Let me start off by saying that I have basically no previous knowledge of He-Man/Masters of the Universe TV series and its lore. So if this 1987 feature film adaptation is offensive to those fans among you, I apologize for my opinions, because I actually enjoyed this movie.
It’s not perfect. In fact, it’s awful in a lot of ways. But entertaining movies don’t have to be good.
Masters of the Universe has a lot going for it as time has gone by. Compared to everything else coming out in the 1980s, MOTU couldn’t hold a candle to their flames. Although now we can look at the film as a product of the era. It feels like the ’80s in every way.
A result of a time when expectations for the sci-fi/action genre were a bit more tempered. There weren’t big budget action films coming out every other week. So Masters of the Universe didn’t have to appeal on a different level. Though it tried.
The film makes an attempt at blending sci-fi with a more earthly sensibility. But instead of playing this as comedy, it tries using its setting as a way to ground the story.
Starting out on another planet, Eternia, the evil Skeletor (Frank Langella) is doing evil things and trying to become all-powerful. We never get much more motive from him, although Langella’s performance is perhaps the highlight of this film. Proving that a villain doesn’t have to have much depth in order to be fascinating. In fact, perhaps it’s his lack of depth that makes him fascinating. He’s impulsive and has no rhyme or reason for doing anything, making him even scarier.
Our hero, He-Man (Dolph Lundgren), and his friends, Teela (Chelsea Field) and Man-At-Arms (Jon Cypher), befriend Gwildor (Billy Barty), a dwarf-like creature who has invented a Cosmic Key that can transport you to anywhere in the universe. Skeletor is after Gwildor and his Key, so He-Man and the others escape to “another realm”, which is really New Jersey.
We never get much background information as to why everything is happening. The film tries to tell us at some points, but then simultaneously assumes we know everything else.
Skeletor sends his own small task force to find He-Man on Earth to retrieve the Key. Now, and over the course of the movie, he notably keeps saying that he wants He-Man taken alive–but why?
He-Man and company lose the Key on Earth and go around town trying to track it down. Now this is where the film should really take off–and it does, relatively. Our characters are dressed in intergalactic attire and weird headpieces (also Gwildor looks like an alien), but we never get proper utilization of the fish-out-of-water trope for actual humor. Instead the film tries to play off the juxtaposition as realistic.
Somehow the film never becomes dry, probably because we’re introduced to a few new characters on Earth. Mainly Julie, played by Courtney Cox, and Kevin, played by Robert Duncan McNeill. The two of them bring a literal human aspect to an otherwise cold film. Even though we don’t get the entertaining humor we’d hoped for, we do get actual characters with emotions and plight.
This is all punctuated by the sweeping and catchy score by Bill Conti, who also composed the Rocky films. At times the score sounds almost too good for the movie, but then we realize it’s actually improving it.
Even back in 1987, people thought MOTU took itself too seriously. Emphasized even more by the terrible acting and rocky script. Other than Cox and Langella, none of the performances are really that good.
But one performance is actually bad. That is Lundgren’s. He’s not only a disgraceful actor, but lacks any charisma. We can compare him to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wasn’t a great actor either, but at least had a likability. Also, he never talked this much in his earlier roles.
We have to remember that Masters of the Universe was a movie for kids, made to market a toy line and a cartoon. The action is campy, like something that boys’ pretend play is made of. And the characters keep opening each line of dialogue with the name of whichever character they’re addressing at that time, assumedly to prevent us from forgetting people’s names I guess. And it works, surprisingly, even if it sounds amateur and clunky.
Perhaps what makes Masters of the Universe so much fun is the great ’80s set pieces and evocation of nostalgia from yesteryear. The filmmakers don’t cut any corners, even if they borrow a lot stylistically from Star Wars. Countless movies do, but MOTU does this in it’s own unique way. Star Wars never went to Earth–though that would have been amazing!