Superstar ‘80s film producers and delirium-slingers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan took as their mission statement to make a buck at any all costs, assembling casts and crews that, incompetence or not, were uniquely qualified and gamely willing to pretend that their bare-bones make-money cash-ins were, in fact, real movies. Products they were, not only first and foremost but nearly exclusively, and 1987’s Masters of the Universe is also uniquely special for how unmitigated by common sense it is in its desire to synergistically appeal to every single facet of its audience’s cultural iconography in order to draw them to theaters and steal their money. More than anything, this is cinema-as-pop-culture-platonic-ideal, perhaps more than any single cinematic product I have ever laid eyes on. They don’t deserve credit for anything else, but Golan and Globus were intimately, almost defiantly, aware of the world that bred their films.
In the case of the gloriously insouciant, seemingly plucked-from-heaven Masters of the Universe, this meant marrying a nigh-untold number of individual cultural strings into a grotesque spidery web so gruesomely ensnared by its own intersectionalities that it really never has any room to breathe as anything more than a fashion-show or a parade of ‘80s touchstones. Post-Conan the Barbarian machismo. Post-Star Wars pseudo-whimsy. Flaring homoeroticism. Corporate synergy. Being somehow entrapped in an ascetically literal-minded vision of the product upon which it is based. Still somehow curdling that product into some inclassifiable, demented alternate reality evil-twin version of itself that is recognizable only in the most tentative of ways to the product it is trying to sell. Aging talents revitalizing their Shakespearean proclivities in the fires of B-movie overacting. Chest Oil. All are within arm’s reach of a pedagogical version of ‘80s culture, and all make their presence known in Masters of the Universe.
And yet, there’s something almost demonic about how arbitrarily all of these individual strands are smashed together in Masters of the Universe, not weaved or stitched into one another but ricocheting about the others’ spaces in a way that is less slithering than spasmodic, which isn’t a surprise considering the number of hastily sketched principal characters. You’d be amazed that there’s any room leftover at all for other characters with Dolph Lundgren flexing across the screen as He-Man, the protagonist of the cartoon upon which this film is based, although, if possible, this film actually manages to pay a disservice to a cartoon character designed to sell toys. He-Man is, rather shockingly, not definably the main character of Masters, nor does it really have one at all.
Fighting for screen control with him are his friends Teela (Chelsea Field) and her father Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher), fellow “Masters” (a term the film assumes as a given rather than feeling the need to explore, as though “Masters”, in all its specificity, was akin to “Presidents” or “McDonalds Employees” and just something Americans intrinsically understood in their bones). Opposing them are the delectably trivial Frank Langella as Skeletor (bet you can’t guess what his theme is) and his second-in-command (wife? attorney?) Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster) and their cavalcade of feather-light cronies, all of whom are locked in interminable strife when the Masters’ raid on Skeletor’s castle goes awry and the Masters, along with an all-important key (the specifics of which don’t much matter to the film), are spared having to look at the film’s loose approximation of their fantasy realm when they are transported to some indiscriminate American suburbia on the planet Earth. Skeletor’s minions naturally follow, but the key is found by all-American orphan teenager Julie (Courtney Cox, pre-fame) and her boyfriend, who doesn’t much matter either.
And how could I forget Gwildor, who is about to speak for himself:
Within this hodgepodge of half-hearted fantasy tropes is its own portal back to a simpler, more raffish time when bad cinema meant exactly the sort of spirited, incandescent silliness that Masters, a torrid, almost post-coital affair with childlike anti-logic, epitomizes. In the current blockbuster climate 30 years on, a film of this sort would likely subsume itself under a clinical depression and a self-satisfied, all-devouring desire to be taken seriously. In contrast, the extent to which Masters palpably doesn’t give a shit about maintaining its own identity for more than five minutes at a time is not only refreshing but inspired in its lunatic-fringe obsolescence, fever-swamp inebriation, and the sweat-soaked innocence of its inability to even look at itself to consider whether it makes any sense at all. What we have here is a film that is, somehow, both innately attuned to its cultural landscape and entirely alien to it, plucking and brandishing its decade like a carnivalesque carousel of tropes rather than a cohesive, reconcilable whole.
Amidst the Richter-scale-charting pandemonium of the film’s reflexive tonal spasms, Lundgren is oddly charming as a totem to sincerity, delivering lines like “we’re all in this together” with a childlike innocence that no one who counts a Fulbright to MIT among his accomplishments should be able to muster. Like a bedrock tying the film down to the ground while also shooting it out into space, he both sabotages and buttresses the flip-flopping idiosyncrasies and manic eccentricities of this screwball comedy that unapologetically juxtaposes a musical-note motif out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind with costume-bin Storm Troopers with toxic shock cinematography bathing grey castle interiors in a sea of noxious greens. The beguiling anti-formalism of the film’s excruciating choreography and the editing that seems to have gone around one too many times in the washing machine is merely the icing on the cake.
It all adds up to a work that is clearly meant to sell something, but is matched in its inability to know what that something is only by its devout disinterest in caring how incongruous it actually is as an advertisement for anything. Even the nascent American individualism at the heart of the film, none-too-subtly invoked by an investigator who mistakes Skeletor’s forces for Russians, is engulfed and rendered nearly unrecognizable under the beyond-rudimentary filmmaking and the slap-shot switch-ups between endearingly stupid ego-stroking and bizarre comedy. If Masters of the Universe lays bare Golan and Globus’ desire to strip any and all cultural calling cards for corporate, capitalist parts (what could be more American than that?), then even the most obvious unifiers of all ‘80s entertainment – gung-ho Americana and ruthless anti-Ruskie idolatry – are masked by pure, American, Diesel-fueled incomprehensibility.
How good is it?: 1/5
Sure, but how “good” is it?: 4.5/5 (delightfully anarchic in its nearly free-associative absurdity).