He-Man was one of those childhood cartoon characters that I could never really connect with the same way I did with his Saturday morning contemporaries. I came into this movie with no particular love for its source material and I know one should not have high expectations of a movie thats based on a cartoon series thats based on a children’s toyline but I expected more from Masters of the Universe than the weird chop-suey of clunky action and cringe worthy dialogue that it ended up being. I’d seen the fish-out-of-water-super-serious-alien-warrior-on-earth-bit work in Suburban Commando so I figured with a property with such colorful mythology and such a perfect looking lead in Lundgren that it would be hard to goof up this movie but it falls tragically flat in every department.
It only takes a few minutes of listening to the director’s commentary to realize that most of the problems with this flick could be traced back to the corner cutting Cannon Films, the studio that funded the film. You see, cutting corners on a movie budget is kinda like cutting your own hair. Sure, you’ll save some money but you’ll have patches missing on the back of your head and you’ll look like a total idiot when you go out in public and strapped for cash, Cannon Films did just that with Masters of the Universe. This movie has more awkward “first times” than a small town Prom night, with the cast and crew being composed mostly of inexpensive newcomers. You have a head writer who’s experience with fantasy and action was limited mostly to writing dialogue for puppets, a first time director in who films an action movie with romantic comedy sensibilities and you also have first time lead actors in Dolph Lundgren, Chelsea Field, Courtney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill who are all so green that you cant help but get the sense that they all are trying too hard to make up for the faint whisper of a script.
I’ve never seen the main character of a property so shoved into the background as he is in Masters of the Universe. Its like making a Batman movie and then focusing on Alfred for the entire feature. Lundgren had awful luck with this being his debut as a lead in a movie. Throughout his career he has never had the good fortune of finding filmmakers that match his particular style of muscle-bound action the way his contemporaries in the action-hero holy trinity did (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone). He looks uncomfortable in most of the scene in MOTU, and I guess I cant blame him. They dressed him up in an outfit that would make even a character from Queen’s Blade blush and gave him almost nothing to do or say. I like to think that in a parallel universe where MOTU didn’t have a self-sabotaging studio and an inexperienced cast that he really could have shined here. He has that goofy do-gooder look and could have been an excellent straight man to some fish out of water jokes. The only actor who manages to shine in this dull movie is Frank Langella. He plays Skeletor so theatrically, so its impossible not to smile. He perfectly walks that fine line between straight and tongue in cheek. Its a pity there is so little of him and so much of the lead couple of Julie and Kevin. In addition to having no chemistry together, they are not the characters you came to this movie to see. Give us some more time with the Eternian characters! If given the choice I would probably choose watching a graphic striptease from Gwildor than watch another second of the Julie and Kevin show.
Even with such recognizable characters they never really manage to create the feeling that this movie has any identity of its own. Everything in this movie feels borrowed from the ripped off Superman intro and theme song to the Star Wars and Conan-esque costuming that they blew the lion’s share of budget on. It feels like the studio initially had planned to spend a lot more cash on this production and then part way through shooting ran out of cash and started clipping zeros from the budget. You can hear on the commentary track with director Gary Goddard instances of this happening throughout the production and his professionalism is commendable for managing to stitch together a coherent movie in such a trying set of circumstances but the corner cutting really shows in the movie. I most notice it in the lack of “extras” in the scenes. The streets of the small suburban California town are completely empty, so are the buildings and houses. Its seems like a small thing since but when its missing, man is it obvious.
I know most kids wouldn’t pause for even a second to consider how solid the time-space displacement science was in the flick but being a science dork it irked me. I know movie time-space travel is something that requires a little flexibility but MOTU’s take is a little too vague for me. I find myself with too many questions that all have the same answer: because bad writing. If the cosmic key can send people back in time as well as in space then why wouldn’t Skeletor just use his key to go back to Earth just before the group arrives and take the key then instead of wasting precious time and effort chasing He-man and co around a strange planet? Or why wouldn’t Gwildor use it to go back in time before he gave Evil-Lyn the key the first time? I mean hell, I’d much rather have seen Kevin do an entire set with his band at the school dance featuring solos on the cosmic key that is also inexplicably a fully functional chromatic synthesizer, than see this most powerful cosmic device used the way it is on screen. Also, did anyone else think that the key looks like a giant super dangerous futuristic dildo? Just me?
There is a certain charm to Masters of the Universe with its so-bad-its-good campiness but the movie never fully commits to the campy mentality and instead fails to reach the cult worthy schlock status of other cartoon/toyline based flicks of the era. Sadly the real cost of all the budget cutting is the audience’s enjoyment. God help us when they decide to reboot this and Michael Bay man-handles yet another franchise from childhood.