2008; directed by Carter Smith; written by Scott B. Smith, based on the novel The Ruins by Scott Smith
I've been looking forward to The Ruins ever since hearing late last year that it was being adapted for the screen. The novel was one of the best "horror" books I read in 2006 -- or any year -- and I was hoping the film would, somehow, be as intelligent and relentless as its source material.
The film didn't disappoint me, not much, despite what the majority of critics are saying. Yeah, some of them are faulting it for being too similar to other tourists-in-trouble films like Turistas (which I haven't seen) and Wolf Creek (which I have) and Shrooms (which I reviewed a while back). And they may have a point. But for someone who tries to avoid the stuff that's obviously born of schlock and greed, The Ruins was an enjoyable trip.
Tourists-in-trouble ought to be enough to tip you off to the film's premise. Two young, nubile couples vacationing in Mexico have tired of their pre-packaged vacation and yearn to experience something off the beaten path. An attractive German provides them the opportunity to do so via a hand-drawn map from his brother, who's gone off with a young, nubile archaeologist to explore an ancient Mayan temple. They pick up a sixth group member -- a Greek named Dimitri, to provide an early victim and hope for eventual rescue from his friends who may or may not be following in a day or two -- and strike out for adventure.
Trouble starts as soon as they arrive, and once gun- and bow-and-arrow-wielding natives have backed the group up against the temple and into the vines choking it, they're unable to leave. There's a terrific moment at this point in the film, where one of the women (Jena Malone) throws a clump of the vines at the group in frustration. She hits a young boy who's looking on, and the natives' leader promptly shoots the boy in the head. It's a shocking development that proves to the group -- and audience -- just how serious the natives are about keeping them there.
After Dimitri takes an arrow to the chest and a gun blast to the head, the rest scrabble up the temple stairs in terror. At the top they discover the remainders of the previous explorers' camp, much it covered with the same vines they saw at the base which looked -- at least to me -- like silvery-green pot plants.
Through a combination of misadventure, attempts to save themselves, and the vines' own blood-thirsty instincts, the group is picked off one-by-one while also suffering from hunger and dehydration. Despite everything at risk, the film does lag a bit in this lengthy middle section. But the episodes of amateur surgery to save one character's life -- and to remove the vines that have begun appearing beneath the skin of another -- manage to liven things up and are some of the most cringe-inducing scenes of gore I've seen for some time.
Some readers saw an Iraq war metaphor in the book, about what happens when thoughtless Americans stumble into a land and culture they know little about, with nothing to protect themselves except for delusions of entitlement. This is, sadly, present in the film in only the barest of sub-text, and would have helped bring depth to an otherwise straight-ahead tale. The book also played on the main characters' suspicions and jealousies of one another, too. Again, this is something only somewhat present in the film.
The film skips out on the book in another, more profound, way. In the novel the vines are completely lethal, something the natives are desperate to keep quarantined, and it leads to all the characters' grisly end. But the film version allows one character to escape, though we don't see anything that happens afterward. I can only believe this change was ordered for two reasons: 1.) To satisfy Hollywood's unending need for some kind of a happy ending, and 2.) Create an easy set-up for a possible sequel.
Like some vacations, The Ruins wasn't the dream getaway I was hoping for, but it wasn't a completely wasted trip to the theater, either. Like a lot of travel, it provided just enough enjoyment to make me want to go somewhere else again.