The film was critically panned, but successful enough to spawn two direct-to-video sequels, The Skulls II (2002) and The Skulls III (2004).
Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson) is a student with aspirations to become a lawyer. A "townie" who grew up on the "wrong side of the tracks", he did well enough in school to attend college on a scholarship where he is a champion rower. His best friends at college are his love interest Chloe (Leslie Bibb), and Will (Hill Harper) who is the coxswain of the Bulldog 8's rowing team of which Luke is the captain (at the victory party for the 8's, Chloe is revealed to come from a wealthy family which is why Luke is reluctant to reveal his feelings for her). Luke's friendships hit the rocks when he is invited to join a secret society known as "The Skulls". After Luke passes the first part of the initiation process - theft from a rival frat together with boxing prodigy Caleb Mandrake (Paul Walker) as his co-conspirator and alleged "soulmate", and being lectured in the secret ritual room by a senior Skull that is standing in front of a wall with the word "WAR" engraved into it in huge capital letters. A senior Skull explains to Luke that the Skulls require their members to prove themselves in war. Luke has a falling out with Will when the latter realizes that Luke has become a Skull.
Luke quickly strikes up a friendship with his alleged soulmate. Caleb's father, Litten Mandrake (Craig T. Nelson), is the current Chairman of the Skulls and a Federal Court Judge who is pushing for a position in the Supreme Court, and his partner Senator Ames Levritt (William Petersen), takes an interest in Luke. Eventually Will, who has been conducting research on the Skulls for some time, discovers their secret ritual room. Will gets caught in the room by Caleb and in the ensuing struggle he falls and is knocked unconscious. Caleb is ordered to leave the room by his father, who then orders Skulls member and the University's provost Martin Lombard (Christopher McDonald) to break Will's neck. The Skulls manage to move the body and make it look like Will committed suicide in his dorm room by hanging himself.
Luke is greatly troubled by the death of his best friend, especially because Will's family is the only family he had (due to the death of his parents at a young age), and becomes suspicious that Will was in fact murdered. He initially thinks that Caleb is guilty of the murder, and Caleb thinks that he himself is guilty since he assumed that Will was dead when he left the room. With the help of some of his 'townie' childhood friends who have turned petty crime into an art form (Luke also bribes them to help him by giving them the car he had been given by the Skulls, a 1963 Ford Thunderbird convertible as an apology for missing his friends birthday the week before), Luke obtains the Skulls security tapes that prove Lombard committed the murder and in trying to convince Caleb of the truth (that it was his father who was responsible for Will's death), Luke realizes how scared Caleb is of his father. Before Luke can show the evidence to police, the Skulls council, who know Luke has stolen the tapes, vote that he is no longer loyal (Litten Mandrake blackmailed Levritt with pictures of him and his much younger mistress to allow the vote to carry). When he does go to the police, the tape is switched by Detective Sparrow (Steve Harris) and Luke is confined to a mental hospital under the control of the Skulls.
With the help of Levritt and Chloe, Luke manages to escape the hospital and he and Chloe survive an attempt on his life by Lombard who is shot and killed by Detective Sparrow (who it turns out is working for Levritt). Luke decides that his only option is to fight the Skulls by their own rules, and "bring war to them". He challenges Caleb to a duel at the Skulls' private island, by invoking rule 119. Litten tries to take his son's place in the duel but is denied the opportunity due to another Skull rule (119b, line 15). After Luke and Caleb take their ten paces and turn around, Luke drops his gun and tries to convince Caleb of the truth and that he is not responsible for Will's murder. Despite being pressured by Litten to kill Luke, Caleb cannot bring himself to pull the trigger. At this point, Litten grabs a pistol and attempts to shoot Luke himself, but before he can fire, Caleb shoots his own father. Caleb, mortified at what he has done, tries to kill himself but is stopped by Luke.
The film ends with Luke's realization that Senator Levritt waited to help him until he had no other choice but to duel and eliminate his rival (Caleb's father). Luke becomes disgusted with the order and refuses to participate further, despite threats from Levritt that he will be tracked down someday, and despite, or even because of, Levritt's offer that the Skulls will accept him because he has proven himself in war. As Luke walks away Levritt says to himself, "Well done son, well done". It has been speculated, because of this along with other incidents in the film (such as him comparing their backgrounds, Luke's unknown father situation, and Levritt taking an immediate liking to Luke), that Levritt may be Luke's father. The final shot of the film shows Luke reuniting with Chloe.Joshua Jackson as Lucas "Luke" McNamara – The new Skulls member.
Paul Walker as Caleb Mandrake – One of the new Skulls members along with Luke.
Hill Harper as Will Beckford – Luke's classmate and roommate.
Leslie Bibb as Chloe Whitfield – Luke's classmate and love interest.
Christopher McDonald as Martin Lombard – A provost at Yale University.
Steve Harris as Detective Sparrow – A police detective who is in charge of investigating Will's death.
William Petersen as Senator Ames Levritt – Luke's father (insinuated), member of 1972 Skulls class.
Craig T. Nelson as Judge Litten Mandrake – Caleb's father, member of 1972 Skulls class.
David Asman as Jason Pitcairn
Scott Gibson as Travis Wheeler
Nigel Bennett as Dr. Rupert Whitney – The member of 1973 Skulls class. He is now head of protocol.
Noah Danby as Hugh Mauberson
The film was shot in Toronto with the University of Toronto disguised as Yale University, the plot's setting. Scenes were also filmed in the city's suburban neighbourhood of Guildwood.
Many of University of Toronto's most notable buildings are featured in the film. A part of University College stands in for the Skulls' headquarters, while the office of the Skulls' evil leader shown as being in Trinity College. The rival society is headquartered in the student council building. The protagonists live and eat in Burwash Hall. The opening rowing scene was shot in St. Catharines, Ontario. Several scenes were shot on Dark Island in the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
The Skulls earned extremely negative reviews from critics, as it holds a 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 85 reviews with the consensus stating: "The Skulls is full of nonsense and empty of a good script and plot".
The film opened at #3 at the North American box office, making US$11,034,885 in its opening weekend, behind The Road to El Dorado and Erin Brockovich.