Friday, June 13, 2008


Review: The Ruins
3 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

Chills aren't the only things that get under the skin in The Ruins, the screamy, squirmy adaptation of Scott Smith's hit 2006 novel of the same name. Smith penned the adventure-thriller's screenplay as well, his first since 1998's A Simple Plan - also based on one of his books - which earned him an Oscar nomination. His sophomore effort certainly won't do the same, but it will keep most viewers tangled up in its gruesome story, perhaps even making them a bit wary of their shrubbery when they return home.

Amy, Jeff, Stacy and Eric are four twenty-somethings vacationing in Mexico, who've seen little more than the poolside bar since they arrived. When a handsome stranger named Mathias clues the group in on a rumored archaeological dig site not far from their resort, the jaded tourists proceed to make one of the most fatal mistakes of this genre: they trust and follow the stranger. Turns out Mathias is the least of their problems, but he does lead them to a place that will present a great many more: an ancient Mayan temple hidden in the jungle (the path to which is riddled with the usual warning signs of cautious villagers and creepy children). As the palm trees part, and the vine-covered structure is revealed in a sandy clearing, the group is immediately surrounded by dozens of angry, armed natives who inexplicably refuse to let them retrace their steps. When one of the companions is gunned down as a warning, it's pretty clear that no one is going back to the pool anytime soon.

Mathias and the two young couples - not that it's too important, but that would be Amy (Donnie Darko's Jena Malone) and Jeff (The Deep End's Jonathan Tucker, all grown up), and Stacy (Lords of Dogtown's Laura Ramsey) and Eric (X-Men's Shawn Ashmore) – have no choice but to climb to the top of the ruins, which is where most of the film's gradually descending plot takes place. Amidst arguments about hope for rescue and means to escape, Mathias and co. soon realize that they're not the only animate objects on the pyramid. The twisted mass of thousands of vines reveals a sinister, carnivorous life, that creeps into people's wounds and mimics screams and cellphone rings via eerie floral vibrations. The audience discovers at the same pace as the characters that the men with guns below are quarantining the deadly plants and anyone/thing that comes in contact with them.

The Ruins doesn't really break any new ground as far as scary flicks starring pretty young things go, but it does do something interesting in the way it unfurls its narrative. There is no real “wow!” moment in this movie; no dramatic, inciting incident of insanity upon which all hell breaks loose. As soon as the group steps onto that temple's sand-covered lot, they're basically doomed, and the events that follow are just piled on top of one another as things get progressively worse. There is a scene in which Amy and Stacy learn the full, deadly reach of the vines' grasp in the temple's interior (thanks to some very unimpressive CG), but the moment is no surprise to the viewer at that point. A little more surprising may be the daring level of gore depicted. Characters lose limbs, see brains splatter, and when one's flesh and brain are literally infiltrated by the nasty plant life, let's just say she doesn't use will power to expel it.

Despite its overall mediocrity, The Ruins kept me tight in its grip right to the end. The acting is good, the tensions run high, and the desperation cuts as deep as the film's infectious vegetation. I have little doubt that the movie is a serious step down from the book, but it exceeds the expectations of what a Gen-X, by-the-numbers thriller generally delivers.

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