Master of the Universe (MOTU for short) is a movie I remember fondly from my childhood. It was the kind of film you would see played on TBS and WB channels on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, usually buried in a marathon of similarly-themed sci-fi epics. So you can imagine the delight I found as a pre-teen when movies like Fortress and Highlander would bookend a testosterone-laden thrill ride such as MOTU. Much to my chagrin though, it has been well over 15 years since I last laid eyes on this toy-line inspired beauty, and I am happy to report it holds up incredibly well, despite showing signs of its now eclipsed special effects and cliched plot devices.
MOTU tells the story of an eternal battle between He-Man, the sort of Savior of the Eterians (good guys) and Skeletor, a tyrannical skull-faced villain who has amassed a gigantic force of black-clad soldiers with laser guns in an attempt to fuse his own existence with the all mighty the power of the universe to become a God to which all will bow and be subservient. There are some other minor details, such as a sacred sword (who would have seen that coming) and a Cosmic Key that can tap into to musical nature of the entire universe to teleport anyone to any time and/or place, but they are all secondary to the over arching theme of Good vs. Evil that gives MOTU all the setup it needs to get on with the futuristic-fantasy style combat and whimsical, feel good storytelling.
One of the major challenges any comic/cartoon/toy-line turned movie faces is finding talent capable of bringing the larger than life characters that have been summoned from imagination to screen in an even remotely credible way. Some may argue with what I am about to say, but Dolph Lundgren and company to a terrific job manifesting the starry-eyed childhood wonder that He-man and his cohorts exude to the medium of film. Frank Langella as Skeletor may be one of the most perfect, glove-tight fights in cinematic history. Dolph Lundgren IS He-man, right down to his Godly physique and “get it done” no bullshit attitude, as well as being a man of few wasted words. Courtney Cox plays the perfect “Earth teenager accidentally sucked into interstellar warfare” and Meg Foster brings a deliciously sexy and sinister style to Skeletors mistress of doom, Evil-Lyn. Bill Barty as the vertically challenged and infinitely adorable Gwildor does a good enough job to land him a role in any Jim Henson film, and James Tolkan plays the frustrating, non-believer cop role to perfection. The best part is, you can just tell how everyone on set knew exactly what they were making, and instead of trying to prove what a great actor they are in the hopes of landing future roles in “better” movies, they revel in the ludicrous nature of the whole thing, and emit an aura of carefree fun with a touch of either pure righteousness for the good guys, or over the top menace and for the baddies.
Gary Goddard, directing his only film of any relevance, echoes the playful vibe that MOTU is known for by keeping his camera relatively calm, but flooding sets and locations with a myriad of different bright, shiny, and often neon colors. He does at times use come cool focusing tricks and “action in the background” techniques like when Skeletors wicked floating throne creeps up on our unsuspecting heroes on a building top, but for the most part he keeps it within the comfortable standards, which is by no means saying he does the viewer a disservice. The colors and filters work to make the live action seem all the more fantastic and comic-bookish, with heavy hues of red breaking through strands of smoke and fog often when our villains are on screen. Our heroes get far less of this Pink Floyd concert laser show treatment then the opposition, but they too are treated like gold by Goddards camera, being seen in many heroic poses, and never being filmed to look weak, or even beatable for that matter. Goddard knew exactly how to make people playing action figures look every bit as fun and gigantic as we all imagined in our young minds when we were playing with the toys and watching the cartoons.
While laser beams and zoom-ins on paintings are now dinosaurs of the art of film, for me they hold more than just nostalgia. I liked the way yesteryears’ special effects looked. Paintings made to replace expensive and impossible sets, sparks flying out of bodies instead of blood, costumes that were complex, bulky, and not aided by computer graphics touch ups, and Ghostbusters style lightning of all different colors, shapes ans sizes warm my heart to no end. If some one made this film today (and I have no doubt someone in Hollywood is eyeing this for a remake) it would look more like a video game than a movie. But thankfully, the memory we have before us is one which took full advantage of the available technology as well as traditional customs, presenting gorgeous and elaborate set design (the interior of Castle Greyskull is fucking BEAUTIFULLY done) and pyrotechnics galore. It sits firmly in between cheese and art, never for an instant trying to pretend, visually or sonically, to be something it’s not. The music and sound effects are full of tributes to Star Wars and the hordes of other popular space epics, while sprinkling in some Conan the Barbarian for good measure. It’s all well beyond adequate, and detracts nothing from the overall experience. If anything, it just adds to the charm and warmth.
MOTU is one of the finest examples of a movie often referred to as a punchline in a joke, actually being sinfully entertaining and solid after 20 plus years. Its indulgent, flashy, loud, and has limited mainstream appeal, but it’s also wholesome, pure, easy to understand, and never, ever boring. It doesn’t bog you down with hours of back story, political allegory, or social commentary. It’s just a fun, tightly wrapped interpretation of a, at one point, incredibly popular comic, cartoon, and toy line, instead of being a movie which only exists in an attempt to popularise and announce a forthcoming comic, cartoon, and line of pose able figurines. The acting is well-suited to fit the mood, technical aspects are tailor made to increase that mood, and the story and pace are as on point as one could expect from a 1 hour and 45 minute flick destined to be one of the ultimate popcorn experiences of all-time. So crack open a beer, pack your bowl, or whatever it is you flunkies do, and revisit a classic that deserves a much better legacy than the one history has bestowed upon it. After all, YOU HAVE THE POWERRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!
AND JUST FOR LAUGHS!!!