‘The Ruins’: In the Face of Nature, There is No Preparation

Christine Makepeace looks at 'The Ruins' and the terrors of unpreparedness.

The Ruins

I have a checklist for everything. Scraps of paper litter my desk; countless “to-dos” and reminders clog my many note-taking apps. I want to be prepared for anything because I’m a planner, a worrier. I play, and replay, possible outcomes in a flailing attempt to log all the possibilities that may lay ahead. There’s a feeling of safety—control—that comes from conjuring up the worst and envisioning it all fall apart. Because if it does go horribly wrong, well, you sort of figured it might. You were ready. Insulated. Prepared.

We often covet what we don’t have, and I nakedly envy the spontaneous. Go to the store without a list? Leave on an impromptu getaway? I can’t relate. But oh, what if I were so brave that I could sample the sweet nectar of the impulsive—the freedom of the impetuous? My steps would be light and the sun would wink down on me from the heavens. I’d bound out the door with no plans and let the universe take me where it saw fit. I’d be unstoppable, but…there’s always that little voice, whispering like some maudlin Jiminy Cricket: “What if…?” 

What if the four friends in 2008’s The Ruins, based on the Scott Smith novel of the same name, were a little more cautious while vacationing together in Mexico. What if they’d packed smarter for their casual hike to visit ancient ruins? What if they’d worn sneakers instead of flip-flops—listened to the taxi driver that hesitated to take them into the wilderness? What if they’d simply planned ahead and weighed every possible grisly outcome? Would that have been enough to spare them from the horrors that unfurled from deep within the titular ruins?

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The sun beats down, glinting off the pool as Amy (Jena Malone), Stacy (Laura Ramsey), Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), and Eric (Shawn Ashmore) soak up what little time is left of their holiday abroad. They’ve spent much of their trip lounging, despite Jeff’s desire to explore. So when the opportunity arises for the group to visit Mayan ruins that aren’t in the guidebooks—a selling point as opposed to a warning sign—they casually agree. Mathias (Joe Anderson), a man they’ve just met, extends the invitation and they nonchalantly accept. That night, the group cavort and drink on the beach, dancing under a jet-black sky. Jeff, the lone pragmatist of the bunch, is the only one concerned with resting up and being prepared. 

The next morning brings with it the blistering sun and a sort of bored resignation: We said we’d go, so we’re going. Jeff’s excited, taking an early run on the beach before rousing his friends (their lack of enthusiasm is even more pronounced in the book). The group’s energy is subdued, better suited for a trek to the mall. Away from their hotel, they’re fish-out-of-water, drifting off a bus and into the village without much of a plan. They entice a resistant taxi driver by flashing some cash. “Wait, how are we going to get back?” Amy asks as they pour out of the stranger’s truck; he’s taken them as far as he can.

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There are glimmers of it, a larger, more oppressive sense of danger. Almost out of nowhere Amy is concerned about how they’ll get back—if they have cell service. In the novel she’s painted to be a worrier, even a bit of a nag, and there are shades of it here. Her concern tiptoes toward something tangible, almost expressed, nearly acted upon. But then again, she can’t be bothered to slip on closed-toe shoes. None of this is to insinuate that Amy is wrong for not stopping the excursion in its tracks; that veers dangerously close to victim-blaming, and apparently “no one said anything about a hike.” But not only would Amy’s outright refusal to participate make for a poor story; it’s also not realistic.

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The Ruins is built on a sturdy base of normalcy and the mundane. It’s populated by things you recognize: well-worn relationships, drowsy sunbathing, youthful flights of fancy, even the lurking “other.” And it makes more sense for Amy’s fears to be assuaged—”My phone should work; it’s a world phone”—than for her to slam on the brakes. These concerns serve as harbingers of what’s to come, but still unaware, the group push into the jungle in search of their final destination. 

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Palm fronds and underbrush hide the path to the ruins. Again, less a red flag and more a curiosity to the band of outsiders. A possible explanation is offered: it’s an open archeological site and it needs to be protected. But what if that’s not why? There are questions begging to be asked, fears to be explored, but this is a vacation—a time for fun and frivolity—and our pack of protagonists is quick to embrace their assumed safety. The hike is mild and uneventful, not nearly the calamity it could’ve been. But the mood is subdued, tentative. The group brightens when they see the soaring ruins, dark against the clear sky, vines spilling over its facade. 

Amy lifts her camera, clicking pictures of the massive structure, content that their journey was actually been worth the trouble. That is until a man rides up on horseback, the animal bucking and rearing. He shouts at them in a language they don’t understand, and it becomes very clear, very fast, that something is wrong. Amy backs away, her poorly protected feet tangling in the vines. Things unravel quickly, and the violent scuffle comes to a head with the death of Dimitri (Dimitri Baveas), a Greek tourist that had tagged along on their adventure. His murder is brutal and jarring; it’s also the first tangible indication that true danger courses below the surface. 

Shocked and panicked, the five remaining hikers stumble to the top of the ruins in search of cover. The shouting man is now many as Mayan villagers gather at the base of the temple. They don’t follow, and for a brief time, their dormancy feels like a gift. The terrified tourists can regroup and come up with an escape plan.

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As a worrier, a moniker I don’t run from, I most definitely carry my anxiety with me into media. I relate to the handwringers, the stress-eaters, the finger-waggers. When I watch a zombie movie, I nod sagely at every collected weapon or stockpiled dry good. I celebrate the person who faces the end of the world with a plan because it’s just good sense. But life, both real and on the screen, isn’t a series of checkboxes, and reaching for that discarded crossbow isn’t second nature. When everything falls apart, planning is survival. But The Ruins is coy, and it’s not immediately obvious just how close to total devastation things actually are. 

At the top of the ruins, the group finds they don’t have much room left for preparation. Suddenly, that stage of planning is a distant memory, tucked under the bed next to a pair of sneakers. They must act, move, execute—all dangerous things to do when you’re short on information. Their phone is gone, in the hands of the people that wait with weapons at the bottom of the structure. Mathias finds his brother dead beneath a blanket of lush, leafy vines, and the dig team is gone. Only a couple of tents and some basic supplies remain. Something terrible has happened at the precipice of this Mayan temple, but what, we aren’t yet sure. 

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“Maybe they’re preparing for something, like a sacrifice” Eric theorizes. This too marks a subversion of expectations. Eric is quick to assume the worst of the people that swarm below, holding him and his friends captive. But the ever-rational Jeff points out the villagers are keeping their distance. There’s something larger than themselves at play, and they’ve made a grave mistake visiting these ruins, the scope of which still remains hidden in the underbrush.

As the group discusses water rationing and the likelihood of rescue, a sound cracks the stillness. It’s coming from the bottom of the open shaft at the ruin’s center. Could it be? Is it really…the trill of a cellphone?

They jump to action, huddling around the hole in the ground, straining to hear what could very well be their line to the outside world—they need that phone! Mathias grabs a nearby rope, likely left by the dig team, and slings it around himself haphazardly before leaping into the gaping shaft. He hangs, a little man-shaped figure surrounded by crushing darkness, as the aging rope begins to twist and tear. He hangs, suspended by dread and denial as the rope snaps. 

The image of Mathias plummeting into the inky depths of the well sparks a visceral reaction. You recoil, pull your appendages in towards your trunk. You wince as he falls, landing with a hollow thud. The situation spirals rapidly, going from bad to irreparable with break-neck speed. Amy takes off down the steps of the ruins, Jeff hot on her heels. She tearfully begs the villagers for help, because certainly, now that they know how dire things are, they’ll help, right?

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The Ruins is withholding. It unfurls like a flower, petals peeling away to reveal a hopeless and deadly center. It’s not that it deceives the viewer, or the characters for that matter, as much as it has its own tiers of escalation that we aren’t privy to. Someone falling and breaking their back is the worst it can get. Until it gets worse.

The villagers have begun setting up camp at the ruin’s base, and down at the bottom of the steps, Amy hurls a chunk of vines at them. The act, relatable in its weak show of futile frustration, is a record scratch. The plant hits a small boy, and the villagers kill him on the spot. As his lifeless body lay in the sand, his mother weeps but does not go to him. New information comes in a flood and Jeff and Amy retreat back up the ruin’s face.

There’s a point at which hope threatens to become privilege, and while our core group— Jeff, Amy, Stacy, and Eric—aren’t painted as broad caricatures of white, American tourists, the trappings are certainly present. “This doesn’t happen!” Jeff shouts. “Four Americans on a vacation don’t just disappear!” He is adamant someone will come for them. While that’s obviously the optimistic stance, arguably the only one to have when faced with such insurmountable odds, it’s also wildly entitled. In fact, many of the group’s actions are born from that same entitlement. From assuming they’d be welcome at the dig site, to not arranging reliable transportation, their lack of preparation is in itself a form of entitlement.

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Back on top of the ruins, the situation is already staggeringly bleak; Stacy is lowered into the hole. Crouched in a damp and eerie darkness, she confirms that Mathias’s back is broken. She also receives a massive gash on the leg for her troubles. After fashioning a makeshift backboard, all members of the group are successfully retrieved from the vine-covered shaft. Things have heightened: some people are dead, some badly injured, and supplies are low. In another story, this could be the center of the flower blossom.

Trying to survive atop a Mayan temple under such dire circumstances could easily be the puzzle left for us, and the characters, to solve. The planner in me awakens, tutting and fretting. The friends should have told someone where they were going. They should’ve brought more water, sunscreen, protein bars. They should’ve had a weapon and been fully prepared for things to go bad.

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The next morning, Stacy awakens to vines trailing up her leg. They coil and twine up her calf, reaching toward her open wound. They burrow inside. Stacy writhes and whimpers as Eric yanks them out. The plants twist, squirming creatures on the hunt for blood. Mathias, with his bent and broken lower body, is in much worse shape. The vines have overtaken his legs completely, eating the flesh from his bones. A new tier is revealed in all its grotesque and terrifying glory. We add “vines” to our list of things to worry about.

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Hope, even when irrational, can act as a buoy in the worst of times, and the still-ringing phone cries out like a beacon from the bottom of the hole. Amy and Stacy descend once more into the shaft to retrieve the cell. At the bottom, they discover the phone clutched in the hands of a corpse, its vacant screen smashed. They’re confused, and their panic rises once more because the ringing had to come from somewhere. They’d heard it…and they hear it again. The trilling rises and with it, Amy notices, the red blooms sprouting from the vines vibrate. Somehow, the sound of a ringing phone is coming from the flowers, an uncanny monstrosity revealed. The sinewy vines reach for the women, lunging in attack as the pair scramble to make their escape. The plants aren’t just dangerous set-dressing; they’re active predators.

The Ruins sets expectations and then demolishes them. Every time a goal post is placed, it’s almost immediately moved. Mathias is paralyzed, water is scarce, but the plants are sentient invaders advancing swiftly. The group moves at varying speeds to arrive at this realization, but the truth is very clear, shouted from on high the moment the villagers kill the small boy: there is no way out; their fates were sealed the moment they stood atop the ruins.

The writing may be on the wall, but hope and their survival instincts push them forward. Jeff amputates Mathias’s gnarled legs in a last-ditch attempt to save his life. They squabble as Mathias is overtaken by the vines; they slither down his throat, choking him, stealing his life. Every step forward is promptly undone, and in the background, Stacy is declining rapidly.

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She’s convinced the plants have invaded her body through the wound in her leg. In a profoundly upsetting turn that belongs in the pantheon of gaslighting, no one believes her. Even with the things they’ve seen—shrieking flowers, vine encased corpses—they don’t trust that she knows her own body. “You’re not listening to me!” she screams, and the flowers take up her lament, rising to mimic her in a mocking chorus. Jeff, Eric, and Amy assure Stacy she’s wrong until they see one slither beneath her skin. They hold her down, cutting out what they can see. The worm-like vegetation twists and undulates.

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But it’s not enough for Stacy. She can feel them in her body, hear them infecting her. Compulsion propels her from the tent, still bloody and weak. Standing alone in the sun, she flays herself alive in an attempt to rid her body of the unwelcome intruders. Stacy’s fate is horrific and with muddled thoughts and shaking hands, she plunges a red-stained blade into Eric’s chest.

The vines drag Eric away, and Stacy begs Jeff and Amy to kill her. We observe the villager’s somber awareness as Stacy’s suffering is quieted off-screen. 

More than half their group is dead, and the Mayans have not moved from their place of resigned vigil. But Amy and Jeff are determined that one of them will escape alive. Their shortsightedness is staggering, their primal survival instincts overriding anything resembling logic. After all, what should they do? Offer themselves to the vines? Use the already bloodied knife on their own wrists? Maybe so… But in a final act of love and desperation, Jeff sacrifices himself so Amy can escape, her fate dependent on the cut of the movie you’re watching. 

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Within the film itself, the characters are aware of the larger implications surrounding the ruins. “They don’t want us to spread it. That’s why they won’t let us leave. They’re salting the soil to keep it contained,” Jeff explains. But even with the knowledge that they have truly stumbled into something with unwinnable odds, he risks the lives of countless others to help his girlfriend escape. It’s hard to miss that entitlement I mentioned earlier. Still, to place these events at the flip-flopped feet of these kids is unfair. In over their heads, traumatized, dehydrated, and terrified, who are we to claim we’d have done better. 

I am a worrier—a nag. I would’ve insisted we carry more water. I would’ve texted my mom. I would’ve had a map and a plan and a laundry list of other things. But there is no level of acceptable preparation that could’ve shielded the group from the fate that befell them—a fate that was sealed long before a drop of blood was spilled. And maybe there lies true freedom, knowing it’s totally out of your hands. There is no planning in the face of nature.

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