By the power of Grayskull! The battle between good and evil will be fought on our own planet earth as He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) and Skeletor (Frank Langella) fight for the fate of Eternia and the universe. After being transported to earth, He-Man and friends seek help from Julie (Courteney Cox) and Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill), two teenagers who can help bring our heroes home. While our heroes look for a way home, Skeletor dispatches his troops to terminate them. Will He-Man finally defeat Skeletor or will Skeletor accumulate enough power to conquer all? This is Gary Goddard’s Masters of the Universe!
A complicated production schedule caused the film to go over budget. To keep budget costs low, Cannon Films decided to set most of Masters of the Universe on earth as opposed to the fictional world of Eternia. For He-Man fans, this is a deviation of the mythology, but it works surprisingly well. To embrace Masters of the Universe is to admit that this is not the He-Man film you might have wanted. Once you can accept this fact, the film is fun schlock entertainment. This is Star Wars meets Bill & Ted except for the fact that most of the actors aren’t nearly as charismatic as Reeves and Winter.
While most of the performances are mid-to-low tier, there is one performer who stands above the rest and that is Frank Langella as Skeletor. Langella originally took on the role for his son who was a fan of He-Man. He’s since gone on to state that Skeletor was one of his favorite roles and quite frankly, that’s not hard to believe. Langella understands the film he’s in and he makes a full course meal of every scene to deliver a delightfully villainous performance. He’s scary, but in a cartoonish way. Langella strikes a perfect balance between theatrical and frightening.
Langella may have had the time of his life, but his costar Dolph Lundgren had the opposite experience. After his successful debut as the cold-blooded Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, Lundgren was suddenly thrust as the leading man of what was meant to be an action franchise. At the time, he had just flown in from Sweden so his accent was thick and his acting experience was sparse. In terms of physicality, this is an inspired casting choice for He-Man, but Lundgren looks so uncomfortable and stiff that he can’t fully meet the needs of the role. As a physical performer, Lundgren can handle the stunts, but Lundgren’s lack of acting chops make it hard to believe that he is the true ruler of Eternia.
Masters of the Universe would ultimately be the undoing of Cannon Films. With a budget of $22 million, its final gross was $17 million. Over the years, it has gained a cult following and it’s easy to see why. It does plenty of the wrong things, but Masters of the Universe does get a few things right. Frank Langella’s performance coupled with the production design of Castle Grayskull are absolutely marvelous. The effort put into the set and costume designs cannot go unnoticed. It didn’t become the “Star Wars of the 80’s” as Cannon Films had hoped, but it did help to launch Dolph Lundgren’s career which is a victory in and of itself. Whether you’re familiar with He-Man or not, Masters of the Universe is an entertaining nostalgia trip that will please the old and young alike. If you loved smashing your action figures together as a child, this is the child fantasy you’re looking for.
BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: To be quite transparent, the action is fairly pedestrian so it was hard to single out any particular action sequence. If I had to pick one though, it would be the climactic battle in Castle Grayskull. Remember when practical sets and soundstages were a thing? The interior of Castle Grayskull is one big playset and all the characters have room to interact with their surroundings. Gary Goddard, the director of Masters of the Universe, pushed to have at least the opening and ending of the film set in Eternia. The $22 million was certainly spent in the right places because it feels like a Star Wars setpiece. The final battle between He-Man and Skeletor is clunky, but the overall presentation is solid.