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By Ron Wells | April 1, 2000

Ah, here’s something you don’t see every day: a film that combines both the old school and the new school conspiracy movie and avoids the pitfalls of neither. Oh, and it’s another vehicle for those hip, young WB Network types.
Now a typical conspiracy plot is “one man against the system”. The old school pits our hero against some secretive organization that controls elements of his/her life, i.e., the Freemasons, the military-industrial complex, the Osmonds, whatever. The new school derives its paranoia from the angst about all the new information technology. Big Brother is watching you.
As Luke McNamara, Joshua Jackson has to worry about both. He’s an orphaned, blue-collar townie entering his senior year at the ivy league school of New Haven. Harvard Law School beckons, but only with some sticker shock. As the captain of the championship crew team, he does have an option: the Skulls.
The Skulls are a senior society. Senior societies are not fraternities. These societies operate in secret and recruit new members only in their senior year. You can be a member of both a fraternity and a senior society. The Skulls are based on the notorious real-life Skull and Bones society at Yale. Both George and George W. Bush are members.
Like the Skull and Bones, the Skulls are rumored to provide sizable stipends to their members, thus financing law school. Luke’s best friend and roommate, Will Beckford (Hill Harper) is more than a little put out, though. Being black, he resents the societies, particularly the Skulls, as another element that perpetuates a white power structure.
When Luke enters the Skulls, Will obsesses about exposing their world. As a journalist, he plans an expose. Stealing a key and rule book from another pledge, the privileged Caleb Mandrake (Paul Walker), Will sneaks into the society’s tomb-like home. Caleb catches him in the act, something happens and Will dies. Luke discovers his friend elsewhere in a staged suicide. Once the notes for the big story surface, he realizes something is wrong, and the conspiracy and the real fun begins.
Conspiracy thrillers have a bad habit of escalating into implausibility and silliness. The main pitfalls of the new school conspiracy thriller revolve around having the cash to deploy monster quantities of surveillance equipment at everything and having the man-hours to analyze it all. The main problem with the old school versions is that you usually witness the leaders of some powerful, shadow organization, one that has existed for even centuries, make some stupid mistake that no one in that position would ever make. Will could never have made it far enough to really find anything incriminating. Any story he could have sold to the media could have been legally blocked anyway since the over-eager youth committed two crimes, theft and breaking and entering, to get his info.
Now the conspiracy elements are not the real problem. Director Rob Cohen and writer John Pogue are more focused on presenting a heavy-handed class struggle and a heavier-handed moral lesson. Caleb has been handed everything in life, thanks to his rich and powerful father, judge Litten Mandrake (Craig T. Nelson) who happens to be the current president of the Skulls. Some say money can’t buy you love; some say money can’t buy happiness. You know what money really can’t buy? Survival skills. Thus, Caleb needs daddy to bail him out of trouble on an all too frequent basis. Caleb isn’t so much bad as callow, and couldn’t have been bothered until induction to know someone of the lower castes like Luke. Shy a mastery of place settings, Mr. McNamara’s position does allow for a generous amount of street-smarts.
What really makes this entire endeavor so laughable is this important message telegraphed throughout the film: Be true to your friends, and selfish decisions can only lead to bad things. Luke is driven to escape the, uh, ghetto, but joining the Skulls for the money only alienates his “true” friends and leads to his comeuppance. Will’s self reasons for exposing the Skulls REALLY lead to his comeuppance. The film does demonstrate that power requires maintenance. This society may seem to fulfill all your dreams of success, but drop your soul in the box by the door, sucker, ’cause you have a new master. The alumni Skulls provide no gifts or favors that are not meant to be reciprocated either immediately or later. It’s all about maintaining or enhancing their own power.
There are two issues that weren’t properly addressed. Of all the members, not only were there no blacks or women, there wasn’t even one person who might have been even Jewish. Reward and position based upon merit is one thing, but entitlement based on birthright isn’t exactly fair, though the rule. I’ve always tried to figure out whether it’s natural behavior for any group of humans, as it grows past a certain size, to break into subgroups, and have those subgroups compete for power over one another. If there are no easy minorities to oppress, religious affiliation does the trick. Christians can hate Muslims or Jews. If there aren’t enough around, then you can have Protestants against the Catholics. If no Catholics are around, smaller denominations like the Fundamentalists can mock the Baptists, or whatever. Is all this some sort of instinct or is it learned behavior? Even those that resent the class structure tend to perpetuate it. Luke’s old high-school buddies stigmatize him for going off to college. Education doesn’t make you a “sell-out”. Luke doesn’t help his situation when, even after returning to his old friends for help, he’s not so forthcoming with data about the powerful clique he now battles.
Everyone would rather point the finger than join hands. The filmmakers would rather exploit and inflame a class war than deconstruct it. I don’t know, maybe that’s a little too deep for a flick starring the brooder from “Dawson’s Creek”. Ah, forget it and think about this unaddressed phenomenon: If the cause of Will’s death was ruled a suicide, does that mean that Luke automatically gets a 4.0 for the semester? That would have been a real gift.

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