a critiQal film review Masters of the Universe (1987)

Plot: Planet Eternia and the Castle of Greyskull are under threat from the evil Skeletor (Langella), who wants to take over the planet. A group of freedom fighters, led by the heroic He-Man (Lundgren), are accidentally transported to Earth by a mysterious Cosmic Key which holds the power to make Skeletor all-powerful. Once on Earth, He-Man joins alliances with two teenagers as they attempt to find the key and return home.

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With rumors of a reboot in the works for 2019, it seemed to be a good time to take a look back at Masters of the Universe in this week’s #TBT Review. But, would it be any good? We didn’t like Dolph’s try as The Punisher (1989), and, judging by the box office totals, people didn’t like this film even back when it was made. Still, we figured we’d give it a shot before the remake hits next year.

Dolph Lundgren is badly mis-cast as He-Man in Masters of the Universe. His best role back in those days was playing an evil cyborg in Universal Soldier (1992), and when he tried to venture into other territory, it just didn’t work. He was obviously trying to be another Arnold Schwarzenegger back in the 80’s, but it only seemed to prove he wasn’t. While Schwarzenegger tackled Conan the Barbarian with success, Lundgren’s He-Man is just plain bad. Sure, the script doesn’t do him any favors, but his heavily accented dialogue just makes his scenes that much worse. While he may have had the body for the role, he just didn’t have the voice – or the talent – to do it any justice.

Frank Langella, on the other hand, is a completely different story. In Masters of the Universe, he gets to play Skeletor. Despite an ugly (and cheap-looking) prosthetic skull, he manages to take his cheesy dialogue and elevate it quite a bit. Sure, the movie is bad around him, making him look better, but even his character is kind of silly, and he manages to turn it around and make Skeletor a halfway decent bad guy.

While the film hypes Meg Foster as another lead, a young Courteney Cox nearly steals the show in Masters of the Universe. Like Frank, her performance – while cheesy and full of crappy dialogue – manages to elevate her character. Sadly though, her character suffers an injury and she is delegated to a smaller role later in the film, leaving the viewer almost begging for a comeback performance in the later part of the film.

The rest of the cast is pretty bad. Among them, however, is James Tolkan, who has perfected the tough guy routine (like his role as Mr. Strickland in Back to the Future (1985)) so well that even in the chaos and ridiculousness that surrounds him in Masters of the Universe, he manages to be about the only sane, stable character around. And fun to watch, too.

The plot of Masters of the Universe seems to take elements from the 80’s cartoon and inject the old “the battle comes to Earth” scenario that has propelled so many fantasy-type tales. It’s always more entertaining when the fantasy breaks out onto the normality of Earth, right? In this case, no. This film would have been much better suited if they had forgone the Earth jump entirely, and kept things strictly in the sword and sorcery realm of Eternia (like “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” (TV) did).

And then there’s the special effects. This, combined with loads of cheesy dialogue, is really what brings down Masters of the Universe – maybe even more so because they actually got one or two sequences right. With bad makeup and costume design, it’s hard to take these characters seriously at all. In fact, most viewers may expect this to be a spoof film, and will be badly disappointed when they find out it isn’t. Most of the special computer effects are even worse, with the energy whip seen late in the film (which seems to have a life of its own) a major example of just how bad they are. And yet, the sequence where He-Man and several armored bad guys are flying around the streets on personal hoverboards looks spot on…which just serves to make the rest of the effects seem worse. After all, if they could get that right, certainly they could have gotten something much simpler (like that whip) right too.

With awful makeup and costume design, loads of cheesy dialogue, many bad special effects, and a totally mis-cast Dolph Lundgren as He-Man, it’s easy to see why Masters of the Universe was a flop at the box office. If possible, it’s even worse today. But, with strong performances from Frank Langella, James Tolkan and a young Courteney Cox, it’s (thankfully) not totally unwatchable. Too bad it’s still not that good, either.

Chalk this one up as another failure for Dolph Lundgren. Let’s hope they can do better with the reboot.

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