‘Masters of the Universe’ (Gary Goddard, 1987)

MOTU_PosterI can’t remember the name of the kid whose birthday it was that saw us get a trip to see ‘Masters of the Universe’ at the cinema. This worries me. I used to know it and I can think of loads of other names from those days, but while I can picture this guy and remember which house he lived in, his name completely eludes me. The were five of us and we saw it at the old bastard cinema on Kingston Road, long since knocked down and turned into flats. Probably the same year I’d seen ‘Police Academy 3: Back in Training’ (Jerry Paris, 1986), and would later see Crocodile Dundee II (John Cornell, 1988) there. It was a red carpet, red wallpaper and dark brown wood interior. The carpet was sticky with decades of Coke and the seats lost their spring probably the year they were installed. It had no surround sound, would frequently over-project onto the curtains, occasionally had 30 second reel changes and the staff were all miserable sods. But they were miserable sods who’d let any kid in as long as they paid, regardless of rating. These were the good ‘ol days.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.1987.DRz.avi_snapshot_00.00.48_[2013.09.01_12.25.52]That same cinema can be seen in ‘The Comic Strip’ in ‘Dirty Movie’ (Sandy Johnson, 1984) written by and starring Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson. In 1984 the cost of admission was £2.20 so we can probably assume it never cost me more than £3 to see ‘Masters of the Universe’. The cost of a He Man figure back then was about the same. Does the film offer less value than an action figure? Yes it does. Even Fisto.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.1987.DRz.avi_snapshot_00.13.56_[2013.09.01_12.27.33]The eighties are resplendent with straight-to-video crap. It rolled off the conveyor belt like shit after a Sherbert Fountain. It wasn’t about quality, it was about money. These weren’t films designed to make you think, they were films designed to make money. There’s nothing wrong with that, provided you stand by that principle during filming and don’t find yourself straying into ‘How do we justify this expense?’ territory. Would that one day James Cameron were struck with such a guilt-trip. We live in hope.

It’s not just the films either, everything in the eighties was about profit. Sell, sell, sell. ‘Star Wars’ (George Lucas, 1977) had hit big with the action figure market and Mattel were quick to shove their own boy’s alternative to Barbie on the shelves. Sure they’d had success with GI Joe in the US, but Action Man never really hit the spot in the UK. Also those bloody conscientious consumers were far from happy with war-themed toys. It’s alright in the US were patriotism is compulsory, but the rest of the world isn’t so blinkered. He Man fulfilled a need somewhere between ‘Star Wars’ and Transformers toys.

The cartoon series had been on since 1983. Everyone knew the ‘By the power of Grayskull!’ mantra. He Man was big news. The fact a film was being made was even bigger news, and it seemed to me as a kid at the time that this had all the makings of an epic cinematic experience. We’d already seen how amazing ‘Starchaser: The Legend of Orin’ (Steven Hahn, 1985) had been – He Man had to improve on that. But what’s this?! He Man won’t be a cartoon? It’ll be live action? With people? Actually, that doesn’t really excite 10 year old me.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.1987.DRz.avi_snapshot_00.10.10_[2013.09.01_12.27.21]Sadly very few 10 year olds were excited by ‘Masters of the Universe’. Adults made a film for kids but had forgotten to ask the kids what they wanted. Much like when Richard Donner made ‘Superman’ (1978) and trotted out a ponderous talky overlong drama. Strange to think the same man could set the record straight a few years later with ‘The Goonies’ (1985). ‘Masters of the Universe’ bombed at the box office and barely bothered the home video rental market. It’s never really attained any kind of cult status as a forgotten classic, because frankly it’s a pile of confused shit that doesn’t owe a single syllable to its cartoon origin.

That said I’m led to believe that this film never had its origins in a cartoon anyway, being instead a film in concept prior to the animated series ever happening. Well balls to that because the animated series got there first and it was on the back of that that this crap every got made at all. It owed a lot to kids and it failed to deliver.

orkoThe biggest problem with make a live action film of a cartoon is that where once your only imaginative limit was in the inkwell, waiting to be drawn,  now it was a budgetary nightmare. Cringer and Battlecat are a doddle to draw, just ask my Design Technology teacher who told me off for doing just that week after week. But how the fuck do you make He Man ride a sodding great green tiger on film? Well the answer is you don’t. You write that out. Then of course there’s Orko. Haha! Good old Orko. The floating red dress in a sunhat that all kids knew because it was Orko who frequently delivered the moral message at the end of each week’s episode on TV. How do you realise Orko on film? Don’t bother, that’s the answer. Write him out. Sod Orko.

Jesus weptBut what about He Man? You can’t write him out but you’re at least partially committed to the look of the man. Huge muscles, big furry pants, sodding great sword and a blonde bowl-cut. Seems pretty straightforward except that this is Hollywood. You can’t just cast anyone. They want a name, someone they can sell in the part. This means He Man would have to be played by someone already famous who was muscular, blonde and had his own furry pants. The three obvious big hitters would’ve been Stallone, Schwarzenegger and… hmmm. Who else? Well there’s always that guy from ‘Rocky IV’ (Sylvester Stallone, 1985). Dolph Lundgren does look the part, albeit clearly fiercely uncomfortable in his fuzzy knickers and knee boots wandering around California at night. The major problem stems from when he opens his gob. The words come out occasionally, but mostly the poor Swede struggles. Dubbing him would’ve really helped this film, if only for his ‘I have the power!’ which comes out as ‘Eye happy hour!’.

So what of the elements we do have? Well we’ve got Skeletor. He’s not blue, doesn’t ride a purple puma and has human eyes instead of cold, lifeless sockets. But he’s kind of alright. That is until the last ten minutes when he’s transformed into a god but actually looks like Jodie Marsh on her wedding day. Viewers of the cartoon will also remember redheaded, white-booted Teela. Well she’s now a brunette and really pissy with people.

The only successful transfer from small screen to big screen for the good guys is Man-At-Arms (Jon Cypher). I used to dream of casting Charles Bronson in this role. He’d have been great at it. But Cypher’s pleasant enough, even if he doesn’t fire lasers from his wrists. Of course Man-At-Arms, or Duncan as he’s also known, had a purpose in the (loosely termed) plot of the animated series in that he was one of only a select group who knew He Man’s true identity. In the film, He Man has no duality. More’s the pity. Adam could’ve blended in to California, made Lundgren less uncomfortable and given him more to do. But this tiny aspect of He Man’s character is washed away. Lundgren is bloody awful in this film for one reason: He couldn’t be anything else. The part is barely written and what is there is pure good. There’s nothing you can do with He Man as a character.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.1987.DRz.avi_snapshot_00.04.42_[2013.09.01_12.26.37]One final casting acknowledgement should go to Meg Foster’s Evil-Lyn. Again, not much on paper but she brings a lot to the part and in fact is one of the few participants who can leave the experience with their head held high.

For whatever reason the producers have also decided that they want a whole new music arrangement for He Man. This is fair enough, these things sometimes happen. But the problem is you need to replace a catchy, recognisable theme with something equally catchy and recognisable. Instead you get Bill Conti’s fucking atrocious John Williams rip-off which feels like ironic stand-up comedy in music form. Just listen to the opening titles and then Williams’ ‘Superman’ theme. Absolutely shameful and frequently kills the film dead. Which is a shame because a lot of the plot revolves around music. Or something. I don’t really know, I was cooking a chicken kiev when this was on.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.1987.DRz.avi_snapshot_00.23.25_[2013.09.01_12.28.04]Are you feeling peckish now? Fancy a chicken kiev? Well that’s all thanks to my product placement. I made you want that kiev just as the makers of  ‘Masters of the Universe’ want you to rush out and eat some Burger King or better still, play something on a Panasonic, Roland or Rhodes keyboard. Because we have a huge shoot-out in a music shop right here for you guys which we’ll feature clips of in every trailer package. Sometimes Gary Goddard will linger on a shot so long you’ll think you taped the film off the TV and forgot to wind on the ads. While we’re about it, who the fuck is Gary Goddard anyway? This film is shitter than a tramp’s knickers. Action scenes hang static for up to twenty seconds with nothing happening. Exposition is lost amid a cacophony of laser fire and none of his actors seem to have a fucking clue what to do. The man is to cinema what Jimmy Savile was to children.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.1987.DRz.avi_snapshot_00.17.20_[2013.09.01_12.27.48]All is not lost though. This a Canon film and whatever else, Canon films always looked the part. They were low budget, sure, but they delivered spectacle and ‘Masters of the Universe’ benefits from some excellent visual effects. Of course they make a massive saving by setting most of the film on Earth to save paying too much money, but that’s not a problem. As good as they are, I’d still have preferred the money to be spent on a decent Orko.

It’s a brain-numbing film which runs to two hours, but feels like three hours. It just won’t end. When it does, you’ve barely noticed because you’ve been self-harming for the last thirty minutes. It lacks soul, a good director and a less cynical producer. But for the record, if I was making ‘Masters of the Universe’ in 1987, I’d have cast Roddy Piper.

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