It’s the question that every little group of cinephiles eventually get around to: what was the first film you ever saw in the cinema? When the merry band that is Montage first posed the question, the crop of mid-1980s classics that were thrown around were inimitable; Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T., Back To The Future and some re-releases of classic early Disney animations. I bit my lip in apprehension as it came to be my turn to reveal the film that shaped my future with the medium that is film.
“Erm, Masters of the Universe…and I had to leave before it finished because I was too scared.”
These days, I can make it all the way to the end credits and the only scary thing about it is how big a buzz I get out of watching a giant Scandinavian with a bad mullet kickin’ some ass in leather Y-fronts. The anticipation was fever pitch in the summer of 1987 for the first live action adaptation of the cartoon series He-Man and The Masters of the Universe. Made by Filmation and based on the beloved Mattel toy line, of which I was avid collector, it was to be an usual experience for the uber-fans and indeed anyone who even had a passing knowledge of the cartoon series. Nowadays major production companies handle high valued properties, but the He-Man franchise was handed to the Cannon Group. Beginning with some niche Israeli films, which earned them an Academy Award, Cannon bankrolled a year of projects that would ultimately cripple them. One of them was Masters of the Universe, which they aggressively marketed, using the tagline: “The Star Wars of the 1980s.” Uh-Oh.
The pastel world of Planet Eternia? Try some boulder quarries somewhere in California. The child friendly world of magic and affable elves? Swapped in favour of cyborgs, laser guns and grotesque deformed dwarves. The film infamously ditched the mythology of the cartoon, and mainly due to the budget, introduced a tonal Cosmic Key, which allows inter-dimensional travel. Except the only dimension other than the boulder quarry is a John Hughes-tastic 1987 where Courtney Cox is having some serious teen angst. Castle Greyskull was besieged by the hordes of Snake Mountain and I’m supposed to care about some girl leaving her job at KFC? Gone was Prince Adam as well, He-Man was simply He-Man (Dolph Lundgren), S&M gear clad muscleman who makes the soldiers of 300 look positively straight.
Lundgren was coming off a successful stint as the evil Commie in Rocky IV, and after Sylvester Stallone passed on this script he suggested Dolph take the part. With friends like those, who needs agents? His broken English is bad enough, worse is the fact that no stuntman could be found to match his physique hence the horrific stunt work. The sword fights are hilarious as Dolph clearly struggles to wield the heavy Sword of Power; you’re lucky if he hits his attacker’s sword once per duel. Yet there’s something endearing about the mullet sporting buffoon, and I love the scene where he walks into a music shop in his undies-cape combo and no one bats an eyelid.
It was, after all, the 1980s and boy are we never allowed to forget it. Courtney Cox’s Julie and her boyfriend Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeil, yes it is Tom Paris of Star Trek Voyager) have an entire emotional bonding scene underscored by that classic track Livin’ In A Box. The mental dwarf Gwildor (Willow’s Billy Barty) also decides to pimp a pink Cadillac with Eternian technology – the sight of Dolph Lundgren being driven around in a neon pink car by a ginger dwarf is something you’ll never forget. When the leader of the goodies is so bland you’d hope for some delightful supporting characters but sadly none are to be found. Man At Arms (Jon Cypher) and his daughter Teela (Chelsea Field) do little other than steal fried chicken and bemoan Earthlings for eating animals. Courtney Cox tries her best but really just runs around screaming, wishing she were back dancing in the dark with Bruce Springsteen. Thankfully though the bald James Tolkan, Headmaster Strickland from Back to the Future, turns up as Detective Lubic who helps Kevin rebuild the cosmic key with – get this – a keyboard and some wires! By this point it’s probably not even worth wondering why he then plays a Tears For Fears song to send them back to Eternia.
Sadly, production would limit the amount of on location photography, which resulted in another classic moment as an army of super troopers emerge from a time portal in suburban L.A. and no one else bothers to check this out other than He-Man and his intrepid gang of misfits. Clearly this is the same suburb that the T Rex from The Lost World visited so many years later.
As with any film of this kind, the true joy is to be found in the villains. There’s Evil Lyn (Meg Foster), who is…well, she’s pretty evil. Clearly the University of Villainy needs a new director of nomenclature, although she does wear a fruit bowl on her head so perhaps she dropped out and is just winging this gig hoping Skeletor doesn’t notice. Then there’s Karg (Robert Towers) a rather disturbing cross between Tina Turner and Abu Hamza, plus the lizard-like Saurod played by Pons Maar who also terrified us as the leader of the Wheelers in Return to Oz. Above all though is Skeletor, no longer the purple hood-wearing clown, sniggering away at his pithy one-liners. Striding into Castle Greyskull is Frank Langella’s Skeletor, swathed in black ominously cracking his staff on the marble floors. He has the Sorceress trapped in an energy force field, he has finally taken Grey Skull, he is on the verge of victory…. he is a scary bastard. Inside this kitsch 80s car crash is one of the most underrated villain performances in cinema.
Langella performs real magic, making something out of completely nothing. The most clichéd lines become truly menacing – “tell me of the loneliness of good He-Man, is it equal to the loneliness of evil?”. In the way that talented actors such as Ian MacDiarmid, Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart have in recent times, Langella takes stilted dialogue born of hooey mythology and leaves you thinking he’s delivering Shakespeare; his technique is unreservedly theatrical. He snarls and projects every line regardless of context, writhes upon the throne of Greyskull, and violently flares up without warning. He has an authoritative yet maniacal screen presence that is every bit the equal to Darth Vader, perhaps providing the only truth in the aforementioned tag line. His dialogue is also great to drop into casual conversations to see if anyone remembers it, sadly “I ache to SMASH YOU OUT OF EXISTENCE! To DRIVE your cursed face FROM MY MEMORIES FOREVER!” usually just gets me a funny look.
Sadly Masters of the Universe was dead from the get go, with director Gary Goddard having to fund the final battle out of his own pocket. To think his biggest achievement since this is to go unaccredited as Man At Beach in X-Men is rather distressing, however I doubt he went bankrupt filming that finale. One moment Skeletor (now wearing a golden chandelier on his head calling himself God…try and keep up) is zapping He-Man with his finger electricity (just like Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars!) in the grand Greyskull set, but by the time He-Man gets back the Sword of Power (and tingles our spines with “I HAVE THE POWER”) and announces their final duel, they seem to be fighting in a very dark room with a red light bulb on somewhere. After Skeletor is thrown down a big air shaft (more Star Wars!), he pops up at the end of the credits in some pink liquid shouting, “I’ll be back”, but sadly it was not to be. The sets were built for a sequel, but after losing the licensing Cannon turned it into the Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle Cyborg. While He-Man is supposedly making a big screen return sometime in the near future, under the watchful dollar sign eyes of producer Joel Silver, I’ll always cherish this nostalgia over whatever CGI heavy, non-Scandinavian muscleman version they eventually release. However, if any of you feel compelled by this insight to seek out Masters of the Universe I say go for it, and of course “Good Journey.”
No one got that either did they? Bah!