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Masters of the Universe (1987)

by on May 21, 2010
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In concept, “Masters of the Universe” was well ahead of its time. It was an adaptation of a toy franchise years before Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers raped our childhoods with their live-action versions of “Transformers” and “GI Joe,” and before studio heads scrambled to adapt every toy franchise they could possibly mine to make a buck or a 400 million. However, the film’s execution by the short-lived Cannon studio, with its low budget and lack of adherence to the original story, places it a bit closer to the Roger Corman “Fantastic Four” film than even Bay’s first more successful treatment of the Robots in Disguise.

In terms of quality, unfortunately, “Masters” doesn’t fare so well, as it suffers from a series of ill-fated decisions to alter the He-Man mythos, from losing his Prince Adam person to giving the legendary swordsman a gun.

You gotta give fledgling study Cannon some credit, though, for at least casting Frank Langella in the role of Skeletor, He-Man’s skull-faced sorcerer nemesis. But they immediately lose that laurel by putting Langella in a silly-looking white rubber mask, and later having him morph out of his familiar hooded costume and into some kind of futuristic ornamental samurai getup for the film’s final battle.

In addition, Skeletor’s usual rogue’s gallery is somewhat different, using only Beast Man and Evil Lyn (using a perfectly-cast Meg Foster) from his original band of lackeys, and replacing them with generic villains with names like Blade, Saurod, and Karg. Blade is actually a decent character (and has a fun, but short, fight with He-Man),  but between Saurod and Karg, one was a generic-looking armored robot-type villain, and the other looked like Glenn Close after an unfortunate encounter with a witch doctor. The fact that I can’t recall which was which mere minutes after screening the film should say something.

We also get a host of generic robot warriors wearing armor strangely reminiscent of that worn by Darth Vader.

Director Gary Goddard also, with the help of screenwriters David Odell and Stephen Tolkin, made He-Man (Dolph Lundgren, best known as Ivan Drago in “R0cky IV”) a generic pseudo-Conan the Barbarian, with sidekicks Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher) and Teela (Chelsea Noble), and replacing the Orko character with a troll-like, but no less irritating character named Gwildor, played by Billy Barty.

In place of character development the filmmakers inserted a quasi-futuristic gladiator-chic tone, giving everyone Star Wars-like blasters (right down to the good guys using blue beams and baddies using red to match the lightsaber color scheme).

But we still haven’t gotten to the film’s largest mistake, which is shifting the setting away from Eternia to present-day Earth.

The plot such as it is centers around a cosmic key, invented by Gwildor, which opens portals in space and time, presumably allowing Skeletor and his minions free reign to rule not only Eternia, but all of existence.

The action begins as Skeletor has taken He-Man’s beloved Castle Greyskull, which houses the powerful, benevolent Sorceress (Christina Pickles). Skeletor imprisons the Sorceress and begins siphoning her power, but He-Man and his friends steal one of two cosmic keys and flee in the battle to what ends up being Earth, where a girl named Julie (played by Courteney Cox) has recently lost her parents in a plane crash. Her boyfriend Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill, best known from “Star Trek: Voyager”) is a musician, and when the duo find the key He-Man has lost, he believes it to be a newfangled Japanese synthesizer and holds onto it.

In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s as silly as it sounds, and believe it or not it gets better (or worse, depending on your perspective). Police detective Lubic, played by James Tolkan, best known as hard-ass principal Strickland from the “Back to the Future” series, also figures into the mix, and ends up helping He-Man and company retrieve the key.

There are several strange fallacies in the film, among them a scene where Kevin begs Lubic to help him find his missing girlfriend. They go to her house, and Kevin gets a phone call from Julie (why she’d call her own empty house for help is unknown), and immediately starts trying to mask the call from Lubic for no good reason.

The film continues with He-Man fighting Skeletor’s minions on Earth, leading to a large-scale fight in a music store before closing out the film mercifully (with a climax that has a strange “Return of the Jedi” vibe) before He-Man and the Sorceress return Kevin and Julie to Earth, and also take them back in time before Julie’s parents died.

“Masters of the Universe” may have been one of the first cartoon/toy adaptations made into a feature film, but it’s hardly the best, even in a genre littered with scrap-heap-worthy adaptations (and wasn’t fledgling studio Cannon’s only failure of that year: the Cannon folks also released the wretched “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” in ’87). It’s fun for viewing as a curiosity, but it’s another sad chapter for children of the 80s who love their cartoon and toy franchises.

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