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Masters of the Universe (1987)

Warner Bros. // PG // October 2, 2012
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted October 16, 2012 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Let's call a spade a spade here: Masters of the Universe, the sword-'n-sorcery fantasy tale filtered through Mattel's line-up of action figures at the apex of their popularity, continues to thrive on the nostalgia of the '80s. That nostalgia will vary in appearance, depending on who's looking at it: some will relish a sword-slinging Dolph Lundgren in the prime of his gladiatorial post-Rocky IV physique, while others will revel in the production risks taken by the typically low-cost wheelhouse at Cannon Films. All its razzmatazz makes for a vibrant, visual affair that gets a lot right in keeping the eyes and ears entertained, and that's important when revamping and attempting to improve upon the designs of a toy line for the silver-screen. Everything's in place for a fine popcorn-munching experience -- and it's overshadowed by an insistently knuckleheaded script that barely skates by as being "so bad it's good". It didn't need to be smart, just ... y'know, smarter, and a little less interested in treating the characters like a bunch of toys in motion, no matter how much fun it is to revel in the campiness.

The battle between good and evil stretches across the galaxy in Masters of the Universe, starting on the planet Eternia in the height of a siege on Castle Grayskull by the sorcerer Skeletor (Frank Langella). He's obtained a way of traveling across long distances, even time, with a "cosmic key" that gave him the advantage in taking Castle Grayskull, leaving its defenders in disarray across the land's outskirts. In an attempt to reclaim the area with the help of Gwildor (Billy Barty), the scientist who designed the key, He-Man and his compadres, Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher) and Teela (Chelsea Field), make an attempt to reclaim the castle; but, in a fit of desperation, are transported to 1980s Earth, and lose the key in the process. Masters of the Universe transforms into a fish-out-of-water action-comedy at this point -- think Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home meets Conan the Barbarian -- where He-Man and his team scramble to hunt down the cosmic key with the help of two kids formerly in love: Julie (Courtney Cox in her first film role) and Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill). Skeletor's minions, led by the piercing gazes of Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster), aren't far behind, and they'll make sure He-Man's trip back won't be an easy one.

I won't lie: Masters of the Universe throws together some fairly cool-looking sword-'n-sorcery set pieces that blur from Eternia over to Earth, which still possess a certain draw through their practical application. Director Gary Goddard and his production/art crew concentrated their efforts to achieving a full-bodied visual style that'd enthrall a wide range of audiences; the throne room at Castle Gayskull is a grand, handmade mythical space that's given depth through cleverly-placed matte paintings, while intricate costume work achieves a blend of cinematic curio and "toy-ready" appeal. Playing into that, Frank Langella disappears into the prosthetics and make-up of Skeletor, while the angles and contours created with his stark-white facial moldings still capture the stone-faced force of his performance. Also, the practical Star Wars-esque effects built within certain scenes -- lightning from Skeletor's hands, the crack of an electric whip, and the movement of air gliders -- give it a familiar whimsy, while wearing influences clearly on its sleeve.

Grandeur can't hide the perfunctory, unimaginative plotting at its core though, overflowing with moustache-twirling villains and goofy keep-it-rolling storytelling that's more of a chore than charismatic. While Gary Goddard and The Dark Crystal screenwriter David Odell (among other uncredited writers) draw influence from Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" comic series for its grand essence, basic contrivances are what flimsily glue the chapters together; secret passages conveniently lead to locations where He-Man and his crew need to be, grappling hooks grab things in the nick of time, and they always have the materials they need on-hand to repair elaborate tech. Perhaps that's a part of making the film accessible to other audiences, almost like a darker version of one of the cartoons, but there's a missing layer that prevents it from bottling the adventuresome magic needed. A few well-written "stranger in a strange land" moments add to the experience, such as how the Eternians react to eating a bowl of fried chicken, but they're eclipsed by nagging goofball things like how Gwildor makes his cosmic space-travel device work by just sporadically banging on the keys for varying lengths of time.

Still, Dolph Lundgren throws Masters of the Universe over his burly shoulders and stoically lugs it through active laser-pistol duels and frantic searches for the key to get back to Eternia, piecing together into a bearable journey that's not without its own mindless fun. In his sparse warrior garb and shoulder armor that bare almost every muscle he's got, Lundgren fits the bill of the sword-wielding hero really well -- a visually-comparable, noble PG answer to Arnie's Conan. His rapport with Skeletor is an overt black-and-white conflict, full of gallant speeches and calls of superiority in the cosmos, yet there's an admirable quality in the straight-faced, scenery-chewing pomposity that Frank Langella evokes in the arch-nemesis. Clunky battles and higher-than-high stakes shove Gary Goddard's film towards an unsurprising climax, but at least it stays consistent all the way up to that odd-defying moment everyone's expecting: where the hero confidently stands and insist that he does, indeed, have the power. Well, of course he does.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Masters of the Universe unsheathes on Blu-ray with a 1.78:1-framed (not 1.85:1) 1080p treatment that's more satisfying than one might be expecting, but not without making the 35mm film look somewhat weathered and bulky. Certain moments shine a spotlight on the dazzling essence of Hanania Baer's cinematography: scenes in the Grayskull throne room reveal deep textures and a grandness of scale enhanced by the transfer, from the sone pillars around Skeletor's perch to the rich matte paintings, while the detail in Frank Langella's mask/prosthetics retain depth, awareness of light, and tangible solidity. Similar things are achieved outside the walls of Grayskull, where the rich contrast keeps vivid nighttime battles rich in color and gracefully moving. Grain and overall shallow depth restrains the image from being more aggressively satisfying, while the muddy haze at certain parts of the image goes beyond artistic intentions and restrains a few palette choices from popping the way they should. But the intricate costumes, the practical visual effects, and the rich lights surrounding Lundgren's massive frame stand proud in this Blu-ray treatment.

Here's where it get a little tricky: Masters of the Universe arrives with only a 2-channel Master Audio track for the vigorous sword-'n-sorcery flick, with no full surround option to be found. However, this remains consistent with the standard-definition presentation, as well as with the production's limited design. Generally, you'll get a great sense of the energy present in action scenes with insistent lower-frequency bursts from laser blasts and clanging blades, while the dialogue largely remains clear and clean -- though, in general, everything is at least slightly weighed down by the film's age, with occasionally metallic and muffled effects that, I assume, are unavoidable without vigorous audio work. Bill Conti's distinctive score sound just fine in the background, though, and a generally satisfying balance keeps the film's audio energy moving without atmosphere-breaking distortion. A surround track would've been a nice option, but this one stays true to what's necessary for the flick.

Special Features:

We've only got two supplements here that make a return appearance from WB's previous DVD: an amusing Theatrical Trailer (1:42, SD) with a hokey, overdone voiceover, and the sporadic but occasionally perceptive Audio Commentary with Gary Goddard. Enthusiasm still sits in his voice while he discusses the project, which shifts between nostalgic inflection in his voice to clear memories of what the scenes required. He discusses the elaborateness of the Grayskull throne room and how he stumbled onto some of the now-famous actors in the film, while also tackling minor production elements that'll make you appreciate the film more -- such as the story behind outdoor lamps in a cemetery and the design of the Comic Key. He's a little stilted at times, but the material he reveals about establishing shots and production effort will still satisfy fans.

Final Thoughts:

It's pretty hard not to recommend, and relish, Masters of the Universe based on its attributes alone: it's a campy sword-'n-sorcery adventure emblazoned with the legendary Cannon Films logo and starring a flawlessly-chiseled Dolph Ludgren as He-Man, full of time-appropriate effects and ridiculous costumes that show a considerable amount of effort. Some will enjoy it, and enjoy the memories of its persistent appearance on TV; it's a fun-enough experience when not taken seriously, one that moves along and keeps the eyes and ears entertained for a pretty wide age gradient. But it's also clunky, infuriatingly convenient, and more than a little ridiculous, as well as only faintly similar to the established stories that it's based on. It's here where two recommendations will have to suffice: the nostalgia value and "so bad it's good" experience of the action-fantasy romp will be worth the time for those with a threshold for that sort of thing, but others won't be able to look past its goofy, blunt-headed script that's very clearly been designed to further a product. Newcomers should give it a Rental, while fans will want to pick the Blu-ray up for its audiovisual merits.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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