The Order of the Skull and Bones is a secret society founded at Yale University in the early 1800’s. Legend has it that only 15 students per year are plucked from the top ranks of the junior class to spend their senior years as members of this elite cadre. There are arcane rites of initiation, codes of eternal silence, and networking possibilities that all but ensure success in life beyond graduation. Several U.S. presidents have passed through the ivy-covered walls of the society’s inner sanctum, including George Herbert Walker Bush – a fact that has not gone unnoticed by conspiracy-minded types, who pinpoint the Skull and Bones as the birthplace of everything from the CIA to the New World Order.
In short, it’s a milieu long overdue for exploitation by the movies, one jam-packed with dastardly possibilities – obscene wealth, limitless power, cloak-and-dagger intrigue. Which makes it all the more disappointing that The Skulls turns out to be such a mediocre, listless effort. Screenwriter John Pogue’s plundering of his Yalie past boasts all the dramatic heft of a frat house kegger – with none of the suspense or thrills.
Directed with joyless competence by Rob Cohen (Dragonheart, Daylight), the film centers on a barely fictionalized version of the Skull and Bones called (imaginatively enough) The Skulls. New Haven townie Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson) yearns to break free of his working class roots and attend Harvard Law School, but doesn’t have the money or connections to make it happen on his own. Enter the Skulls, who select the rowing team captain as one of their initiates, along with Luke’s pre-selected "soul mate", Caleb Mandrake (Paul Walker). This turn of events doesn’t sit well with Luke’s roommate Will, a journalism student who darkly intones, "if it’s secret and elite, it can’t be good." Will’s words prove prophetic, for him at least – his snooping around the Skulls’ castle headquarters ends in disaster.
A predictable series of chases and double-crosses ensues, but nothing worth getting too excited about. In order to care what happens, the audience would have to have some sort of investment in the characters, and The Skulls doesn’t make this easy. The filmmakers try to mix in some class conflict by pairing street smart Luke with wealthy scion Caleb (his father is an elder Skull, a judge making a play for the Supreme Court), but this duo could be dubbed Dull and Duller. As Luke, Dawson’s Creek dweller Joshua Jackson is a real snooze, a doughy-faced blank slate straight out of the pages of Tiger Beat. Paul Walker is a more chiseled version of same, but even if these two were the most dynamic new talents of the century, the script’s meager notions of characterization would leave them grasping at straws.
The movie’s biggest failing, however, is its depiction of the secret society itself. The early scenes generate a small amount of hope. The Skull pledges are drugged, then awaken in coffins in the castle’s dank basement. They are greeted in the ritual room by robed figures straight out of Eyes Wide Shut, then branded with the society’s skull insignia. This is all very cheesy, of course, but cheesiness is preferable to boredom, which is what sets in once the elder Skulls are revealed as a bunch of dumpy, middle-aged white guys (talk about the banality of evil – the chief villain is played by TV’s Coach, Craig T. Nelson). The rituals are humdrum, even Oprah-esque. In one bone-chilling rite of passage, the initiates are paired off, locked in a cage together and lowered into a hidden chamber under the floor, in order to…ask each other any question they wish. Truth or dare, anyone? The rewards of Skull membership are likewise less than awe-inspiring – each new inductee into this shadowy, clandestine and all-powerful organization gets $20,000 deposited into his checking account and a flashy new sports car to drive around town. Oh, and a snazzy wristwatch.
Meanwhile, logic takes a holiday. This is the kind of movie where a crucial piece of evidence is captured on video and no one thinks to make a copy of the tape. Even worse, the villains’ plans rely on the fact that no one will think to make a copy of it – shouldn’t this bunch call themselves the Numbskulls? Narrative lapses might be forgivable if the film managed to build a convincing sense of mounting dread, but there’s too much slack and not enough menace. If the real Skull and Bones is this uninteresting, it’s no wonder they insist on total secrecy.