Universal // 2000 // 107 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Scott Sharplin (Retired) // October 24th, 2000
Power. Privilege. Puh-leeze.
Everybody who doesn't "have it" in this world -- "it" being that ineffable combination of wealth, good breeding and knowing the right people -- look upon those who do "have it" with suspicion and scorn. How did they get where they are? Certainly being born into the right upper-class whitebread family helps a lot, but maybe there's something more to it than that. Suggest the notion that there's a conspiracy at work, and everyone takes notice.
That's the mound from which The Skulls is pitched: the idea that all the movers and shakers in American politics, all the tycoons and a hefty number of CIA agents (although, really, if you had a choice between being a tycoon or a CIA agent, which would you choose?) all emerged from a sinister secret society in one of our very own Ivy League universities.
Like all secret societies, they have a bottomless budget, and they are always watching you. If you play by their rules, they'll give you everything you ever dreamed of. But cross them, and they'll stick you in a goofy and meaningless movie like this one.
Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson) is a poor boy struggling his way towards law school at an unnamed New Haven University with lots of "Y"s on all the walls (most of the film was actually shot at the University of Toronto, but they go to great pains to suggest that the setting is Yale. I guess there are no cool secret societies in Canada). His rowing victories earn him the attention of the Skulls, who promise to pay his way through school and then some. But his inclusion causes some tension with his liberal arts buddies Will (Hill Harper) and Chloe (Leslie Bibb). When Will infiltrates the Skull's "Ritual Room" to discover their secrets, Luke's new Skull pal Caleb (Paul Walker) catches him, setting up Luke's dilemma between his loyalty to his friends and his duties as a Skull.
The Skulls is obviously aimed at the 15-22 set, who aren't really interested in Star Chamber politics but really dig the idea of getting lots of free stuff. This explains the casting of Joshua Jackson (TV's Dawson's Creek) and Paul Walker (Varsity Blues, She's All That), as well as the prerequisite romantic sub-plot and the car chase scenes near the end.
I'm not sure if Yale is really that good a choice of setting for that particular demographic, but director Rob Cohen does his darnedest to make it seem opulent, mysterious, and action-packed. The cinematography won't win any Oscars, but the DVD certainly does deliver some impressive visuals. The transfer is sound, and Cohen's use of light and shadow in the Skulls' catacombs is well planned-out. More on those catacombs later, though.
Universal's Collector's Edition DVD also has a wealth of extras to offer. Rob Cohen has a feature-length commentary track, most of which is interesting and insightful, touching on some of the challenges of filming a thriller on a "modest" budget ($15 million). He explains a lot of the correlations between the fictional Skulls and the real-life Skull and Bones Club, to which William Taft and George Bush both belonged.
Universal also includes about ten deleted scenes of varying length, which come with an optional commentary track by Cohen (although you can't toggle the commentary on and off while watching these). I always find deleted scenes interesting, and I liked Cohen's explanations of why they didn't make it to the film; but after one hour and forty-seven minutes of Skullduggery, I didn't see much in the extra scenes that thrilled me.
What else have we got? There's a theatrical trailer, a set of "recommendations" (still images of other Universal DVD titles), and a 15-minute "Spotlight on Location," which had the cast singing each other's praises and brown-nosing Rob Cohen a lot. They didn't talk about the location itself, which I would have found more interesting.
The first of many missteps in this movie was making the secret society anything but. Not only does everyone know about the benefits of being a Skull (Luke is literally waiting for their phone call at the beginning of the movie), but they seem to advertise themselves on campus more than Starbuck's. Their gothic frat house has a big metal skull on top, like a cartoon super-villain's hidden lair. How subtle.
Accept that, and you'll still have to deal with at least a dozen major plot holes, gaps in logic, and inconsistent characters. Why do the Skulls want Luke in the first place, since he's demonstrably from the wrong side of the tracks; do power-hungry bourgeoisie need championship rowers by their sides? How are the Skulls able to keep tabs (or, often, bugs) on all their members; is there a secret society within the society responsible for surveillance? Why, in a group so focused on gathering blackmail material, are all surveillance tapes left in an unguarded central location? Who cleans and changes the torches in all of their photogenic underground chambers?
You may think I'm nitpicking what is meant to be a no-brainer film, but The Skulls is painful even for a popcorn flick. Screenwriter John Pogue couldn't draw a character arc if he had a compass; and Cohen can't seem to make the Skulls either appealing or threatening, no matter how many gorgeous babes or glowering thugs he slips in the shot.
The cast is weak as well. Joshua Jackson has the same boyish sincerity as Tobey Maguire, but can't seem to make us care about Luke's ambitions, or his plight. Pogue has given us cryptic tidbits about Luke's life as an orphan which kinda, sorta, almost suggest come underlying motivations; but nothing really makes it on the screen (one of the deleted scenes relates to this sub-plot, but seems to complicate, not clarify, the backstory).
The most interesting people in the film are the heavy-hitting Skull council members, played by character actors like Craig T. Nelson, Christopher McDonald and William L. Petersen. If they had more screen time and better dialogue, these guys could have taken the film to a whole other level -- hammy and implausible, still, but at least a little more ominous.
Sadly, all we get are a lot of pretty white boys double-crossing each other over who gets to hoard the most wealth and power -- in other words, business as usual in Ivy League, USA.
I can think of a couple of ways that The Skulls could have been brought up from its status as an underwrought, formulaic heartthrob-driven action flick. One way would have been to inject a bit more humor into the proceedings. It must be fun for the Skulls to terrify potential entrants by drugging them and sticking them in coffins; and surely not everyone takes these guys as seriously as Luke seems to.
The other solution would take the film the other way, into more serious, political territory. Are the decisions of presidents and senators really being made from within a seemingly capricious secret society at Yale? Can our young hero detect and stop a chain of events that might lead to international catastrophe? That story would seem to justify the prominent placement of the word "War" in the Skulls' Ritual Room. It would also be a rather interesting attack on the American socio-familial power structure-not inappropriate at a time when George W. Bush, another Skull and Bones member, is campaigning for his father's former office.
Alas, both of these options would have demanded better scripting, better direction, and a stronger bunch of actors, and that's simply asking too much for a $15 million early summer thriller like The Skulls. The disc is a nice package, but no matter how well you wrap up garbage, the smell still filters out.
Rob Cohen, John Pogue, and the other creative forces behind The Skulls are sentenced to ten more years of relative obscurity until they figure out what makes a thriller tick. Universal gets a nod for their fine treatment of the DVD, but the court hopes they'll think about what drove them to invest in the project in the first place.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Director's Commentary
* Deleted Scenes with Commentary
* Spotlight on Location
* Theatrical Trailer
* Production Notes
* Cast and Filmmakers
* DVD-Rom Features