When I was in Los Angeles a couple of years ago attending a conference for screenwriters, I met a man who was absolutely convinced that a clandestine organization called the Illuminati was in control of global affairs. From his own 'research', he had gleaned that this secret society, evolved from the order of Freemasons, was calling the shots in the world markets, ran the governments of the world (including that of the United States, whose Presidents allegedly belonged to the Illuminati), and was secretly instituting a world-wide totalitarian government. To further back up his beliefs, he pointed out how the founding fathers of the United States had all belonged to the Freemasons, that Illuminati symbols could be found in the layout of the streets in Washington D.C., that Illuminati money had backed the overthrow of the Russian Czar by Bolshevik revolutionaries, and that the Rothschilds and Rockefellers (prominent Illuminati families) had orchestrated the Stock Market Crash of 1929. And if that wasn't enough evidence, he claimed that the Illuminati have been secretly creating a 'New World Order' through their puppet organization, the United Nations, that they were behind the assassination of JFK and RFK, and that 15,000 children disappear each year in the United States to be used in satanic Illuminati rituals.
He also claimed that the Y2K bug was an 'instrument' of the Illuminati, and that it would be used as a launching point for their plans for world domination. Well, given that you are reading this review, it seems that he was more than a little off in his suspicions and prognostications. Interestingly enough, he was also planning to write a screenplay about the Illuminati, even if it meant putting his life in 'jeopardy'. I'm not sure if he was ever successful (or even if he is still... alive!), but certainly he wasn't the only one with such an idea. The latest thriller to hit the theatres, "The Skulls", takes cues from the allure of secret societies and the unlimited power they possess. And though the story infuses much of the lore surrounding such organizations, the script winds up being quite 'boneheaded'.
Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson of TV's "Dawson's Creek") is a star athlete at Yale University, having guided the school's championship varsity rowing team to victory for three years running. However, unlike many of his classmates, Luke is a 'townie', a boy born on the wrong side of the tracks, who has earned his place in the Ivy League through hard work and high debts. Unfortunately, despite his success so far, his dream of going on to a top law school seems unattainable, as he lacks the money for tuition and the connections to secure a spot.
However, all that changes when he is 'tapped' by the school's resident secret society, the Skulls. As chairman of a time-honored group that has helped groom the rich and powerful, Litten Mandrake (Craig T. Nelson of "The Devil's Advocate"), a judge who is one step away from being nominated to the Supreme Court, sees potential in Luke, and inducts him into the organization, alongside his son Caleb (Paul Walker of "She's All That").
Suddenly, a world of wealth, power, and opportunity is open to Luke. He is invited to hobnob with senators and captains of industry, as well as enjoy the hedonistic pleasures that only money can buy. His bank account has more than enough money to pay off his crushing student loans, and he is given a classic Mustang convertible to tool around in. And most important of all, he has a guaranteed spot in the law school of his choice, with tuition paid in full, by the Skulls.
Unfortunately, Luke also discovers that there is a severe price to pay. At first, the consequences are light, as he becomes ostracized by his friends-- Will Beckford (Hill Harper of "He Got Game"), a school newspaper reporter, and Chloe (Leslie Bibb of TV's "Popular"). But the stakes quickly escalate when Will turns up dead, apparently by suicide. With a little digging, Luke comes to suspect that his friend's death has something to do with the Skulls, and sets out to find the truth.
However, the task is easier said than done as Luke quickly learns that the Skulls routinely use blackmail to coerce the uncooperative, both outside and within the organization, and that they have profound influence over the police and the courts. So who can he turn to? Chloe? Senator Ames Levritt (William Petersen of "To Live and Die in L.A."), who offers a helping hand, yet seems to be pursuing his own hidden agenda? The school's Provost, Mr. Lombard (Christopher McDonald, heard recently in "The Iron Giant")? Detective Sparrow (Steve Harris of TV's "The Practice"), who's investigating Will's death, and eyes Luke as the primary suspect? Or is he safer trusting in no one?
With its ridiculous script and howlingly bad dialogue, it was difficult to take "The Skulls" seriously, especially since the audience in the advance screening I attended broke out in laughter in all the wrong places and for all the wrong reasons. Though the whole notion of secret societies is interesting subject matter and perfect material for fashioning a thriller, the script by John Pogue (who also wrote "U.S. Marshals") is rife with gaping holes of logic and atrocious banter.
For example, it is interesting that despite the Skulls being some hush-hush clandestine organization, everyone on the college campus seems to know about them. Furthermore, the organization even boldly advertises their own existence with a giant symbol adorning their ritual chamber. If the Skulls are supposed to be so secret, why tell everyone?
Another head-shaking scene comes when Luke must view some surveillance videos to uncover evidence of Will's murder. Now if anyone has worked around surveillance cameras, they'll know that (a) they don't record sound and (b) they typically only shoot one frame per second to lengthen the recording time of each tape. Now when Luke views the surveillance tape from the night of Will's death, guess what? Not only does the video have sound, but even with the tape only recording one frame per second (resulting in a choppy image), the sound is uninterrupted, allowing Luke to hear every single word uttered by Will's killer. Imagine that!
The surveillance video scene also contains some of the worst dialogue in the movie. In addition to the conversation being completely unrealistic, it is gratingly delivered in such a stilted fashion that it had the audience in stitches-- especially when it was supposed to be a horrific scene. Doh!
As the film's resident hero, Jackson is adequate, and it is quite amazing how he keeps a straight face through the inanity called for by the script. Bibb's energetic performance as the love interest breathes some much-needed fresh air into the stale proceedings, including a couple of scene-stealing moments where she turns the tables on the bad guys. Both Walker and Nelson are flat as a pair of father-son co-conspirators, while Petersen's Bill Clinton imitation could have used more work. Finally, Harris sleepwalks through his role by doing his 'Eugene' shtick, which he also did in last year's "The Mod Squad".
About the only interesting thing about "The Skulls" was that it was shot in my hometown Toronto, with an emphasis on my alma mater, the University of Toronto. It was particularly fascinating to see how locations within University College, Knox College, Hart House, and the Student Administrative Council Building were put to good use in recreating the Ivy League ambiance of Yale. Like "Urban Legend" from a couple of years back, the scenery in "The Skulls" held more interest for me than the story.
Empty-headed, thick-skulled, hare-brained... I could go on. "The Skulls" is yet another pop song-laden vehicle for TV stars of the teen set to transition into movie careers-- it might as well have been set in a high school for all the sense it makes. With its ridiculous story, laughable dialogue, and passable acting, this far from thrilling thriller is a movie that should have stayed a secret.