The Skulls Starring: Joshua Jackson, Paul Walker IV, Hill Harper, Leslie Bibb, Craig T. Nelson, William Petersen, Christopher McDonald, Steve Harris. Directed by: Rob Cohen. Written by: John Pogue.
Let me begin with the obvious: for fans of Joshua Jackson and Paul Walker The Skulls is a must-see movie. Within the parameters of what they have been given, and what has apparently been done to the film, they both turn in the sort of performances their fans expect (with a little more action and physical exertion than usual).
As a movie, however, one is left wondering this about The Skulls: what went wrong and whose fault is it? In true Hollywood tradition, the answer to the latter part of that question will be obvious: it simply must be the fault of writer Pogue and/or director Cohen; there can be no other possible explanation. At least, that is the case within Hollywood's corporate film-studio/television-network/bottling-company/record-label/newspaper-syndicate/video-game-manufacturing system, wherein studio executives can do no wrong. This simply must be the way it is, lest stockholders who have bought into the parent corporation for its holdings in (pick one or more): alcoholic beverage distribution, big tobacco, food processing, gasoline production, Top 40 bands, their local newspaper, their local television station, the theme park they went to on their summer vacations, their kid's favorite brand of sneakers, etc. lose confidence in the corporate board of directors. Heaven forefend that anyone on Wall Street should think that the same geniuses who thought of giving away little balls for car radio antennas should not know how to make a movie! An announcement like that could destroy America's ability to produce nuclear warhead trigger parts for less than the Germans!
That, ironically, is one of the hidden lessons of The Skulls, a very thinly-disguised story about a secret society at an un-named Ivy League college. (Hint: at the big rowing race at the film's beginning, all of the Ivy League colleges except Yale are mentioned by name; the only crew whose college is not named is the one which the star attends and which has the secret society of the film's title. Hint two: the most notorious secret society at Yale is Skull and Bones, which is well over 140 years old, and which counts among its alumni several past United States presidents, including former CIA Director George Bush; not surprisingly, in the film we are told of The Skulls building that "the CIA was founded within its walls.")
The Skulls, like the real-life Skull and Bones, is chock-full of the most secretive elite of America's most secretive elite; with automobile company chairmen, national magazine publishers, members of the Congress, judges, university officials, and, of course, U.S. Presidents among its alumni, it is a very potent symbol of "the old boy's network," and a conspiracy theorist's dream (or nightmare) come true. Yale alumnus John Pogue knows a little about Skull and Bones; certainly enough to make the informed critic aware that (shades of conspiracy theories run amok!) if anyone wanted to make the real Skull and Bones look like a joke (to secure somebody's son's selection for national office, perhaps?), they could hardly do better than take a fictional treatment of that secret society and ruin it.
Without a look at the original script of The Skulls I shall give Pogue and Cohen the benefit of the doubt and hypothesize that they made a very good, taut thriller about a poor kid who has everything it takes to succeed in life except a pile of money and a lot of terribly powerful and influential friends. Unfortunately, the corporate movie machinery in Hollywood is now so inextricably locked up with multi-national holding companies with interests in so many different areas that it is nearly possible for "a studio" to make a film which might gore the financial ox of any seemingly independent large corporation. It is not necessary to posit a conspiracy of secret society members running the United States: a very real cartel of a dozen or so companies own so much of the American media and are so dependent on advertising revenues from a dozen or so other large corporations that it is simply sound financial practice for them not to step on one another's toes. (The Skulls, for example, is a Universal Pictures, Inc. product; Universal is controlled by Seagrams, the distillers; when was the last time Universal made a movie about the evils of alcohol? What is the likelihood that they will do so as long as the Bronfman family runs both Seagrams and Universal?)
What may seem to the conspiracy theorist as a willfull act of sabotage against a movie (such as having a key character utter one of the stupidest lines ever to be filmed by Hollywood, an inanity so banal that it destroys the character's credibility with the audience) may not be an attempt to protect a secret society operating above and behind everything, as much as it is some studio executive's decision that, "If we don't do something to tone down this Chloe chick, the anti-feminists in Utah and Mississippi are never going to buy Viacom's gasoline products when The Skulls shows on the television network which is owned by that company which also owns Disney Cruise Lines or the one owned by the company which makes the triggers for our nuclear bombs."
Character Will Beckford's thought on secret socities is (literally) on the money when it is applied to multi-national corporate ownership of movie studios: if it's elitist and secretive, it must be bad.
Having said that, let me reduce my review of The Skulls to a simple list of do's and dont's for those who may want to see it for reasons other than Joshua Jackson's butt or Paul Walker's sweaty chest:
DO pay attention to the guys in the stands when the boat race is going on; they discuss what will become key plot points.
DO pay attention to what Caleb's father says to him; those words will come back to haunt everyone (including the audience) at the end of the movie.
DO pay attention to the fact that Luke can row a boat. This is almost important at the end of the movie; at least it explains one scene. Besides which, Joshua Jackson and Hill Harper trained very hard to learn to be a rower and a coxswain, respectively.
DON'T wonder too much about the photos taken of of Luke when he drinks what's in the cool Old Fashioned glass with the Skulls logo -- the Skulls are taking the pictures and the Skulls plant them when they re-appear later in the movie. Don't wonder why they plant them, either, it isn't clear.
DON'T be afraid to go to the restroom or make a telephone call during the scenes involving the theft of the other society's mascot. Nothing important is revealed (nothing which we couldn't have figured out on our own, anyway), and everyone is left wondering what the Hell the filmmakers were thinking when they shot this waste of good filmstock. In other words: don't be afraid for Luke and Caleb (they are the stars, after all, and most of the scenes from the commercials haven't been shown yet!); don't bother wondering why, on the ONE NIGHT when the other society KNOWS that The Skulls are going to try to raid them, they have absolutely no security in place (despite the fact that the Skulls house is under 24/7 video and audio surveillance); don't bother wondering why the other pledges don't follow Luke and Caleb (I'll tell you: the porch is too small for more than two people); don't wonder why the other pledges don't jump in to help Luke and Caleb when they are in trouble (it is never explained in the story and the only reasonable real-life explanation is that the budget would have gone up if the producers had been obliged to pay the other actors to do something -- anything!) This whole episode is just one one of many examples of what happens when a good story goes bad.
DO pay attention to the character of Senator Levritt, but DON'T pay attention to his last line, at the end of the movie. That scene was either badly written, badly directed, or badly edited. A much cooler line would have been, "You were worth the effort." In fact, there were a lot of scenes in this movie which this reviewer could have improved tremendously with a fifteen minute rewrite.
DON'T hesitate to zone out when the women arrive at the party on The Island; the following photo is the sole highlight of what follows from that:
DO pay at least a little attention to Chloe's idiotic painting machine when it is introduced. It will be very important later in the movie.
DON'T wonder why there are no pictures of Hill Harper (Luke's friend, Will Beckford) in this review -- so many of his scenes are important flashbacks or on THE TAPE that showing any of them would give away part of what is, after all, a thriller. Suffice it to say that his seemingly inexplicable billing in the number three position is merited by his total number of scenes in the whole movie.
DON'T torment yourself wondering what it is that Chloe gives Luke after he sneaks over; it is probably the pepper spray or tear gas which appears later in the movie; if it isn't, it's still not important enough to distract you from the next important caveat: DON'T wonder why Luke and Chloe argue loudly in the bathroom when they know that the room next-door is bugged; it's just illogical.
DO NOT hesitate to write to Joshua Jackson and ask him why he doesn't do more shirtless scenes. Admittedly, he is no Paul Walker, but he's no oompa-loompa, either!
DON'T wonder how the spies manage to get in and out of The Skulls house so easily when the other secret societies have been unable to do so for a century and a half. It's in the script. Thinking about it will only upset you.
DON'T wonder why THE TAPE is so readily available and/or plainly marked when so many important people have such a vested interest in keeping it a deep, dark secret. It's in the script. Thinking about it will only upset you.
DO watch Chloe when she fights. She is as tough as Diana Rigg's Emma Peel in "The Avengers."
DO cover your ears so that you don't have to hear the incredibly stupid line Chloe utters after the surprising secret on THE TAPE is revealed; at that point in the scene, the visuals are too important to lose track of by groaning over the stupid line and/or the lack of a witty come-back to it.
DO, definitely watch Chloe's driving during the obligatory car chase. The Skulls is perhaps one of three movies which this reviewer has seen in which a character being subjected to a car-to-car attack actually does the INTELLIGENT thing to do when a pursuer pulls alongside your car at high speed. In these days of "road rage" and international kidnappings, knowing this incredibly obvious maneuver (which is too common-sensical to have found favor in Hollywood movies) may save your life someday. This moment makes the stupid line given to Chloe after she sees THE TAPE even more egregiously idiotic. This girl, whose family presumably has money, was obviously sent away to self-defense camp by her folks!
DO NOT expect the second trip to The Island (the one in which Luke rows his boat ashore, hallelujah) to live up your expectations of high suspense. It will not. Again, a fifteen minute rewrite by this reviewer would have helped these climactic moments immensely. Judging by the groans of the teenagers in the audience at the screening I attended, and the sight of so many film reviewers literally hitting themselves in the head, a fifteen minute rewrite by anyone other than whoever wrote and directed these scenes would have been an improvement. For those of you audience members who wish to leave the theater at this point (and you would be in good company, trust me!), suffice it to say that it's "La Femme Nikita" and "The X-Files" meet The Duellists, and Judge Mandrake says exactly what you think he'll say to Caleb.
DO watch the credits if you make it all the way through the film. The credit for the boxing trainer will let you know we have to thank for Paul Walker IV.
Finally, DO watch a non-U.S. version of this film if you get the chance. Foreign versions of American films are often different than American versions. Even a few days back in the editing bay can only serve to help this film, and one suspects that quite a few people at Universal, which already delayed The Skulls from an expected February U.S. release to the end of March, deeply regrets not having kept working on it in post-production for just a few more days. The Skulls might have been a fairly good movie; instead, this version, at least, mis-fires badly.
With the rise in theater ticket prices and the growing international audience of our page, our old NW2: Not Worth $2 (U. S. dollars) to W8: Worth $8 rating scale has become less useful than previously, so, in line with the scale used by the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) we have adopted a scale of 1 star to 10 stars, with "1 Star" being a VERY bad movie, and "10 Stars" being a movie classic. Our On-Line Reviewer, however, has gone where IMDb has never gone before: he has added a score of Zero for those movies which are so bad that they are not even good "camp" -- movies so bad that not even "Mystery Science Theater 3000" could could make them worth watching.
On this scale, anything rated "7 Stars" or above is definitely worth the cost of a theater ticket, "8 Stars" is worth standing in line to buy a ticket, "9 Stars" is worth standing in line in a driving rain rainstorm or severe heatwave or moderate windstorm to buy a ticket, and "10 Stars" is a movie worth driving hundreds of miles to go see -- at least in Dr. Shea's own opinion. Accordingly,