|Skulls, The (Collector's Edition)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 24 October 2000|
There’s a fine idea for a movie that can’t fight its way to the surface in ‘The Skulls.’ There certainly are secret societies at work in American Ivy League universities, whose members often emerge to wield great power in the world at large. On the audio commentary track, director Rob Cohen even acknowledges that the movie’s fictional Skulls are based on the actual Skull and Bones Society at Yale University, which counts as members (among other notable types) both George Bushes. Unfortunately, John Pogue’s script and Cohen’s direction wind up reducing the real-life disquiet of this notion to fairytale status as they stretch the boundaries of credulity.
Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson) is a pre-law student at the prestigious New Haven University. Luke is struggling financially even with a fistful of scholarships. He figures he’ll be paying off his student loans for the rest of his life – assuming he’s even able to afford the rest of his education. Therefore, when Luke is recruited into the Skulls, he’s quick to join. The Skulls are an ultra-secret campus society, where membership extends from college to grave and virtually insures success after graduation. Luke is handed all sorts of perks (the rest of his tuition, just for starters), but also drawn into conflict with his principled best friend Will (Hill Harper), who is sure that nothing good can come from anything that is both elite and clandestine. Then Will dies under suspicious circumstances and Luke starts wondering whether his new friends might be involved in the tragedy.
All of the above has potential, even if it does seem to be sharing plot points with, say, John Grisham’s ‘The Firm.’ However, the persistent effort to fuse serious considerations of class privilege and the workings of society with adolescent melodrama winds up derailing believability in places. Part of the problem is the lore around secret societies (nobody is actually ‘fessing up) has them partaking of rituals that seem not just self-important but fairly ridiculous. For all most of us know, ‘The Skulls’ may be completely accurate in depicting how America’s present and future leaders conduct themselves in private, but the presentation invites more giggles than awe, let alone opening the possibility for sober consideration.
The sound on ‘The Skulls’ seldom has remarkable effects, although it respects niceties, like a detectable water trickle when characters are standing by an underground stream in Chapter 3, good subtle use of the rears in positioning off-screen figures in Chapter 5, and a great sonic "jump" from an automated paint machine when we’re really not expecting it (what, you think I’m going to site the chapter and ruin the surprise?). Mostly, the sound mix is notable for a consistently strong center channel dialogue track that co-exists in healthy balance with both music and effects, allowing the score to have drama but refusing to ever be swamped. ‘The Skulls’ on DVD never forces the viewer to turn up the volume in order to catch speeches or turn it down to avoid blasted eardrums from music cues or gunshots.
A set of deleted scenes is mostly disposable, but one, set in a police station, is worth seeing. Despite director Cohen’s assertion (the scenes come with and without his commentary) that the sequence accomplishes nothing, there’s an argument to be made that it provides crucial early bonding between Luke and the other Skulls that is never really solidified in the later action.
‘The Skulls’ regrettably becomes fairly campy by its climax and, sadly, lacks a healthy sense of the absurd. However, it’s still moderately entertaining. Jackson is an appealing young leading man who can carry a film. The film itself gets credit for at least trying to talk about social issues, even if the level of sophistication is not up to what the material demands. ‘The Skulls’ does get pretty silly and predictable in places – but it’s never dull.