Masters of the Universe (US - BD)
By the power of Greyskull! Chris takes a nostalgic look at this 80s cheese-fest...
Planet Eternia and the Castle of Greyskull are under threat from the evil Skeletor who wants to take over the planet. A group of freedom fighters, led by the heroic He-Man are accidentally transported to Earth by a mysterious Cosmic Key which holds the power to make Skeletor all-powerful. Once on Earth, He-Man joins alliances with two teenagers as they attempt to find the key and return home. (Taken from the official synopsis.)
Ah, Masters of the Universe. Who can forget Cannon Films’ late-eighties stab at translating the phenomenally popular toy line to the big screen? Well, quite a lot of people as it happens… You’d think that releasing a film at the height of the He-Man craze would be a sure-fire recipe for success, but it swiftly vanished from the US movie charts without even recouping its budget. It didn’t fare well with critics either, and Billy Barty earned himself a Razzie nomination for his portrayal of ‘we couldn’t afford the flying effects’ Orko stand-in, Gwildor. Still, in spite of all of its flaws (and there are many), I still have a bit of a soft spot for the adventures of He-Man, Man-At-Arms, Teela and co.
Putting aside the plot contrivance designed to bring the action to Earth, thus saving money by limiting the amount of extra-terrestrial elements required, the costumes and Eternian interior sets are actually quite impressive (particularly Castle Grayskull). There’s also a gleeful sense of fun about the whole thing; a gung-ho enthusiasm exhibited by a cast who must have known full-well that they were not, as Cannon boastfully claimed, making the next Star Wars. This is exemplified by Frank Langella’s turn as Skeltor, which is wickedly gleeful and belongs in another, much better film. Similarly, Meg Foster also elevates herself above the source material with her portrayal of Skeletor’s right-hand-woman, Evil-Lyn, but then I find Meg Foster scary at the best of times… Although I’d have preferred an all-Eternian setting, setting events largely in small-town America keeps things relatable and there’s just enough action to break up the boring human bits (even if said action is laughably bad by today’s standards).
Indeed, when watching again as an adult you’re best advised to treat the film not as the sci-fi fantasy that it longs to be, but as a comedy. There is much amusement to be had in watching ‘the most powerful man in the universe’ struggle to fight off even one underling at a time, and even more to be found in his line delivery (honestly, if you don’t crack up at Dolph’s rendition of ‘I have the power’ you must be dead inside). Other highlights include a Beast Man who runs like he’s soiled his costume and the sight of a wide-eyed Courteney Cox in an Ebenezer Scrooge-esque nightie. Also, I know it was the eighties, but don’t even get me started on Robert Duncan McNeill’s hair! This is true ‘so bad its good’ stuff and its heart is in the right place. It’s just a pity that almost none of the other traditionally important elements are…
A surprisingly – no make that astonishingly – good video presentation is the clear highlight of this release. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect Masters of the Universe to look anywhere near as good in high-definition as it does on this Blu-ray Disc. Of course one has to look at these things in context, and in doing so take into consideration the film stock of the time, the softness caused by the use of optical effects and other technical limitations, but to be honest that just makes the resultant image all the more impressive. The first thing I was struck by was the cleanliness of the transfer, which bests some of the higher profile titles in my collection. Honestly, I scanned the frame for film artefacts for a good deal of time before eventually giving up, because I simply couldn’t find any. Secondly, all of that lovely eighties film grain is intact: no DNR here, no siree! Okay, admittedly some of it is probably noise, but I’ll take that over a waxy, filtered image any day. The film’s colourful palette is also preserved beautifully, and although it doesn’t look as vibrant or processed as a modern day picture its natural characteristics evoke fond memories of childhood trips to the cinema.
The aforementioned (unavoidable) softness notwithstanding, there’s a surprising level of detail on display as well. While not particularly reminiscent of the original character designs the costumes and sets actually look quite impressive, although some of the make-up suffers under the scrutiny of high-definition from a short viewing distance. Compression is also good, with no particularly obvious issues to report. I’m honestly flabbergasted that Warner went to the trouble of delivering such a great looking version of the film, especially when some of their high-profile catalogue titles leave a little to be desired, but I’m very happy that they did.
I was going to label the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo track functional, but truth be told there are one or two elements that elevate it above that fairly mundane categorisation. Chief among these is Bill Conti’s score, which is suitably rousing and heroic without using any of the familiar themes from the TV show. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I only recently realised that it incorporates motifs from the Cosmic Key into a number of the more memorable cues, but then that’s not generally the sort of thing you pick up on as a kid. Although only a stereo track the soundstage is reasonably expansive, with plenty of directional travel between the left and right channels. While there isn’t a tremendous amount of bass it does kick in during the action sequences, lending subtle weight to the proceedings. Additionally, dialogue intelligibility and fidelity are surprisingly good, even if Dolph’s thick accent does threaten to render most of his lines incomprehensible. All things considered the track easily surpassed my (admittedly low) expectations, so that’s a result!
What’s this? Decent AV and a smattering of bonus material?!?! The disc includes an entertaining commentary track from director Gary Goddard, in which he talks proudly about his one and only feature (he moved into producing after making this film). He discusses a the design elements, the casting, budgetary issues, working for Cannon Films and much more. His recollection is a little hazy as the track was recorded for the 2001 DVD release, a good fifteen years after the film’s theatrical release, but it’s definitely worth listening to at least once. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.
Considering the film’s critical and commercial failure and relative lack of following it’s amazing that Warner Brothers delivered such an impressive Blu-ray release. Sure there are better looking and sounding catalogue titles from the era, but those are films that were far more successful and critically lauded than this Cannon effort. Even the staunchest fans of Lundgren, the Masters toy line and eighties cheese in general would have a hard time convincing anyone (including themselves) that this is anything other than a noble failure, so it’s remarkable that said loyal fans have an Anniversary Edition at all, let alone one that offers this sort of (relative) quality.
Me, well I’m under no illusions about the film’s shortcomings, but I still enjoyed this trip down memory lane more than expected. As I understand it there are currently plans to reboot the franchise with a new live-action feature. I’m totally on-board for that, especially if it sticks closer to the source material. Until that time we’ll all have to make do with a mullet-headed Ivan Drago, pre-anorexia Monica Gellar, Lt. Tom Paris and Mr. Strickland facing off against hordes of black-suited disposable minions and terrible eighties fashions. I don’t know about you, but I’m okay with that. All that remains is for me to wish you all ‘good journey’.
* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray and have been resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 2nd October 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: Audio Commentary, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Gary Goddard
Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Christina Pickles, Billy Barty, Chelsea Field, Courteney Cox
Genre: Action, Fantasy and Sci-Fi
Length: 106 minutes
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