Years ago at this point, Jesse Bullington and I co-wrote a column called Films of High Adventure that ran on a semi-regular basis. For those of you who never read it, but are for some reason reading now, the deal was basically this: I never really watched most of the big-budget cheesy fantasy/action/scifi/whatever movies that came out back when I was a wee Tanz, only developing a love of such things in later life. Jesse, who’s watched like every movie ever, plus used to manage a video store, made suggestions and watched them along with me. Then we’d write up some Stalter and Waldorf-style commentary. Anyways, we had to drop the column due to being pretty busy, but when a friend said she wanted a “full report” on Masters of the Universe (she kindly let me borrow her DVD—see below) I figured this would be a fun way of providing her with such. Here’s our old intro:
The Film: Masters of the Universe (1987)
WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? A Golan-Globus production (The American Ninja Series), because of course it is. Direction by Gary Goddard, who never made another feature length movie but went on to direct numerous theme park attractions, including Star Trek: The Experience and Jurassic Park: The Ride. Written by David Odell, whose experience in writing dialogue for lifeless puppets in The Dark Crystal and The Muppet Show served him well when it came time to work with Dolph Lundgren. Shameless Star Wars rip-off soundtrack by Bill Conti. Acting, such as it is, by Dolph (chemical engineering Masters grad, Olympian at the 96’ Summer Games, and recipient of a Fullbright scholarship to study at MIT … and star of the first, fifth, and sixth Universal Soldier movies), Frank Langella (the world’s sexiest Dracula, at least until Gary Oldman came along), Meg Foster (They Live, Hera from Hercules and Xena), Billy Barty (Frequent Films of High Adventure alum; see our columns on Legend and Willow), Robert Duncan McNeill (uh, a leading role on Star Trek: Voyager? Molly adds: That… that was Tom Paris? WTF?!), James Tolkan (“hey, it’s the bald principal from Back to the Future!”), Chelsea Field (Dust Devil, The Birds II: Land’s End, and wife of Scott Bakula), and Courtney Cox (something called Cougar Town? Ouch). Aside from a bunch of extras, there are maybe five other people in the whole movie with speaking lines—one of said extras won a contest toymaker Mattel held to be featured in the film, and this lucky lad, Richard Szponder, got to play the stirring role of “Pigboy.”
Quote: “Where are your friends now? Tell me about the loneliness of good, He-Man—is it equal to the loneliness of evil?”
Alternate quote: “You mean this used to be an animal…?”
First viewing by Jesse: Right after the video release arrived at the local Uni-Mart gas station from which we rented most of our movies when I was a kid. So probably a few years after it actually came out, which would put me at maybe seven or eight years old.
First viewing by Molly: A few weeks ago. Jesse and I had wanted to do Masters of the Universe for Films of High Adventure back when we were doing the column regularly, but the local video store doesn’t have a copy. Go figure! Anywho, somehow this became a topic of conversation at StarFest, a local Denver con, whilst hanging out with Stephen Graham Jones and Carrie Vaughn, both of whom were appalled I’d never seen it before (specifically because of the Teela-thinks-meat-is-gross moment I quoted above … they know me). Carrie very generously volunteered to loan me her personal copy, much to my husband John’s extreme pleasure, so we watched it on his birthday weekend.
Most recent viewing by both: A few weeks ago
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Moderately high, but for all the wrong reasons—this turkey was the first time I remember experiencing deep, palpable disappointment from a film. I was young, stupid, and loved all things He-man, so a live-action movie couldn’t possibly let me down, could it? Turns out, it could and it did. I remember that right up until the end I kept expecting Battlecat to show up, or for Dolph to don a pink tunic and turn into Prince Adam, or even just have Teela pop her collar and/or take off her pants. Not even one maniacal Skeletor cackle? Weaaaak.
Impact on Molly’s childhood development: None. I totally played with He-Man toys (still have a scar from where one pinched me badly), loved the show. Loved She-Ra too, of course. I wasn’t aware there was a feature film until I think John told me about it.
Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Weaaaak. I would estimate that between my first childhood viewings and the modern day, I’ve watched previous Films of High Adventure entries Conan the Barbarian, The Beastmaster, and Yor: The Hunter from the Future a dozen times each, easy. Masters of the Universe I never rewatched, not even when it came on tv—some wounds never heal. I unsuccessfully petitioned that instead of watching it, we instead screen some episodes of the (total classic) cartoon, or even just watch the ten-hour version of this:
Did Molly listen? No she did not.
Molly’s thoughts prior to watching: I was super-stoked, no lie. I … kind of love He-Man. I spent some quality time revisiting the cartoon a year or so ago, and while I had to stop watching due to how much Orko is crammed into every 22 minutes (what is up with that? NO ONE EVER LIKED ORKO), some of the earlier episodes are really quite good. “The Creeping Horak” in particular was kind of … cosmically horrible, if I may? Also: Teela! Also also: Skeletor and Evil-Lynn’s kinky, weird-ass relationship. Also also also: Skeletor and He-Man’s kinky, weird-ass relationship. Okay … so the obvious fight between those two over who is the leather-daddy and who is the leather-boy is pretty much the best thing about watching the show as an adult.
So obviously when I heard there was no Orko in the film, plus Teela was a vegetarian, kind of, and also Frank Langella was playing Skeletor, despite everyone in the world save John, Steven, and Carrie telling me the film sucked, there was no turning back.
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: It’s pretty much as stinky as I remembered, though as grown-up I’m (somewhat) more able to articulate my displeasure then I was as a tot. I’m also better equipped to parse just why it’s so bad, which doesn’t really redeem the film, but does make me even more depressed about the fan-fucking-tastic He-Man movie that never was. So, yay for adulthood?
As a kid, I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t on Eternia for most of the film, where all the cool monsters were, why did the costumes suck, etc. Looking back on the project, it seems likely a one-two punch of frugality and copyright law. A movie that largely takes place on California backlots with stupid American teenagers running around is easier on the investors than a movie set on an alien planet populated by freaky creatures. Apparently for the film they secured the rights to the toyline, but not to the cartoon series, so it was probably also easier to just invent new characters and storylines then to, you know, adapt the source material that everyone loved. Like I said, understanding why it burns you like an eyeful of Skeletor’s crazyjuice doesn’t do much to mitigate the pain, but whatever.
Yet for all that, watching it with little hope of actually liking it did let me appreciate some of the subtle nuances I never appreciated as a kid. For example, Evil-Lyn, Teela, and Man-at-Arms were perfectly cast, even if there costumes were lacking. And Skeletor’s gold lamé Godmode outfit at the end does answer the age old question of, “What if the What if comic series had an issue titled “What if … Galactus Ran Studio 54?”
Frank Langella was certainly game, and contrary to the above image, kinda took Skeletor in a slightly less-campy direction. That said, I generally prefer my Skeletor like I prefer my friendly neighborhood street musicians: coked to the gills, shuddering with deranged laughter, and just plain weird. But Langella’s take on the villain has more, uh, gravitas, and points for trying, I guess. By the Sorceress’ ridiculous bird suit, did I really type that? I did. That’s what happens when you look for a silver lining on this brown cloud.
Here’s the thing: He-man, being a toyline that grew into a narrative instead of the other way around, is totally fucking insane. Everyone in the show is either howling mad or balls-dumb, and the plot follows suit. It’s just a bazonkers storyline, and it needs to be in order to provide the joy one feels when Prince Adam explains his backstory:
What kind of powers does He-man possess? Oh, that’s right, fabulous secret powers, with that allusion to the world’s dumbest origin story delivered with an animated smirk that Dolph Lundgren could only dream of pulling off. Rather than embracing the random craziness of the toyline and the cartoon, however, the filmmakers decided to make things comparatively coherent, which results in a cinematic disaster that is nowhere near as campy as it needs to be. Which is saying something, considering that camp is about all that the movie has going for it. Alas, I say, alas and alack.
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Everyone lies! Well, everyone except my husband, Stephen Graham Jones, and Carrie Vaughn, I guess. Masters of the Universe is totally good. It’s as if Warlock and Beastmaster had a moviekid, and that kid was a Mattel tie-in film ripping off Star Wars. What’s not to like about that?
I mean, there is certainly enough about MotU to incur frequent skeptical head-tilts, especially in re: the plot, the quizzical lack of Prince Adam, Battle Cat, or SNNNNAKE MOUNTAIN! (sorry, but you gotta always scream it like Skeletor), the whole conceit that 80s teenagers would assume any old piece of equipment with lights on it was a “Japanese synthesizer,” the ending, Billy Barty playing an Orko substitute somehow just as annoying as Orko … but I dunno. Even with all that, it was awesome. Sure, the writing is leaden, Dolph is terrible, and it makes no sense overall, but it’s great in a super-80s kind of way. I mean, come on! That scene where Teela shoots stuff and turns around, grinning like it’s Christmas on Eternia and she just got a new jumpsuit, saying “Woman at arms!”? Has there ever been a fluffier “Take that, patriarchy!” moment in 80s cinema? I challenge you to think of one.
Additionally, while they abandoned most if not all of the stuff I love about He-Man (what can I say, I can’t get enough of that one recycled animation of He-Man throwing a big rock at stuff, and there is ZERO big-rock-throwing action in MotU!), they kept the central weirdness of the love triangle between Evil-Lyn, He-Man, and Skeletor, and they should be commended for that. I mean, even calling it a love triangle is too simple. While Wikipedia, source of all unbiased knowledge, lists Evil-Lyn as Skeletor’s “significant other” there is so much more to those two than that, right? They’re certainly a couple, but more of a “She makes him tea and listens to his feelings and also on slow Saturday nights she lets him read her his bromance fanfics about how on “Alternate Eternia,” Skeletor and He-Man are on the same side and also sometimes are girls and sometimes they also invite over Prince Adam, that goody two-shoes, to have adventures” kind of couple than … anything else. AND FOR ONCE THIS ISN’T JUST ME, OKAY? The movie pretty much proves it, right? I mean, what exactly are Evil-Lyn and Skeletor doing in that scene where he’s staring at her while she kneels in front of him? Furthermore, why else would He-Man shout at Skeletor that it’s always been about the two of them, while getting laser-whipped, or whatever? Uh huh.
High Points: That one moment when Skeletor is being weird to Evil-Lyn, staring right in her eyes but not making out with her; when Dolph finally belts out I HAVE THE POWER whilst getting whipped by a laser-whip, much to Skeletor’s obvious titillation … when the cop stays in Eternia because duh, and also, pretty much everything. (So sez Molly: Jesse will save his points for the next section)
Low points: Billy Barty as not-Orko, being goddamn Orko. The whole “instead of making a He-man movie, why don’t we just make another bland, broke-ass ‘warriors from another time and place comes to earth’ picture” thing. Everyone except Dolph wearing entirely too many pants.
Final Verdict: Molly gives it two thumbs up. Jesse remains solidly a Skeletor-sized “hater.”
Next Time: Only the gods know…