Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Ending The Love Of A Childhood Hero, Masters Of The Universe Is Mostly A Mess!

The Good: Moments of character, Moments of concept, Informative commentary track
The Bad: Most of the acting, Largely lacking in character development, Exceptionally dated special effects
The Basics: Despite some cool character designs and concepts for plot, the live action Masters Of The Universe is a mess of a film that eliminates the charm, magic, and morality of the original series.

Long before Transformers (reviewed here!) made a live-action, big-budget special effects film out of the popular toy line, the popular toy line Masters Of The Universe was given a live-action film of the same name. As I have recently rediscovered the love my childhood self had for He Man And The Masters Of The Universe (season 1 is reviewed here!), it is unsurprising that I would track down the DVD of the live-action Masters Of The Universe for my viewing pleasure. Unfortunately, it was not much of a pleasure to watch Masters Of The Universe.

Outside an element of sacrifice at the very end of Masters Of The Universe, there is very little of the morality or charm of the animated series that was based upon the toy line. Given how much I loved the toy line, it is unsurprising that as a child, I fell in love with Masters Of The Universe, but looking at it with objective, adult eyes . . . well, I cringe to think I was ever so young as to think this was great cinematography or storytelling. A fairly generic science fiction/action film, Masters Of The Universe mortgages its initially dark tone of a war story at the time of the defeat of the forces of good and transforms into a ridiculous fish-out-of-water story that is far less engaging than the film could have been.

Eternia and the magic Castle Greyskull, sits at the powerbase of the known universe. As the source of all power, Greyskull is sought by the evil warlord Skeletor, whose robotic forces have swept over Eternia and breached Greyskull after he infiltrated the stronghold and captured the magic Sorceress. With the Sorceress being drained of power and lifeforce, she makes a desperate call to Eternia’s her, He-Man. After rescuing the diminuative Gwildor, He-Man, Man-At-Arms, and Teela learn that Gwildor’s Cosmic Key inadvertently led Skeletor into Castle Greyskull. Using the key to escape Skeletor’s forces and try to enter Greyskull to rescue the Sorceress, He-Man and his friends find themselves overwhelmed and outnumbered by Skeletor and his invading army.

Using the Cosmic Key at random, He-Man, Gwildor, Man-At-Arms, and Teela teleport to Earth, where they realize they have lost the key. When the teenagers, Kevin and Julie, find the Cosmic Key, they begin pressing the buttons for the music it makes when they do. Their activating the Cosmic Key allows Skeletor to find where the heroes went. After sending a scouting party, which is stopped by He-Man, Evil-Lyn joins the second attempt to recover the key and by bewitching Julie, she is able to recover the Cosmic Key. With the Cosmic Key in her possession, Skeletor prepares to lay siege to Earth before returning to Eternia to get ultimate power from the Eye Of The Universe!

As with so many action movies, the real sense of disappointment in Masters Of The Universe comes from the characters. He-Man is a pretty senseless barbarian in Masters Of The Universe. He slashes, shoots lasers and runs around, but is almost entirely brutish, without any sense of strategy or depth. It speaks poorly of the film when the human girl, Julie (played by Courteney Cox) is given more lines and a greater sense of character and backstory than the film’s hero. Director Gary Goddard tries to justify the underwhelming nature of He-Man by stating that the film was written based only on the toy line and the accompanying comic books, which portrayed He-Man as a barbarian, but that defense is a very slim one. After all, by the time Masters Of The Universe was green-lit, the animated He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe was already off the air. In other words, whether it was originally written before that, by the time it went into pre-production, Masters Of The Universe had a much more extensive character base to call upon than the film actually ended up using.

That said, the characters of Man-At-Arms, Evil Lyn, and Skeletor all seem exactly like what one expects them to be. Jon Cypher plays Man-At-Arms as articulate and experienced (one of the few truly delightful moments of the film comes when the heroes are eating fried chicken and Teela learns that it is made from animals and Cypher portrays him with a wonderful sense of charisma). Similarly, Meg Foster is a bright spot in the movie as the cold and cunning Evil Lyn. Foster might be the only one who looks exactly like the character she portrays, based on the animated series, toys, and imagination of the fans.

Skeletor is played by Frank Langella and it is only late in the film that Langella is able to infuse some of his ability to bring depth and emotion to the role of the monolithic evil that is Skeletor. Langella is not bad as Skeletor; his character is just written pretty directly and blandly. Dolph Lundgren plays He-Man and instead of being a monolithic good, Lundgren just plays him as a brute with no real depth, save one moment near the very end of the film. Chelsea Field plays Teela as very militant and any young people who had any attraction to the character of Teela are likely to be disappointed by this rendition of her (not just because she does not wear a one-piece swimsuit-like outfit!). Billy Barty (Gwildor), Courteney Cox (Julie), Robert Duncan McNeill (Kevin), and Anthony De Longis (Blade) all do great in their new to the universe of Masters Of The Universe roles. James Tolkan plays Detective Lubic in a way that is very familiar to those who have seen him anything else.

The story of Masters Of The Universe starts out engaging enough, but when the heroes arrive on Earth, the movie takes a sharp right turn into Sucksville. The invasion of Earth to recover He-Man starts out interesting – the fight in the gymnasium that leads to He-Man rescuing Julie is pretty cool - and the subsequent punishment of the mercenaries by Skeletor enhances the sense of the character’s villainy, but the wave that includes Skeletor quickly turns into a ridiculous sequence that showcases special effects that are incredibly dated.

On DVD and Blu-Ray, Masters Of The Universe includes a commentary track that has director Gary Goddard defending the film as best he can and talking a lot about the limited budget, sped-up timetable and (especially) the lighting. I can’t recall a film where the director spent more time talking about the lighting than in Masters Of The Universe. The disc also includes the original trailer and character files of each of the film’s characters.

The bonus features, however, are not at all enough to justify sitting through the movie, even for those who want to love the universe of Masters Of The Universe.

For other fantasy and science fiction films, please visit my reviews of:
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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