The rules of bad writing
If you didn’t know (and if you didn’t know, it’s only because you haven’t seen it for yourself), The Skulls is a bad movie. Painfully bad. To get this out of the way, Joshua Jackson plays a hard-working and dedicated student of a school that goes out of its way never to tell you that it’s Yale. His academic work, as well as his role as a champion rower, get the attention of a top-secret ‘club’ on campus that goes out of its way to show that it’s not Skull and Bones – the actual secret society at Yale whose members allegedly include both George Bushes and John Kerry, as well as many other powerful men. Much to the chagrin of his friends (a girl and a black dude, to show that he’s also extremely open-minded), he is initiated into said group, though he isn’t allowed to tell anyone. Immediately, he is given access to a hitherto unseen world of girls, money, and privilege, helped greatly by the presence of Coach (Craig T. Nelson). All is peachy, until his friend Black Dude, who is also an ace reporter for the school paper (!), breaks into the compound to report on it, and ends up dead. There is a cover-up, and Joshua Jackson must choose between his club and the truth. Much intrigue and suspense later, he finds himself in a showdown duel with Paul Walker (he of the “Don’t worry yourself with how I may or may not deliver my lines. Look at my face!” school of acting). Luckily, Paul Walker shoots his father, and all ends happily.
The “Are You A Fucking Idiot?” Test
Now, if I didn’t give a particularly concise or coherent synopsis of this film, it is only because doing so would be completely irrelevant. If you remember the trailer for The Skulls, or even if you one day decide to read the back of the DVD, you have all you need to know to write your own detailed summary of everything contained in this movie. If anyone out there found or finds themselves surprised by anything that occurs at any point, they should immediately afterwards think to themselves “Hmm. I’m a fucking idiot.” It’s just that simple.
However, I am in no way saying that this movie does not have merit. On the contrary, The Skulls can be enjoyed heartily on two separate levels. On the classic Bad Movies for Comedic Purposes (BMFCP) scale, I would rank it right up toward the top of the list. The bad acting, directing, story, music, and writing are all done so earnestly, with a clear sense that everyone involved is creating the next Vertigo, that it is laugh-a-minute funny. In fact, I would suggest you set up the criteria for a Q-and-A session before it begins. In it, you agree that anytime something happens that makes no discernible sense, either from a logic or a realism standpoint, you can and should raise your hand as though at a press conference, and state your query to the rest of your party once you are called upon, who must then attempt to come up with a coherent answer. It’s harder than it looks.
There is also another, deeper level at which this movie can offer enjoyment, and lo! – even assist the world. This level exists at the screenplay level. Now, a word about me. I am no expert on script writing. I have begun far more scripts than I have finished, and I have yet to dream up an idea that is strong enough to allow me to retire on its sale. However, I do know a good script when I hear one performed on screen. I can tell a bad script even more. Over my years of watching films and making fun of them, I have come up with several rules of bad scriptwriting; things that, if and when they appear in a movie, you can immediately drop the entire the entire thing at least two rungs down on the respectability ladder. I am proud to say that, for each rule I have developed, there is a corresponding moment in The Skulls.
Ta-da! The rules of bad screenwriting
The first rule of bad script writing states that, rather than make any attempt to show how the characters feel about each other and their situations, the screenwriter will simply make them say ridiculously awkward things to tell the audience what they want them to know. (This is in violation of the classic “Show, Don’t Tell” rule of good writing.) The Skulls bites at this trap almost immediately. At the start of the film, after Joshua Jackson wins the big race and he is drinking with the team afterwards, his buddy puts his arm around him, spins him so he’s looking at a girl, and says something like “Hey man. Now that you’ve won, why don’t you give yourself the prize you’ve been dreaming about for three years. Tell her how you really feel about her.” There are little gems like this one throughout this movie. See if you can count them all.
The second rule of bad script writing states that at some point near the beginning, a random object or theme is inserted randomly and awkwardly into the story, so that it can come later on as part of the plot. This device is used all the time, in all kinds of films. If James Bond looks out the window and sees a helicopter with saw blades on it trimming trees, odds are he’s going to be running just ahead of those same blades some time soon. If a chick hands our hero her barrette for no discernible reason, there’s a good chance that later on, when this chick has become psychotic and handcuffs his girlfriend to a chair and throws this chair into a pool and he dives in and attempts to save her, he just might have the camera do a close-up on his hand as it reaches into his pocket to see what might be there to assist him. (Chekov called this the “Gun Over The Mantle” rule – that if you see a gun over the mantle in act one, it must go off in act three. The Skulls, unlike Chekov, doesn’t know how to follow this rule.)
The Skulls has a gem of a moment like this. At the beginning, when Joshua Jackson is hanging out with his female roommate (who, you guessed it, is also the love interest he has not had the balls to reveal his true feelings for – more on this later), she shows him her final project for art class: a computer program attached to mechanical arms attached to paints and painting implements. It whirs and clanks and randomly sprays and paints things onto a canvas. She discusses it as a question of art versus science; she challenges her teacher to answer, where does one end and the other begin? If this doesn’t make sense, don’t worry, as it’s not supposed to, and it doesn’t matter. Later on, when bad people are chasing them through their apartment, they need to create a diversion. Now, what exists in their apartment that is loud and clunky enough to make an assailant change directions?
The third rule states that there must be a sex scene in the film, no matter what! Important side note here: I don’t have anything against sex. I am actually quite fond of it. In fact, I really hope to give it a try one day, and see what all the fuss is about. However, there are some sex scenes that have no basis in reality whatsoever, and I’m not talking about guys who have sex at full speed for thirty minutes to women who are in orgasmic ecstasy the entire time. I’m talking about the sex scenes that occur between two characters who are under extreme stress, or are in extreme danger, typically about two-thirds into the movie. Now in my experience, women tend to need to be in the mood for good things to happen, and that mood is tenuous. Anything from a phone call, to remembering that they forgot to feed the cat, to finding themselves slightly askew on the bed, can alter the mood from ready-to-go, to ready-to-cry. It might just be my limited sexual expertise, but I have never had a woman in mortal danger, or in the process of discovering “the truth,” or attempting to rescue their kidnapped child, suddenly decide that they want to do the nasty. Yet how many times does this happen in movies? In The Skulls, Joshua Jackson and Love Interest are trying to expose the Skulls for what they really are, and are finding their lives in danger in the process. They must constantly watch their backs and jump at shadows, but they do have time to take a shower together. Man, I don’t know what he slipped in her drink, but I better get me some so I can lose this pesky cherry of mine!
The final rule, for this essay at least, is the most specific. It’s the one I call simply the “Line, name. Line” rule, and it’s just that. So often in movies, a character is called upon to say a line, followed by the name of the person they’re talking to, followed by the same line they just said over again. Honestly, I hear this over and over again in movies, and yet I have never in my life heard an actual person use this in actual conversation. Imagine it: “I cleaned my room, Mom. I cleaned my room.” “You’re a huge douchebag, Karl. You’re a huge douchebag.” “I like to stab puppies with a letter opener, officer. I like to stab puppies with a letter opener.” It’s as though these screenwriters have never heard of the secret method of actually speaking the lines you write out loud, to see if they sound utterly contrived and full of horseshit. This happens again and again in The Skulls, though the only time I can remember offhand is after Joshua Jackson does something, and Paul Walker turns around and says “Smart move, Joshua Jackson’s character’s name. Smart move.” Seriously, this is just like noticing the prevalence of the word “like” in the average American’s speech, once you start noticing this cringe-inducing trend, you’ll never not be able to notice it.
So, to sum up, I heartily suggest The Skulls, but only as an enjoyable example of BMFCP, or as a fascinating literary example of what to avoid if you are actually interesting in writing something of quality. Don’t watch this expecting a good film. If you want that, try either The Skulls 2 or The Skulls 3.