-year old boy in everyone.
Now for the downside: the film was produced by Cannon Group, a studio that primarily made B-films that played like Z-films. In all fairness, they did produce a handful of quality films, but unless you're a die hard Chuck Norris, Van Damme or Barbarian Twins fan, you probably haven't seen very many of them. Basically, the studio that put out Alien From L.A. didn't have the biggest budget to offer an elaborate fantasy film (though $17 million, which was the cost of this, was a healthy production budget in 1987). Extensive scenes set in Eternia were scrapped and, in placing much of the action in America of '87, we have a corny eighties movie where a synthesizer provides a key plot point. Also, since no one knew how to create fan favorite Orco as a special effect, we get Gwildor instead; even though he's played by the wonderful Billy Barty, Gwildor is only a few degrees less annoying than Jar Jar Binks. Also, since this is, after all, a movie designed to sell toys, the dialogue and plotting are silly at best, unintentionally hilarious at worst.
As far as 80's cult movies go, this one doesn't have the heart of The Boy Who Could Fly or the emotional power of The Secret of Nimh. However, if you were expecting poignancy, meaning and angst from a "He-Man" movie, then this won't work for you at all. Really, this one is just fun, a fact that most of the critics missed in its day (though a couple of them, like USA Today, hinted at it being the guilty pleasure that it still is to this day).
The failure of the "He-Man" movie was nearly in sync with the disappearance of the toy line and the cartoon show. That the characters and the movie itself are still so well known in pop culture says a lot about the nostalgia factor, and it looks like "By The Power of Greyskull" will always have resonance for someone. The talks that the powers that be are working on a new, live-action "He-Man" movie, described as "'300 for kids", makes my eyes roll. Really, once you see Dolph Lundgren take on uber-Skeletor in an ultimate climactic battle… few things can make me transform into a giddy 10-year old at the mere thought.