In 'Tengkorak' ('Skull'), government soldiers hunt down rogue researchers trying to solve the mystery of a giant fossil. (Photo courtesy of Akasacara Film)

Low-Budget Sci-Fi 'Tengkorak' Makes Us Rethink Humanity

BY :DHANIA SARAHTIKA

OCTOBER 19, 2018

Jakarta. Encountering strange, unknown creatures and then finding our humanity within is a common theme in science fiction movies. The creatures are invariably aliens from a made-up planet in the far reaches of outer space. The big question for the humans: should we treat these aliens as friendly guests or potential enemies?

In most sci-fi movies, humans will assume the role of a superior species and then try to either tame or attack the aliens.

Both options involve violence, and the humans' aggression almost always backfires. Remember last year’s "Life"?

But what happens when the unknown being in question takes the form of a fossil of a skull that has been right here on earth in the past 170,000 years?

Should humans take up arms to destroy it or go all Greenpeace and preserve it as part of our natural wonders?

"Tengkorak" ("Skull"), a low-budget science-fiction film by Yusron Fuadi and his band of students from Gadjah Mada University’s Vocational School (SV UGM), offers an interesting take on this conundrum and a timely reminder for man to stop playing God.

The title refers to a giant fossil discovered in the Central Java city of Yogyakarta after it was hit by a major earthquake in 2006.

For the first 15-20 minutes, the film has the feel of a mockumentary, following a swarm of local and foreign scientists as they run tests on the giant fossil.

This part of the film is gripping and should please pseudo-science lovers.

Some scenes are thinly veiled exposés of how clandestine government operations are carried out in the field.

We get shown a digging site guarded by government soldiers. And then an amateur video showing a student journalist (played by "Siti" actor Haydar Salishz) being shot by a sniper as he attempts to enter the site.

The film reels us in with its revelations of the social and political dynamics of Indonesia.

Thanks to the giant skull, Indonesia's stature in global politics gets a major lift, as countries plead to be included in the global team to research the fossil.

Indonesia wields its power by carefully selecting the team like the ruthless manager of a football club, never hesitating to kill off local or foreign intruders.

As the skull continues to become a source of global tension, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) makes a rare offer to erase all of Indonesia’s debt and promises to pour in extra millions of dollars if the government agrees to destroy the fossil.

And then – spoiler alert – we have a best-selling conspiracy books author (played by Muhammad Abe) trying to solve the puzzle of the skull using clues from the Koran and Bible.

In the end, the Indonesian government decides to blow up the skull.

Problem solved? Of course not.

The skull transforms into a giant, faceless humanoid figure made of fire.

As the figure stomps over everything before him, we finally realize that the apocalypse has begun.

A glimpse of the towering, flaming figure the skull transforms into. (Photo courtesy of Akasacara Film)

Yusron said during an interview with the Jakarta Globe a few days ago that the story in Tengkorak was heavily influenced by the extraordinary tales of the prophets in Abrahamic religions.

The moral lesson he wanted to convey was to remind people to avoid destructive behaviors.

This may be a common theme in sci-fi, but having all the heroes killed off, and the world doomed in an apocalypse with no chance of a last-minute reversal, is still pretty rare, especially for an Indonesian film.

Combining pseudo-science with religion, without being preachy, also keeps the film grounded since religion is a big part of life in Indonesia.

Speculative Fiction

Tengkorak also offers a fantasy of what our world might look like in 2021, two years after the hotly anticipated presidential election next year.

The imagined Indonesia in Tengkorak has a female president and a government that collects people’s votes in a referendum on whether or not to destroy the skull through text messages.

It also makes veiled references to the present and the past.

Assassins in the film communicate through a WhatsApp group. If this is a dig on terrorists, why don't they use Telegram?.

The military team tasked with guarding the fossil site is called Tim Kamboja ("Frangipani Team"), clearly a reference to the murderous Suharto-era black-ops squad Tim Mawar ("Rose Team").

The movie's speculations on our future and its representations of the present and the past are believable and very well done.

Tengkorak lingers in the mind after the credits roll as it gets us to reflect on similar conundrums in real life.

Is Indonesia ever going to have that much influence over the rest of the world?

Will it turn to New Order-style, secretive, murderous military operations to maintain order when it is faced with a phenomenon beyond its control?

Premise Good, Storytelling Bad 

The first half of the movie has great build-up and uses the mystery of the skull fossil to keep us on the edge of our seat.

However, once the film takes a detour to introduce the main characters and let them drive the story, glaring problems in storytelling, pacing and characterization start to appear.

The first character introduced in details is Ani (Eka Nusa Pertiwi), an intern at Balai Penelitian Bukit Tengkorak (BPBT) – a research center for the fossil.

Ani works as an assistant whose main task is to bring coffee for a French professor.

After a few months, the government decides to shut down the center and hunts down employees who refuse to stop their research, including Ani.

Ani is saved by Yos (Yusron Fuadi), one of the assassins who has already killed dozens of intruders.

They hide from government forces with Jaka (Guh S. Mana), a former military officer who owes his life to Yos. The assassin saved him from being beaten to death years ago during a student riot.

Ani has to keep hiding because the government is after her notebook, which contains clues on what the fossil really is, left by the French professor.

The action may sound riveting, but melodrama actually takes up the majority of the movie, that runs for a little more than two hours.

It starts off as a roller coaster ride, but stops being exciting once Yos and Ani get together.

Scenes depicting their attempts to find a place to hide feel draggy and repetitive.

Some dialogues in this part of the movie are either too long or too digressive, and many of the jokes suffer from bad timing.

The romantic subplot to explain Yos' motivation in saving Ani feels very forced.

Romance grows between the main characters in 'Tengkorak.' (Photo courtesy of Akasacara Film)

On the plus side, the film's visuals are stunning.

Yusron said the film used Hollywood techniques to create visual effects, including motion capture and blue and green screens.

Perhaps another thing the film could've learned from Hollywood is that if you have an amateur cast and a weak script, you should keep the melodrama to a minimum.

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