Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Film Appreciation - By the Power of Grayskull

Cody Hamman revisits childhood favorite Masters of the Universe (1987) for Film Appreciation.

Recently it has been like the universe was pushing me toward rewatching Masters of the Universe, a film I watched countless times in my childhood and around 14 years ago purchased on DVD. It began with my Remake Comparison co-writer Priscilla recommending in early January that I start making my way through the sitcom Friends, which I missed roughly 87% of when it was airing on TV. One of the stars of that show is Courteney Cox, and the more I saw her on Friends, the more I was reminiscing about Masters of the Universe, which was one of her first films. Concurrent to this, my journey through the back catalog of the Badasses, Boobs, and Bodycounts podcast brought me to a February 21, 2013 episode of that show in which Masters of the Universe was discussed. At the same time, on January 27th, the Now Playing podcast released an episode in which they reviewed the film. That was just five days after it was announced that McG is in talks to direct a new take on the material. I've been getting bombarded with Masters of the Universe, so clearly it was time for me to revisit the movie.

Essentially "Star Wars meets Conan", the Masters of the Universe property originated as a toyline produced by Mattel, with the first toys of the heroic barbarian He-Man and his friends and foes reaching stores in 1982, each figure accompanied by a miniature comic book that told a chapter in the story of He-Man's fight to keep the evil Skeletor from infiltrating Castle Grayskull and from within gaining the power to take over the world of Eternia. In 1983, the Filmation cartoon He-Man and the Masters of the Universe began a 130 episode run in which some things were changed - He-Man was given the alter ego of Prince Adam, who would transform into the hulking, muscular He-Man when he lifted a magical sword and said the words "By the power of Grayskull, I have the power!" - but the basic idea of him and his cohorts battling to keep Skeletor away from Castle Grayskull was retained. The Mattel mini-comics then began using the concepts introduced in the cartoon as well.

I was born in 1983, right during the peak of He-Man mania, so I became a fan, a collector of the toys and a dedicated viewer of the cartoon, as soon as I could pick up toys and watch TV. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was a huge part of my childhood, and I had a bunch of those toys. I was 3 years old when the live action feature film reached theatres, 4 when it hit VHS, so this movie was pretty much always in the mix of my He-Man fandom. While older fans were let down by this adaptation and judged it harshly in comparison to the cartoon, to me it was always just like another episode. I accepted it as much as I accepted the rest of the He-Man lore that I was handed.

The feature directorial debut of Gary Goddard, and to date the only feature film he has directed, Masters of the Universe was scripted by David Odell, who earlier in the 1980s had worked on The Dark Crystal and Supergirl. The film was a production of the legendary B-movie makers Cannon Films, who managed to pull together a budget around $20 million for it, making this the most expensive movie they ever made, and yet the budget wasn't enough to allow them to properly bring the settings and creatures of the cartoon to the screen in live action. The filmmakers couldn't really afford to take viewers to Eternia, so they instead decided to find a way to bring He-Man to Earth. For some fans, that's an instant deal breaker, but I've always been fine with it. If you're going to rely on the audience's familiarity with the property when they go to see the feature, as this does, rather than re-build the story from the ground up in live action, "He-Man Goes to Earth" is an event in his continuing adventures that's worthy of a movie.

Also an event worthy of a movie is the one this starts out with: skull-faced madman Skeleton has achieved his goal. He and his minions, including his right hand woman Evil-Lyn, have taken over Castle Grayskull, a magical place that sits at the center of the universe, at the border between light and dark. Whoever controls the castle can gain the power to be "masters of the universe". From here, the Sorceress of Grayskull (Christina Pickles) has kept the universe in harmony for ages, but now she is Skeletor's prisoner, trapped in an energy field, her lifeforce being sapped away by the villain. When the moon rises, Skeletor will become all powerful.

The casting of the roles of Skeletor and Evil-Lyn in this film are absolute perfection. I can understand when people put down this movie as a whole, but even those who don't like it tend to agree that Frank Langella is amazing as Skeletor. He signed on because his children were fans of the cartoon, and he did them proud, delivering a fantastic performance that is exactly how Skeletor should be. As Evil-Lyn, Meg Foster makes a wonderful, icy henchwoman, the coldness of her lines and delivery amplified by those eerie pale eyes of hers.

In the time before moonrise, Skeletor can still be thwarted. To ensure that his archenemy He-Man can't ruin his plans, Skeletor has his soldiers scour Eternia for an odd dwarf creature called Gwildor, the inventor of the device that the forces of evil used to turn the tide in their favor - the Cosmic Key, a handheld device that uses musical notes to open doorways to anywhere in existence. Play one tune and it could teleport you across the city, play another and it could send you to another galaxy. Gwildor is located and captured, but coincidentally rescued by He-Man and his companions Duncan, a.k.a. Man-at-Arms, and Duncan's daughter Teela.

Man-at-Arms and Teela were two of He-Man's top cohorts in the cartoon, while two popular characters that didn't make the cut were the floating blue elf Orko and He-Man's pet Cringer - sort of a green and yellow tiger - that would transform into He-Man's fighting mount Battle Cat when his master would transform from Prince Adam into He-Man. These characters were, of course, cut because the special effects would have been too costly. I don't think it would have even been possible to have a green and yellow fighting mount tiger in a live action film in 1987... Along with Cringer/Battle Cat, the Prince Adam aspect was also disregarded for this film, He-Man is He-Man for the entire running time.

In the role of He-Man we have Dolph Lundgren in his first starring role, and his first heroic role, following his appearances as a henchman in the James Bond film A View to a Kill and Rocky's steroid-pumped Russian opponent in Rocky IV. Lundgren doesn't exactly display much in the way of acting skills here, but he certainly fits the part of a hulking, blonde barbarian warrior.

Jon Cypher and Chelsea Field do fine jobs as Man-at-Arms and Teela, making their characters likeable and entertaining enough. Played by the legendary Billy Barty, Gwildor is a character created specifically for this film, and he was always a favorite of mine when I was a kid.

Gwildor has in his possession the prototype of the Cosmic Key, and when he and his rescuers are cornered by Skeletor's forces, they have to punch in a tune to escape. A doorway opens, they go through. And that's how He-Man goes to Earth.

Lost by the interstellar travellers mid-transit, Gwildor's Cosmic Key ends up in the possession of two teenagers, Julie Winston and her boyfriend Kevin Corrigan. Having recently lost her parents in a plane crash, Julie is dealing with some serious grief, and there's a sort of Wizard of Oz-esque element to her storyline in this film.

Julie is played by Courteney Cox, and while Cox was handed some cheesy material to work with, I feel that she managed to make Julie into a very endearing character. Robert Duncan McNeill is a likeable presence as Kevin as well.

When Gwildor's Cosmic Key is activated on Earth, Skeletor's Cosmic Key is able to locate it, allowing the villains to follow the heroes to our planet.


The first wave to come seeking the key are a group of mercenaries, most of whom were created for the film. The group is led by Robert Towers as the short, hideous, white-haired and hook-handed Karg, who I only just now learned is supposed to be a half-man, half-bat character. If I ever knew that before, I didn't remember it, but I definitely always knew he was very unpleasant. There's also Pons Maar as Saurod, an armored reptilian that is sort of similar to the alien trophy hunter in the movie Predator, which came out this same year. Anthony De Longis plays bald swordsman Blade, and the group is completed by Tony Carroll as a re-designed version of the furry creature Beastman, the only one of the bunch that came from the cartoon/toyline. I don't know exactly why they felt the need to create most of these characters, it couldn't have been cheaper to make the Karg and Saurod costumes and makeup than it would have been to bring established characters to the screen, but I still like this group of bad guys. I was just as impressed to watch them in action as I would have been to watch characters I already knew.

There actually was a character called Karg on the cartoon, but it was nothing like the Karg here. The cartoon Karg was a pink dragon.

The mercenaries go for the teens and the Key, but luckily the heroic Eternians show up on the scene just in time to fight them off. After the mercenaries' failure, Skeletor steps things up, sending Evil-Lyn and a squadron of troops to Earth... And all this action and destruction going on in this small town catches the attention of the local police, mainly represented by pain-in-the-neck Detective Lubic, played by the always awesome James Tolkan. As the situation escalates, Lubic finds himself in way over his head, but he's up for the challenge.

The action is far from the spectacles you'd see in a movie like this these days, but then again, the budget is a whole lot smaller as well. They still packed some good sequences in here, usually set in a somewhat oddball venue. The initial mercenary attack begins in a high school gymnasium and moves on into a fenced-in area filled with wooden crates and drums of gasoline. A low budget movie location if there ever was one. A lazer blaster shootout with Skeletor's very stormtrooper-esque black armor-wearing commandos happens inside a music store. Many keyboards and speakers were harmed in the making of this movie.

The biggest moment of Earth-based action comes when He-Man takes control of one of the flying discs that are used by Skeletor's "air centurions" and uses it to fly around town, fighting off enemies while doing so. The special effects are a bit dodgy, but this movie had hoverboards two years before Back to the Future Part II and didn't get the recognition.

Eventually, the action moves back to Eternia for a final confrontation between He-Man and Skeletor, which occurs by the light of the moon... The primary setting of the film is Earth, but there may be more Eternia to it than you realize, even if Eternia is represented through the interiors of Castle Grayskull and some scenes shot out in the California desert.

Masters of the Universe is definitely not all a live action adaptation of the source material could have been, but I do think it is much more entertaining than it gets credit for being. I'm sure nostalgia plays a big part in my appreciation for the movie, but regardless, I thoroughly enjoy it, flaws and all.

Director Gary Goddard was handed quite a challenge with this project, which had some severe limitations, but he made the right decisions in how to handle every aspect to make it as good as it possibly could have been. This could have been a disaster, and some viewers see it as such, but I see it as Goddard pulling off the near-impossible. It could have been a lot worse. It's a shame that Goddard hasn't made more features since, because the fact that he made this one work is a major sign of promise.

In a perfect world, Masters of the Universe would have been successful enough to open the door to a sequel that was more faithful to the cartoon, one that had a higher budget, was set in Eternia, and featured more established characters. Unfortunately, it did not make its small budget back at the box office. Still, Cannon was planning to make a sequel, and in this imperfect world I think we lucked out by not getting what they had in store for us. There are minor details available for what I assume would have been two different approaches to Masters of the Universe 2 - one in which He-Man (who would have been played by surfer Laird Hamilton, since Lundgren opted out) returns to Earth to find that Skeletor has turned it into an apocalyptic wasteland, and another in which He-Man returns to Earth and goes undercover as a high school athlete. Neither of those would have taken things in the right direction.

So as of now this is the only Masters of the Universe film we've gotten. It's one that I wholeheartedly accepted as a child, and I still have a good time watching it nearly thirty years later.

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