Masters of the Universe (Blu-ray)

“I have an octode rectifier!”

In 1987, with the nation engulfed in full-on He-Man frenzy, blockbuster chop-shop Cannon unleashed this live-action fantasy adventure. Oh what joy to see these animated icons of my childhood spring to life! He-Man! Skeletor! Evil-Lyn! Teela! Man-at-Arms! Kevin the unemployed high school keyboardist! And Eternia…

“Eternia.” What comes to mind? Majestic palaces? Purple mountains? Whimsical fluorescent flora and fauna? Skin-tight pink wool jumpers?

Think again. Eternia is a war-torn apocalyptic landscape, burnt-out and scorched after years of armed conflict between the forces of the evil Skeletor (Frank Langella, The Box) and Castle Grayskull’s army of benevolence and olive drab uniforms, led by the mighty He-Man (Dolph Lundgren, The Expendables).

For so long, He-Man has been able to squelch Skeletor’s advances, combining masterful swordcraft with a winning smile. Only when Skeletor stumbles upon a magic key made by an ugly dwarf do the tables turn. This key creates portals in space-time, allowing the bad guys to penetrate the defenses of Grayskull, capture the Sorceress (the castle’s guardian), and put into action Skeletor’s diabolical plan: Open Grayskull’s drawing room window at midnight, and use the key’s magic to soak up the power of the universe, turning him into some kind of magic steampunk pharaoh.

He-Man once again throws a wrench into the works, stealing the key and jumping into a wormhole that drops his gang onto Earth. Skeletor tracks them and sends an invasion force, forcing He-Man to do what must be done, namely, burning a small Midwestern town to the ground.

So much to unpack.

Masters of the Universe represented the culmination of my cartoon-watching life in the mid-1980s. With a live-action Transformers film not considered plausible, this was the sole big-screen realization of the stuff I watched during my formative couch potato years — and it was glorious.

What it wasn’t, was a straight adaptation of the cartoon. There was no Cringer, no Orko, no King and Queen, no Ram-Man, and, most notably, zero Prince Adam-to-He-Man transformations (a dynamic I haven’t quite yet wrapped my head around; is He-Man some kind of Hyde-like parasite that emerges tan and fit when the situation calls for it?)

Cannon’s muscular opus takes the mythology in a different direction, adding new characters, subtracting many others, and cooking up a cornball story centered around one of the plot deviciest plot devices ever shoe-horned into a movie.

No matter. It was big fun and remains big fun. If you think otherwise you must hate America or tall blonde men in capes.

Let’s take a closer look at the characters:

No Battlecat? No problem. Dolph Lundgren is in his macho Swedish prime, decked out in possibly the least appropriate outfit for an action hero ever, clanging his massive prop sword into Skeletor’s hapless troops like a clapper on a church bell. The biggest difference between live-action He-Man and cartoon He-Man is that the latter works hard not to cause bodily harm to his opponents and the former murders everyone.

Skeletor is my all-time favorite cartoon bad guy. He’s a major dick and, despite the fact his schemes are pretty much all moronic and inevitably fail, consistently pins the blame on his flunkies. In Masters of the Universe he’s still an a-hole and still bitches to his underlings, but his villainy just isn’t as, well, cartoonish. The most malicious he gets is the magic blast delivered to Courtney Cox’s leg. While the resulting skin inflammation is oozy, it’s still essentially a rash. Tough to fear a guy when the most potent magic he can conjure can be replicated by an unfortunate encounter with poison sumac.

Kevin and Julie
Robert Duncan McNeill (Star Trek: Voyager) and Courtney Cox (Scream). The fresh young teen faces, brought on board to…I don’t know, appeal to the adolescent theater-going crowd that isn’t alert enough to realize they’re watching a movie about a man in a codpiece fighting a talking skeleton.

Teela and Man-at-Arms
In live-action, Teela (Chelsea Field, Commando) pushes the PG rating, parading around in a skin-tight jumper. But compared to what the animators outfitted her in the cartoon, she might as well have been wearing a burqa. Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher, General Hospital) is crusty, curmudgeonly, and continues to have a terrible name.

Meg Foster (They Live)! Her green eyes and raspy voice make her a premium villainess, but her lack of strategic thinking is glaring. As we learn, she has the ability to change her appearance (even turning into Julie’s dead mother, at one point) begging the question: Couldn’t she have used this power to change into He-Man’s aunt or something, then stick him with a shiv when he leans over for a hug?

The New Guys
Beast-man is here, and he’s just as useless as the cartoon version. In fact, all the bad guys are useless. “Skeletor’s finest warriors” are dispatched to Earth to get the key and they consist of Beast-man; Blade, a supposed master swordsman whose only melee victory in the entire film comes against a chain-link fence; Karg, a guy who looks like a cross between Edgar Winter and that charred homeless person from Mulholland Drive; and Saurod, a reptilian creature whose primary power, as far as I can tell, is his rapidly expanding bulbous neck. We lost out on Tri-clops and Fisto for these dumbasses?

Skeletor’s Commandos
If you thought Imperial Stormtroopers were the be-all end-all of inept sci-fi cannon fodder, wait until you see these morons. They literally run square into laser-fire. Even the high-ranking troops — you can tell who they are, because they wear capes! — recklessly charge into the teeth of battle, implementing the dubious strategy of dulling He-Man’s sword blade with their skulls.

James Tolkan (Back to the Future). The only cop on duty in the entire city refuses to believe the burning schools and flying laser bolts are anything other than typical teenager shenanigans. On the other hand, he’s bald and refers to himself by his surname.

Sadly, fans of this breathtaking work are denied the HD treatment we so richly deserve. The 1.85:1/1080p transfer is a mediocre one. The resolution is soft and grain is evident throughout. It’s an upgrade from the DVD, sure, but not by enough to mandate a re-buy. Add to that a so-so DTD-HD 2.0 Master Audio track and one recycled extra from the standard-def release — an entertaining commentary from director Gary Goddard, the highlight of which is his recounting of the Tale of Pig Boy — and you have a release that doesn’t measure up to…Oh, who am I kidding. It’s a miracle this thing got a Blu-ray release in the first place.

Not Guilty. Good journey!


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