Ruins, The (2008)
Reviewed by D.W. Bostaph, Jr.
Starring Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey
Directed by Carter Smith
You do not have to be an environmentalist to realize that we humans take the environment for granted. No other instance proves this better than our relationship with plants. We eat them, wear their dead, harvest their young, and even rip off their reproductive organs to give to our prom date. We, as a species, take our relationship with plants for granted almost every second of every day.
One could say that this type of arrogance is sewing the seeds of our own destruction, and if stories like the one told in The Ruins are any clue, then we may be a bit too far out on the branch for our own safety. Based on the best-selling novel by Scott Smith (reviewed here), the film tells the story of two couples enjoying the last days of their vacation. When given the opportunity to travel out to the middle of nowhere to see some ancient ruins no one knows about, with people they hardly even know, they accept. Upon arrival they discover an odd clearing, in the middle of which is a huge Mayan pyramid smothered in vines. Their awe is abruptly cut short as the group is attacked by several panicked local villagers, who kill one of the men the kids are travelling with. Chased onto the pyramid, they soon come to realize that they are not allowed to leave the site and that something very deadly stalks them all.
In the novel none of the characters come across as very compelling; there isn't anything very interesting about the central players in the film, either. Jeff, played by Jonathan Tucker, is the gung-ho one with the itch to do something out of the ordinary. His girlfriend, Amy (Malone), really doesn't want to do anything but vegetate by the pool. Jena Malone gets the unfortunate role of whiney, slightly irritating Amy. The other couple, Eric and Stacy, seem a bit closer and better off than Jeff and Amy, but this may be on the surface only. Shawn Ashmore and Laura Ramsey are perfectly forgettable in their parts, to a point. Any real fault found with The Ruins could be in its uninteresting central characters. The actors do a good enough job with the parts, but there's just not a lot to do with them. Again, this is "to a point" until ... things start to happen.
The main reason to watch The Ruins is not for the internal struggles or any emotional story arcs of the characters involved. No, the reason to go see The Ruins is because it's a monster movie. These kids stumble into a diabolical death trap and find themselves coming up against something so icky, so disgusting, that the trivial personal stuff falls by the wayside in light of it all. We watch in awe as this hellish situation grows and the horror behind it blossoms out in ways that one would never expect. The problem is that this "thing" is cunning, adaptive and deceptive; it is intelligent.
You may be reading this thinking you know what it is that waits within The Ruins. Your guess may be right; yet, I must caution you. This story takes a benign presence and mutates it into an insatiable force that refuses to be reckoned with. The terror that waits within The Ruins is out to do one thing: destroy us. It wants to eat us, and eat us it shall. I watched as the screen was splattered with ghastly, grisly images of human meat; blood, bone, and sinew snap on the screen. At times you almost expect it to splatter across the lens of the camera. The violence is brief, but when it hits, it's as jarring and brutal as I have ever seen. That is when I see these young actors ripen in their performance. With each slash, cut, or gouge we feel their pain; they look and act afraid. I can't imagine what it would be like to smash off a man's leg with a rock, let alone pretend to do it and act the part. These kids make you feel like you are right there, experiencing it with them. I have to admit, for as uninteresting as I found them to begin with, they kind of grew on me.
A lot of credit has to be given to Carter Smith for his choreographing this dance of death. Carter knows how to hold a camera still and let us linger on things. His landscapes are wide. Beaches are blue upon blue, and the jungles are thick and detailed. All of this sits in stark contrast to the images of pain and agony, for which it seems Carter likes to be up close and personal. In the end this juxtaposition pays off well. We get the sense of being in the middle of nowhere, way off the map, but the claustrophobia is there even with the wide open sky above. Trapped is trapped, no matter where you are. He also doesn't shy away from gore and the gristle. When it comes to blood, Carter puts the petal to the metal and doesn't let up.
A few small changes from the book did nothing to keep me from enjoying the film. A bit of careful pruning of some shoddier CGI moments would have made a couple of key "gotcha!" moments a bit better. Personally, I could care less about the quality of characters in a film like this, and any deficit they suffer from comes from the source material itself. Where The Ruins ultimately triumphs is in its grisly moments of desperation. Rarely in movies are we treated to such ferocity, where the killer and the will to survive by its victims are equal to one another.
The Ruins is a great twist on the old favorite monster movie genre. It has enough shock and gore to appease the fans, and at the same time I guess it could be used as a cautionary tale with regard to human hubris. We assume too much and go places that we are not supposed to, even when we are told not to. The best thing to do, in that sort of situation, is to leaf well enough alone.
4 out of 5
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