Masters of the Universe (1987, Gary Goddard)

Masters of the Universe is almost charming in its lack of charm. Its plot is a kitchen sink–a little Conan sword fighting here, a little Superman opening credits, a lot of Star Wars stuff (like all black “troopers” with laser guns, the skiffs from Jedi), but also lots of other popular eighties things. There’s some Back to the Future–on an extreme budget–as well as the general “troubled tragic teens” thing. And whatever else was too slight to make much of an impression.

The biggest problem, besides it being too long, too cheap, and too stupid, is cinematographer Hanania Baer. Universe has a big scale, whether in its sets or even the constant matte paintings (on the other planet, not Earth). Baer can’t shoot anything to match, not the sets, not the matte composites, not even humdrum planet Earth locations. There’s one action sequence with Dolph Lundgren and Courteney Cox fending off intergalatic bounty hunters (Empire Strikes Back) in a junk yard or warehouse. The lighting doesn’t match between shooting locations, which really screws up the suspension of disbelief, because there’s Lundgren’s sword fighting and Lundgren sword fighting is supposed to be the whole draw of the movie. He’s He-Man. He fights people with a sword.

Except he gets a gun too. A laser gun. It’s got to be lasers because Lundgren’s sword can deflect them. Slow lasers.

However, if Masters of the Universe has a draw–which is questionable–it’s either going to be Frank Langella’s performance as the Emperor. Sorry, sorry, no, he’s Skeletor. Who wants to be master of the universe, which is like emperor. David Odell’s script stays as third grade as it can for the otherworldly stuff and seeing Langella take the childish dialogue and fill it with ludicrous energy and threat… it’s cool. It’s not really cool enough to be a draw, however, because the material’s still thin and Langella’s in a goofy skull mask, with zero character motivation (his rivalry with Lundgren lacks explaination and chemistry). The other possible draw is Bill Conti’s score. It too isn’t good, but it’s Bill Conti doing a Star Wars score. Though, again, more Return of the Jedi.

On Earth–wait, wait, there’s sort of an E.T. thing going on with Billy Barty. He plays this inventor who comes up with a musical key thing to take the action to Earth. Sort of E.T., mixed with Yoda, mixed with Wicket. Producers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan apparently really thought they had the goods here to supplant Star Wars.

I mean, maybe the Holiday Special.

Richard Edlund handles the special effects. Some of them are okay. The interdimensional gateway is often okay. It’s not at the end, but earlier, sure. The composite shots with the flying vehicles are terrible. Bad enough you hope Edlund didn’t do them. The guy worked on the original Star Wars after all. You want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So you don’t see it for the special effects. Or the fight choreography. Or any of the acting.

Though Jon Cypher is frighteningly good in his part. He’s got on this big costume too and he’s still good. It’s amazing he could keep a straight face. Ditto, though to a lesser extent, for Chelsea Field. She’s Cypher’s daughter. She makes wisecracks. Some of them sort of connect.

Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill are teenagers who come across Lundgren, Cypher, Field, and Barty as that crew searches for a way back home. Cox’s parents have tragically died and so she’s leaving boyfriend McNeill to start over in New Jersey. She’s not even going to get to go to her high school graduation. The Earth ground situation really doesn’t make any sense. The other world ground situation is actually sort of neat in an effecient way. Langella has won his war of conquest and Lundgren and friends are now outlaws. Means you don’t have to show the big battle scenes or even the immediate aftermath, just the political ramifications playing out.

Cox and McNeill don’t even have enough material to have caricatures. They have sketched caricatures. They’re both affable, though neither is particularly dynamic. They both seem way too old.

Maybe it’s just Baer photographing them poorly.

For the rest of the cast, it’s just getting through without embarrassing yourself too much. Lundgren’s running around in armored speedos. He manages not to embarrass himself too much. Meg Foster similiar keeps herself afloat without actually having to be any good. After them the supporting cast just gets worse and worse.

Like James Tolkan (the principal from Back to the Future). He’s playing tough bald, long leather jacket cop who can’t figure out he’s in an intergalatic battle zone. He doesn’t keep himself afloat, though he’s never exactly bad. None of the performances–at least for the people not in costumes–are ever bad enough to give Universe that campy charm. They’re also never bad enough to elicit sympathy.

Not even Christina Pickles, who’s a hostage the entire picture.

It’s mildly ambitious? Not incompetent. It’s just trying for too much with what it can do, budget-wise. Along with no one having any confidence in Lundgren. He gets so little to do, including his sword fights and shoot-outs, it’s not clear whether or not he’d be able to do more or fail at it.

Masters of the Universe is a cinematic shrug.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Gary Goddard; screenplay by David Odell, based on the toys by Mattel; director of photography, Hanania Baer; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Bill Conti; production designer, William Stout; produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus; released by The Cannon Group.

Starring Dolph Lundgren (He-Man), Frank Langella (Skeletor), Courteney Cox (Julie Winston), Robert Duncan McNeill (Kevin Corrigan), Jon Cypher (Duncan), Chelsea Field (Teela), Meg Foster (Evil-Lyn), Billy Barty (Gwildor), James Tolkan (Detective Lubic), Robert Towers (Karg), Anthony De Longis (Blade), and Christina Pickles (Sorceress of Castle Grayskull)


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