80’s Trash of the Week: Masters of the Universe

1987 was a great year for the action movie. Arnie would solidify his action-star status with Predator; Paul Verhoeven would bring us to new levels of bleak satire and gore with Robocop; and Frank Langella would reach the nadir of his career as Skeletor in Masters of the Universe.
With a budget of $17 million that ballooned to $22 million, the He-Man movie had more money than Predator, Robocop, and Full Metal Jacket. Most of it seems to have been spent on an extended, boring chase sequence on hoverboards through alleys in the abandoned California town. The effects aren’t bad, it’s just horribly choreographed and directed. At one point when He-Man is supposed to be flipping over and coming back at a baddie flying after him, they just show Dolph Lundgren’s head upside down. Great job. Darth Milk and I aren’t good at the maths, but we figured out how you take a budget millions larger than 3 classics and get a crappy movie:

$17 million^greyskull = CRAP

For you non-mathnerds, that means that when you expound millions of dollars to the power of greyskull, which is an imaginary number signifying infinite cheesiness, you will get the steaming poo pile that is Masters of the Universe.

The movie should have been a great success; it was based on a wildly popular toy and cartoon series, which I remember watching and loving. It was simple: Prince Adam was the Clark Kent of Eternia. With his Pete Rose haircut and gentle nature, no one would suspect that when he drew his magical sword and uttered “By the power of Greyskull!” he would transform into He-Man, savior of the planet. He was the only man powerful enough to stand up to Skeletor, the skull-headed conqueror who wanted to enslave all living creatures. He had some buddies to round out your toybox, too. Man-at-Arms, who had a G.I. Joe helmet and a porn mustache; Teela, the spunky gal sidekick who could hold her own in a fight, and being a kid’s cartoon, we needed an animal and an annoying whiny character, so we had Cringer the Tiger and Orko, the flying douchebag. The cartoon is an 80’s classic, and He-Man would give a moral to the story at the end of each episode, to keep us buying toys instead of smoking crack and stabbing each other.

Frank Langella needed money

When Mattel approached the Cannon Group to make a movie about He-Man, their fate was sealed. Infamous for such productions as the Death Wish sequels and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, they made some of the most memorable cheesefests of the 80’s, and Masters of the Universe is no exception. The cartoon sprang from toys originally made for the 80’s classic Conan the Barbarian, which had a bounty of breasts, blood and beefcake, and was deemed unsuitable for children. (Little did they know we all watched it on HBO anyway). So what was Mattel to do with all those toy molds? Give them some spare laser guns from Star Wars ripoffs, come up with some goofy names, and blammo, kids get to play with musclebound swordsmen in furry red banana hammocks without being associated with one of the most brutal fantasy movies of all time.

Surely pitched as Conan meets Star Wars

The toys were a big hit and spawned the aforementioned cartoon, but by 1987 He-Man was sort of played out. I was a junior in high school sporting my fro-mullet and I can’t recall what the kiddies were watching by then, but Darth Milk was probably watching Mario Brothers and jumping on mushrooms in his backyard. Kids were playing Nintendo, and didn’t care for He-Man’s moral condescension and proselytizing anymore.

Even Orko boycotted this film

First-time director Gary Goddard was handed the reins, and Dolph Lundgren got the starring role after Sly Stallone snubbed his nose at it. He had made Cobra for Cannon the year before, probably the most ridiculous of his films. Dolph just came off of playing Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, and rivaled Arnold Schwarzenegger in both size and speech impediment, but never had the charisma. I liked Dolph in Showdown in Little Tokyo, and he does have a Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering, but he’s pretty dry, and a forgettable He-Man.

“Around here, it’s against the law to wear banana hammocks.”

The rest of the cast isn’t much better. Frank Langella dons some white makeup and becomes Skeletor, relishing the role, but most of the time he just gets to sit on the throne and look ugly. Max Von Sydow was the best part of Flash Gordon, but he wasn’t covered in bumpy white latex. Billy Barty plays a little hairy dwarf troll named Gwildor, created for the movie as a replacement for Orko, the little floating wizard in a hajib and cape. While Orko is missed, mostly because I wanted to see how bad he’d look, Billy Barty is one of my favorite little people actors, and manages to craft a decent character out of the horrible dialogue he’s given. He and Langella end up being the movie’s only saving graces.

Luckily they land in a California town with a population of 5.

The movie also ends up being mostly set on Earth, for budgetary reasons. Now, I don’t know how filming in abandoned Whittier, California was cheaper than finding some spot of desert to call Eternia. They begin out in the rocky wastes, where He-Man and friends are fighting with Skeletor’s minions, who look like the Star Destroyer crew from Star Wars. They escape into Gwildor’s little hobbit hole, where he shows them The Key, which looks like a medieval anal torture device. It’s a musical key that opens portals to anywhere in the universe, and Skeletor has the other one already. So of course, they escape using the Key, and wind up behind a school in California.

Saurod is still bitter that he couldn’t get a date to his prom.

This subplot seems aimed at getting teens to go see a kid movie; Courteney Cox and her musician boyfriend are making out in his convertible when Gwildor steals their bucket of fried chicken with a grappling hook. Eventually they meet up when Skeletor sends his bad guys- Beast Man, Blade, Saurod, and Karg- through the portal to create some shenanigans. They beat up a coach and trash the gym, which was decorated for the prom! How horrible. A local cop, the dependable jerk character actor James Tolkan, gets involved and does the usual stupid stuff to further a plot- arrest the good guy, play with the Key so the bad guys can find them, and otherwise be a pain in the ass.

Surfin’ Etern-I-A

The script by David Odell, who wrote the classic The Dark Crystal and the turd Supergirl, is definitely once again in the turdpile of the spectrum. He doesn’t even have anyone say “By the power of Greyskull!” because He-Man never has to transform. If they had rented a tiger to be Battlecat, kept things in the desert- which can’t be that expensive, since so many shitty B movies have been shot out there- this could have been much better. Moving it to Earth and giving us useless teenager characters confuses everything, and makes the battle scenes have to be in places like a music store. When Skeletor finally arrives, he rolls down Main Street like a float in the Thanksgiving Day parade, and they couldn’t afford any extras, so California looks completely deserted except for a cop, two students, and the guy running the guitar shop.

“And what’s that? Skeletor has shot down the Snoopy balloon!”

I wanted to at least get some laughs, but it’s monumentally boring and barely worth watching to laugh at. At 106 minutes long, it drags on forever, inserting plots about Courteney Cox’s parents having died in a plane crash, which lets Skeletor’s hench-babe Evil-Lyn trick her into giving up the Key. And her boyfriend’s musical memory helps save them in the end. In the director’s commentary, Goddard says that the original ending made preview audiences weep openly; all I can say is, it was probably over wasting 2 hours of their lives watching Dolph Lundgren try to enunciate in English.

You may have “the power,” but I have a gold lamé cape.

The final battle between Skeletor and He-Man is decent, and he does get to yell “I… have… The POWER!!” as he draws his sword. You can see they spent a lot of money on effects, but mostly it’s repetitive, unexciting battles between people with laser guns in suburbia. When He-Man is finally captured, Blade tortures him with a laser whip, and they didn’t even bother syncing Lundgren’s flinches with the animated whip. Flash Gordon of seven years prior looks and feels better, and is a lot more fun.

Villain rule #48: Never build a bottomless pit in the throne room.

I will say that the costumes for the creatures, such as Saurod and Gwildor, are quite good. Cannon would go on to create more atrocious films like Captain America before their death knell was sounded in the early 90’s. I will thank them from the bottom of my teenage heart for 1985’s Lifeforce, with its abundance of boobies. The 80’s wouldn’t be the same without Golan-Globus and Cannon Group films, but sometimes that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 3
Could it be remade today? IMDb Pro lists it. God help us all.
Quotability Rating: Zero
Cheese Factor: High
High Points: Final battle; Billy Barty
Low Point: Courteney Cox goes back in time to save her parents (weep)
Gratuitous Boobies: Nary a boobie. Needed a She-Ra cameo.