Retro Review (Back to the 80s) Series: Masters of The Universe (1987)

"I Have The Power . . ."

Synopsis: The battle for Eternia rages on. The heroic He-Man and the sinister Skeletor are sworn enemies. This time, the fight is on the big screen. As well as the two title characters, there are a supporting cast. Those who help He-Man and those who help Skeletor. These are a combination of established characters from the cartoon, as well as some that were invented specifically for the film. Really, it’s all about Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella in the main roles, facing off in an exciting, fun-filled adventure.

 

Story

It has to be said that there really doesn’t have to be too much expectation for what is essentially a kids’ cartoon brought to life. If you look at most animated shows that are written for children, then complex, sweeping story arcs aren’t what it’s all about. Mostly, it’s week to week simple adventure and not much more than cops and robbers, but in whatever setting the show/franchise takes place in. There might be a hardcore few who wanted some of a more detailed backstory, or a Star Wars style big reveal about Skeletor’s true nature. That’s not really necessary.

Every story needs something to drive the plot forward. The setting alone can’t do that, and neither can characters, just by existing. Aims and tension are required, so that the cops and robbers both have a chance of coming out on top. So, the best way to do this, other than one wanting to escape and the other wanting to capture them, is to up the game by having an item that will give those who wield it the upper hand. It’s standard, because it’s necessary. Where the fun lies is how original writers can be in creating their own version. Enter the Cosmic Key . . .

Gwildor (played by the wonderful Billy Barty) has a device that allows inter-dimensional travel, and the whole movie pretty much focuses on that. It’s how He-Man and his gang get to Earth, and also how Skeletor does. What’s brilliantly fun about this device is that it is music based. Basically, the cosmos is made up of tones, notes, scales and other aspects of a melody. There are those who think it’s ridiculous, but of all the choices that were possible that’s the most fun!

Once things get going, as has been explained, the film is pretty much a chase, all the way through. However, there’s plenty of entertainment along the way, and that’s really what you watch the movie for. You know He-man isn’t going to lose, that he never seriously has any chance of losing. That doesn’t matter, as it’s all about the daft, extremely camp romp. If you take a film like this too seriously then you almost certainly take yourself too seriously. Basically, the actors are written as if the script-writers are playing with them as the toys of them. That’s fine. The film isn’t without some good performances though, and one in particular is brought to life in a way not seen before . . .

 

 

Acting

First, let’s get the terrible over with. A very young pair who would each come to be house-hold names and favorites from their respective shows, Courtney-Cox plays Julie, and Robert Duncan McNeill plays Kevin (Monica from Friends and Tom Paris from Star Trek: Voyager). No early signs of greatness here. far from it. The performances are cornier than your dad’s worst joke. Still, that’s a part of the fun of it. These aren’t much-loved characters that have a high expectation of being remembered. In some ways, that works in the favor of the film’s plot. These are just two ordinary late-teens, who get sucked into a cross-dimensional battle of good and evil. They could have been anyone and that works.

Dolph Lundgren did seem to be the obvious choice for He-Man. The cartoons themselves aren’t really the basis of him, as he’s constantly in his super-muscly state, and not ever just Adam of Eternia. He has absolutely no dimension to his performance, but then again, the He-Man in this film hasn’t either. Yes, Dolph Lundgren was never going to win an Oscar anyway, but he does what he does best and just flails around the screen, knocking down bad-guys in his skimpy outfit and impressive mullet. Maybe having “The Power”, helps his mullet to shine, as it must be said that it’s up there with one of the best of the 80s.

Skeletor. What those who watched the cartoon knew before the film was a rather silly villain, who had an even sillier cackle. It was almost like a slapstick scene, every time He-Man beat him (which was every episode). He wasn’t menacing in the slightest. Frank Langella’s incarnation changed all of that, and it has to be said he does an incredible job. Skeletor behaves scary, and the role is the one bit of acting in the film that stands out as an impressive performance. Langella replaces the campness with a cold narcissism and establishes a tyrant that viewers know must be stopped.

The supporting cast makes this film fun; though, the quality of acting’s a mixed bunch. Billy Barty does a good job of playing Gwildor, who is fun for his mischief and that alone makes him worthy of being put into the category of legendary non-human, friendly movie creatures. He’s a good character and one that is more thought out than the likes of John Cypher’s Man-At-Arms and Teela, played by Chelsea Field. They’re He-Man’s main two helpers. The other being the Sorceress, played by Christina Pickles. She doesn’t really do anything. Skeletor’s squad of mercenaries are fun to see and get a fair amount of screen time. Meg Foster leads the line, as the very naughty Evil-Lyn, and Anthony De Longis’s Blade being the only other bad guy that’s recognizable as themselves. Pons Maar, Robert Towers, and Tony Caroll complete the line-up, as Saurod, Karg and Beastman. None of them won any awards, either. Special mention to Police Officer, Lubric. James Tolkan establishes a bit of realism among all the silliness, as he attempts to fight off beings from another dimension with a shotgun!

 CGI&Action

With a limited budget and a lot to do, the CGI is actually quite impressive. It has that creativity that seems to lack in modern, computer-generated stunts and scenes. The clashes and flashing lights look like they might actually be happening. The Eternians amongst Earth looks realistic, and the choice to use a live cow as a prop to show He-Man and company as strangers is an inspired choice. The grabbing gadget is another example of doing well with what you have and doesn’t rely on technology to get the job done. There are some clever tech ideas, though. The truth collar is a good call, as it’s inexpensive to pull off and plausible. Where they did really well is the scanning gadget that Evil-Lyn uses, which can show what people did only a few hours or so earlier.

Another special mention for the cosmic-key. It’s an absolutely iconic item. Regardless of whether people think it’s an example of bad or lazy writing, the actual design of it and how it looks is amazing. The fact it lights up and works like a synthesizer is incredible in itself. Again, creativity as opposed to getting a computer image to do the work for you. When it lights up and the ethereal tones begin, it’s easy to suspend your disbelief and accept that it really can do all of those things. The fact it gets hooked up to a keyboard is even more inventive, and for those who think it’s just plain silly, then so what. It is, and that’s what’s amazing. The fact that music as a concept has its part to play in things and is capable of opening dimensions is the epitome of imagination. The dimensions “opening” looks quite impressive on-screen and has stood the test of time as much as the same idea has in any other film.

Towards the end of the movie, the big-budget effects come out. Skeletor gets his super-suit, in a massive explosion, before He-Man utters the immortal words and the last fight begins. It can’t have been easy to try and make the same things appear to be happening in live-action as do on screen, with animation. It is achieved well, generally, albeit with some inevitable cheesiness. But that’s a part of the fun. Even if the budget had been bigger, the limits of the available CGI of the time would have meant that certain things simply couldn’t appear as they were perhaps intended.

 

Overall (Including Music Score)

A huge part of why this film is so much fun is the music. It’s absolute 80s joy. Synthesizers are us (the film actually has a scene where Kevin declares the Cosmic Key is a state of the art synthesizer from Japan, which Charlie, the music shop owner, “confirms”). It’s typical Bill Conti and goes straight for the emotional centre of a viewer, with big and bold composition. There are those who will think this is just twee and cloying. Let them. It’s fun and heart-warming. For many, it’s a welcome blast of nostalgia, and for first-time viewers it’s a treat. They get to see what the 80s were all about and the sheer creativity and inventiveness of the films that were made.

Looking back always takes you back, when it comes to films and songs. These are powerful images and sounds, that can transport you, just as if they are indeed their very own Cosmic Key. Given this aspect, there’s little need for any objectivity, unless you’re writing an academic tract. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching this film and not finding at least something they can enjoy. You sort of need to make a conscious effort not to. It’s a film based on a cartoon that wasn’t serious or in any way a riveting story. The slightly kinky outfits are hilarious and in some cases really coped well the animation/ figures they are based on. It’s fun, and on that note, the final word should once again honor Dolph Lundgren’s mullet, which is truly cosmic among the vast collection of mullets that 80s cinema has to offer! Enjoy it, thoroughly. That’s what this type of film (and mullet) is for.

 

8.2
(Back to the 80s) Series: Masters of The Universe (1987)
  • Story
    8.5
  • Acting
    6.1
  • CGI&Action
    8.9
  • Incidental Music & Overall
    9.3
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