Reel Opinions

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Ruins

Screenwriter and novelist, Scott B. Smith, burst onto the scene with his 1998 adaptation of his debut novel, A Simple Plan. It was hailed by critics, and was met with many accolades and awards. I have a sneaking suspicion that his sophomore effort, The Ruins, will be met with much less praise. As well it should. The movie attempts to be a psychological thriller about fear, isolation, and paranoia. Despite the presence of Smith as the screenwriter, and talented up-and-coming filmmaker, Carter Smith, behind the camera, The Ruins never quite gets off the ground, and never quite instilled any feelings of genuine terror. This movie is living proof that what sometimes works on the page doesn't work up on the screen.

As long as there have been American tourists on vacation in horror movies, they've always been willing to go off the beaten path, and have always paid the price for it. Our four heroes this time include the rational and somewhat controlling med student Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), his girlfriend Amy (Jena Malone from Into the Wild), hard-drinking and partying Eric (Shawn Ashmore from the X-Men films), and his girlfriend Stacy (Laura Ramsey from The Covenant and She's the Man). They're college students vacationing in Mexico, and as their trip winds down, they happen to meet the acquaintance of another traveler named Mathias (Joe Anderson from Across the Universe). He tells them about an ancient Mayan temple that is off the beaten path, and how his brother is an archeologist who is studying the ruins there, but he hasn't heard from him the past few days. Against better judgement (and the warnings of the taxi driver who takes them halfway there, despite telling them it's a "bad place"), our heroes trek through the Mexican jungles and down a covered uncharted path to their destination.

We know from the trailers that something's waiting for them there, and so do others apparently, as they happen to notice a pair of children watching them in the distance as they make their way to the temple. The way the kids look at them, they seem to be watching a funeral march. Shortly after arriving at their destination, they are confronted by some very angry locals toting shotguns and bow and arrows. The people originally seem to want the visitors to leave, but as soon as Amy steps within some of the plant life surrounding the ruins in order to take a picture of these gun-toting natives screaming at them (your guess is as good as mine), the tone of those threatening them changes. They kill one of Mathias' friends who was traveling with them, and force all the survivors up to the top of the ruins. The natives below set up camp outside the temple, seemingly to prevent any of our heroes from climbing down. As the friends sort out this bizarre and seemingly-impossible situation, they quickly discover that they're not as alone as they think up there, and that the natives below have a very good reason to be nervous about the vegetation growing around the temple.

To its credit, The Ruins wastes no time in launching into its premise. After a brief 10 minute intro with the four students hanging around their resort, they set off for the temple, and find themselves in danger not long after that. The movie is quickly paced, and with a running time of only around 90 minutes, seems to come and go in a blink of an eye. There's also some interesting cinematography here courtesy of Darius Khondji, who gets some beautiful shots of the exotic landscapes. It's only when we begin to realize that there's not much else to the story that we start to grow restless. This is the kind of movie where I found myself saying "This can't be all there is" as I was watching it. As the realization slowly dawned on me that this truly is all there was, my spirits started to sink and never rose again. Once the action turns to the top of the ruins where the heroes are being held hostage, the action literally never leaves there, except for a few brief excursions down a dark hole leading inside the ruins itself that does not turn out well for the characters. The film can't think of enough to do with its limited surroundings, and the characters are not interesting enough that we want to watch an entire movie with them stuck in the same place for the duration of the film. They have very limited personalities, and their interaction with each other seems based solely around arguing with each other, even before they find their lives in danger.

The movie tires to hold our interest by flashing some excessive gore up on the screen. The fact that unofficial group leader, Jeff, is a medical student comes into play when he has to amputate the legs of one of his friends after they're severely injured. One of the other friends also starts performing self-mutilation with a knife when they start fearing there's something crawling around inside them. I can see how these kind of scenes could work in a psychological sense, but there's something off here. The violence often comes across as exploitive, as if it's a way to keep the audience awake and interested. It throws a lot of gruesome images at us while loud, bone-snapping sounds ring out on the soundtrack. Because the movie refuses to let us get close to the characters, the violence is just gore for the sake of gore. I didn't feel anything as I saw the characters start turning against each other, and cutting themselves open. It's obvious that the screenplay wants to depict the characters slowly giving into the fear of their situation, but the way it's handled here is sloppy. I can picture it working in a novel, where we can actually get inside the mind of the character, and become emotionally attached with them. As a movie, however, I felt like it was merely skimming the surface.

Perhaps the worst offense that can be held against The Ruins is that the creatures menacing them are not very scary. Once again, this is a case where I think the idea sounds scarier on paper than it comes across on the screen. The natives surrounding the temple and keeping our heroes hostage have potential, especially during a scene where we see one of them shoot a child that is exposed to something from the ruins itself. But, the movie doesn't do enough with them. They act more as a screenplay tool to keep the lead characters in one place, rather than an actual menace. When the movie finally reveals to us just what is lurking about the temple, it is also a big disappointment, because again, the film doesn't do enough with its creatures. It doesn't know how to make them effectively scary, nor does it give them any memorable scenes. Even when the little demons find a way to get under the characters' skin (literally), it never comes across as being as effective as it should. There's something off about the whole movie, and despite the mounting fear and paranoia, there is something that prevented me from truly getting involved.

The Ruins grows sillier with each passing minute, until it builds to a total cop-out of a conclusion that combines a hurried happy ending with a tacked on "it's not over yet" ending. I hear the ending has been changed greatly from the source novel, and I really don't know what Scott B. Smith was thinking when he approved this new conclusion. It leaves the audience feeling cheated and angry, and is far too simplified and rushed. There's very little to like in The Ruins, and when I was walking out of the theater, I couldn't stop laughing thinking back on it. That's probably not the reaction the filmmakers wanted, but hey, comic actor Ben Stiller is credited as one of the producers of the film. Maybe it was.

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