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80’s Rewind: Masters of the Universe (1987)

I was born in 1971 which means my teenage years matched the 1980’s exactly. I have all sorts of memories of the films of the time because I loved films. I’ll be honest, I can’t even remember how I saw most of them as I didn’t go to the cinema much. I guess it must have been VHS videos from the ubiquitous, sole-trader video rental stores.

There might also have been the odd pirate VHS tape.

Stranger Things, the fact these films have become re-make targets and even original films are heavily 80’s inspired, such as Thor: Ragnorak, has inspired me to rewind time and watch a bunch of the 80’s films of my teenage years and see if they hold up as period greats or whether I’m suffering from a heavy dose of nostalgia vision.

So, let’s go.

The Video Version

The Fandomlife Channel version of this article is below.

A Troubled Production

Masters of the Universe was a film Mattel wanted to make. The toys were selling well based on the cartoon and they wanted to capitalise on that by making a film for kids. This makes perfect sense as in the post-Star Wars decade pretty much everyone wanted to catch that Star Wars money train.

The trouble was, midway through production, the sales of the toys mysteriously tanked, putting a film launched on the back of a strong toy line into being the last best hope for the toy line at the same time the budget was put under stress.

This whole backdrop created a strange beast of a film.

It gave the first time feature film director, Gary Goddard, a number of challenges. There was a range of restrictions placed on the film by Mattel that put major limitation on what was supposed to be an action film. The budget was also a problem, with the wage bill occasionally being put under threat and being all but shut down towards the end of the film.

These elements visibly impacted the film. The fact the film uses stormtrooper like enemies is purely to allow He-Man to hit people with his sword without annoying the suits from Mattel. It also explains some of the budgeting problems including the strange directorial choices when He-Man and Skeletor finally face off in the finale.

It created a weird dynamic that saw the film deliver an astounding, singular set in Eternia but then have the majority of the film set on mundane Earth. An odd set-up with the actors which saw the film being carried by the acting talent of villains.

It’s no surprise the film is a mixed bag of stuff.

A Commercial Failure

The studio behind Masters of the Universe was Canon Films. Canon films was synonymous with a particular style of film associated with the decade. They had a prolific release schedule peaking at 46 in 1986 only a year before the release of Masters of the Universe.

What’s been interesting is to see the type of films they did make. They’re single-handedly responsible for every b-movie you might have rented from a high street VHS store: Death Wish, a chain of Chuck Norris films (Missing in Action et al), American Ninja, King Soloman’s Mines and the science fiction horror film Life Force. They made them cheap and stacked them high and were very much a productive of the era.

They also owned the rights to Spider-Man in the 80’s, which is a frightening prospect.

Masters of the Universe was their self-proclaimed Star Wars of the 80’s. Cynical marketing language aside, this sums up the era perfectly. Films in the 80’s were competing with the momentous 70’s, which was an era of big, commercially successful and critically acclaimed films. There was undoubtedly many claims of being the Star Wars, Superman and Close Encounters of the Third Kinds of the 80’s.

Despite this claim the film was a critical and commercial failure.

It’s A Guilty Pleasure

Let’s be honest, this film is well into guilty pleasure territory. It’s a bit like the Flash Gordon film, which will features in a future 80’s Rewind, but it doesn’t have as many of the charms or musical flourishes of that film.

On re-watching it discovered it’s not actually that good.

There are only three reasons to like a film like Masters of the Universe:-

  1. It has moments that are particularly inspired, cool or interesting
  2. It has particular performances that stand out
  3. It has a certain charm despite it not being a particularly strong work

You know. One of the above or combinations of them. In the case of Masters of the Universe it’s all about moments and performances. Well, one performance really, Frank Langella as Skeletor.

The Cast Both Terrible And Great

The cast is a dichotomy of performances that are truly better than the film as a whole and do their best to drag the movie kicking and screaming into a higher level of quality. Then you have key and central performances that really drag it down every time that performance is the camera’s focus.

The 80’s Beef

Dolph Lundgren. What can I say? He ain’t no Sylvester Stallone.

Fresh from Rocky IV (1985), in which he plays the monosyllabic Ivan Drago, he was no doubt looking for a film to launch his career. It can also been why he was cast from a physical perspective. The statuesque and blonde actor is the real, physical embodiment of He-Man himself.

His performance is terrible though and is one of the most prominent weaknesses in the film. He actually looks like he is thinking and concentrating through his delivery of the lines. He either doesn’t show emotion or when he does it generates an uncanny valley effect. He can’t even act post-combat heavy breathing naturally his performance is that bad.

The really weird thing about Lundgren’s stilted, monosyllabic and accented performance is in interviews about the film he’s a charming, natural guy whose accent isn’t that big of a problem. It’s almost like when he’s himself you can easily see why he was cast but when someone points a camera at him and goes act he is terrible.

Even this performance took some work to draw out. So much so that it was seriously considered that Lundgren should be dubbed. They tested different actors, found one they liked that really worked and if the director had his way that’s what would have happened.

They kept Dolph’s performance in the final film.

It’s Skeletor And Evil-Lyn’s Film

Realising they didn’t have an actor in the central role of He-Man to carry the film the strategy was obviously to ensure there was other actors to carry the film. This is most evident with the villains of the film in the form of Frank Langella and Meg Foster.

Frank Langella was a genius piece of casting. They wanted someone who could act through a mask and also carry the film from a performance perspective as it obviously wasn’t going to be Lundgren.  Langella was primarily a respected theatre actor who had won two Tony Awards in the 70’s, the most well known one being for his performance of Dracula on stage.

You have to wonder how they got Langella? Apparently it was because his kid loved the character. It’s probably telling that Lundgren has labelled He-Man as one of his least favourite roles and Langella has Skeletor as one of his favourites.

Langella is acting like he’s in a different film. He undoubtedly saw some of the weaknesses, the politics behind the film, the issues around funding it and just thought no matter what my performance isn’t going to be something the critics can ridicule. He is absolutely brilliant. You essentially watch the film for Skeletor. He’s the character who opens the film in one of best media res opening put on film and he carries it all the way. Skeletor is an absolutely magnetic performance.

Meg Foster also deserves a nod for Evil-Lyn as she delivers a beautiful and seductive performance. The combination of her performance and the great work they did on her costumes and makeup mean she doesn’t even have to doing that much, she may not even be the primary character in the scene, or it just shifts to her for a moment, and she holds the camera.

It’s without a doubt you watch Masters of the Universe and you wait for the villains to come back on screen again. The stuff with the heroes is a bit of a distraction.

Star Trek and Friends

The two human teenage leads went on to be more recognised for singular, long-term TV roles. Courtney Cox obviously went on to star in Friends and Robert Duncan McNeill did a seven year stint as one of the primary cast of Star Trek: Voyager.

The primary character arcs of the film are with these characters.

I can’t say that Courtney Cox stole the show with acting talent, though it’s a solid performance. She plays Julie who has recently lost her parents in a airplane accident and as a result is moving out of town to re-start her life. This means breaking up with long-term boyfriend Kevin.

I can say I had the VHS of this film on my shelf primarily because the young, 23-year old Courtney Cox found a place in my sixteen year old heart. She is absolutely adorable in this film. They went for a very natural, 80’s teenage look and it really works.

There are a number of eighties film which had this impact with their female stars, I was a teenager, it’s inevitable, right?

As for the excitingly named, Kevin, dealing with a bad case of imposter syndrome with respect to his music, Tom Paris delivers a performance that is…present. It doesn’t particularly stand out but neither does it distract. This pretty much sums up his performance on Voyage so his career has been pretty consistent.

Obviously, without revealing spoilers, these two characters see resolutions to their two issues by the end of the film. Let’s just say, in one case, it proves very hand that ‘The Key’ mysteriously works through the notes of the Universe.

Holy Unnecessary Coincidence

Let’s start with the plot script,  as it pretty much acts as a template for this patchwork of a film.

The structure and plot of the film is pretty risible, but elements are sewn throughout the script that could have made it a much better film.

The fact the film is brought crashing into the mundanity of contemporary Earth early into the film is an epic disappointment. There is no galaxy far, far away with this film. You have to assume this is done for budgetary reasons and it really drags the film down taking the magic away from the whole experience.

This feeling of disappointment kicks in because the opening sequence of the film is so good and the Greyskull set so beautiful.

The script also has a rich vein within it that isn’t fully explored: the relationship between Skeletor and He-Man. Skeletor doesn’t want to kill He-Man he wants to destroy who he is. This isn’t because of the whole ‘kill him and he becomes a martyr thing’ but because he both hates and his jealous of him. This relationship is so complicated, and Skeletor so envious of who He-Man is, that you can see pain on Skeletor’s face in the moments he attempting to break him, as if he himself feels sick by what he is doing, destroying something he sort of envies.

Ultimately, they have been in an eternal conflict. They are Batman and The Joker. The Doctor and the Daleks. Langella’s performance lives up to the epic and eternal conflict, regrettably Lundgren’s does not.

This is a pity as you can imagine how this film could have gone with a better budget, potentially a more experienced director. It should have been set on a beautiful Eternia and focused more on the eternal conflict between He-Man and Skeletor.

It doesn’t help that the script is lazy and based on an initial, heavy dose of coincidence. Skeletor has taken Greyskull via a device created by an inventor, the heroes come upon this inventor by complete coincidence. This oddity did not need to happen, why couldn’t the script have had He-Man or Man-at-Arms aware of the inventor and made it more pro-active on the heroes part? It was just lazy or the result of late changes in the script.

The Music

It’s easy to forget what a pivotal period for cinema the late 70’s and early 80’s was as it delivered classics like Star Wars (1977), Superman (1978) and the meteoric rise of Spielberg in the form of Jaws (1975), Close Encounters (1977) and tripping into the early 80’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and E.T (1982).

It could be argued the 80’s decade as a whole lived in its shadow. The only element of the film that lives up to the titans it sits in the shadow of is the score.

It’s amazing that Bill Conti did the score, and it can be argued he’s the most famous personality involved with the film. Previous to Masters of the Universe he’s done the music for Rocky and The Right Stuff and he’d won a Oscar for both. This definitely shows as the film has a score way better than the film itself.

Masters of the Universe is basically Bill Cont’s Star Wars or Superman, it’s just a pity the film itself can’t be compared to those cinema titans.

The opening credits remind you very much of Superman with the swooping in credits and the score blaring out. In fact, the whole opening credits and first scene of the film promise a much better film than you actually get as a whole. As the opening credits move immediately into a media res scene with Skeletor striding into Castle Greyskull having been victories in taking the castle and Eternia. It’s a brilliant scene, excellently directed and acted, the music, the sound of Skeletor’s staff clanging against the floor, the beautiful, and only set of the film on display, and Langella just owning the screen.

It’s probably the best moment in the film.

It’s disappointing that the film never fully reaches the heights of that moment again, though it comes close very time Skeletor features.

You Have To Get The Action Right

I have to admit I remembered the action being a lot better than it is. The action scenes just aren’t fluid, dynamic and natural. They feel deliberate, considered and thought through in the moment.

The budget problems also resulted in major opportunities being wasted.

While this may have had the marketing tagline of the Star Wars of the 80’s the action scenes really aren’t. In many ways the film reflects the period, a period that may have been heavily defined by Canon Film. It’s an era of action films in which the action does not really live up to the premise, whether it be war films in vietnam or He-Man. The camera just isn’t dynamic, people ‘die’ in their droves, blasters bolts fly around but it’s just all so…static and unexciting.

You know you’re in for something dubious when the camera prefers to focus up close on Lundgren’s chest rather than pan back to show a dynamic and fluid action sequence.

The final conflict between He-Man and Skeletor was also hit by budget problems. Despite being built towards pretty well by Langella’s performance, the film literally ran out of money. As a result, Goddard had to film what is essentially secondary footage, with Langella and Lundgren fighting, backlit so brightly you can’t tell what’s going on immediately beyond the two characters.

Any sort of epic conflict, with lots of other elements, across the beautiful Greyskull set was cast aside. They literally just cut to this weird one-on-one fight with lighting used to obscure the location.

This is a pity, but at least they got the film completed!

How Did It Rewind?

So, how did this rewind experience go?

I loved every moment Frank Langella was on screen as Skeletor and only wished He-Man could have equaled him in the acting department and the script re-tooled to make their personal conflict more core to the film.

It’s only Skeletor that manages to equal my memory of the film, the rest of it is not as good as my memories of it. The action is stale. The special effects, beyond the costumes, aren’t impressive. The acting is serviceable at best and terrible at worst. It feels like the B-movie it is and doesn’t really rise above that despite the score feeling like it’s from entirely better film.

I loved watching it again, but it doesn’t have enough going for it for me to see myself watching it again.

Nostalgia Vision 1, Period Great 0.

Despite this, you do need to watch it just for Langella’s performance as Skeletor, it’s a work of genius. Even if you’re not inclined to watch the whole film, you need to watch the opening credits and Skeletor’s confident stride into Greyskull and his opening scene. If that doesn’t convince you to watch the rest nothing will.

About Ian O'Rourke

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