You wouldn’t know it from the generic trailers, but there were a few reasons to anticipate The Ruins as something more than another gruesome movie about young, dumb Americans abroad and in peril. It was adapted by the well-regarded writer Scott Smith from his well-reviewed best-seller of the same name. The last time he did that, the book was A Simple Plan and the screenplay got Smith a 1998 Oscar nomination.
And to direct The Ruins, Dreamworks hired fashion photographer Carter Smith, who got some attention on the festival circuit a few years back with a freaky gay horror short called Bugcrush (it’s online and worth the half hour).
But the book presents serious challenges to adaptation. For one thing, it’s a monster story with a fairly ridiculous monster, one that almost inevitably works better on the page, where it seems at least half-metaphorical. And for another, while the book traffics in pulp, it is smart and character-driven pulp. Much of it is taken up with lengthy internal monologues, and pieces of scenes are repeated from multiple perspectives. Internal monologues don’t often translate well to film, and the Smiths probably wisely avoid even trying.
Without all that reflection, though, all the movie is left with is the plot, which is by far the book’s weakest card. In short: two post-collegiate American couples lazing around on a Mexican beach get talked into a little impromptu exploration by a German vacationer. The goal is an historic excavation site well off the beaten path, which the German’s brother is supposed to be visiting with an archaeologist girlfriend. But the brother hasn’t returned, and you hardly need the ominous music to know that he probably isn’t really “just having too much fun,” as the German speculates.
Quickly—too quickly to effectively build suspense—the turistas find themselves trapped atop an ancient pyramid, surrounded by angry Mayan villagers who will shoot them (with bullets and arrows) if they try to leave. And the Mayans aren’t even the real problem. That is something different, which it would be unsporting to reveal. Let’s just call it an organism. A very hungry organism. In some ways, the nature of the threat is immaterial; the plot’s point is really to establish the classic scenario of a small group of people under stress in order to reveal Basic Truths About Human Nature.
In A Simple Plan, Scott Smith took an almost anthropological approach to questions of greed, corruption, and morality. The calamities that arise in that story are entirely man-made, the results of selfish decisions and short-term thinking. The Ruins is a starker proposition. The kids aren’t geniuses, but they’re not idiots, either (the characters are pretty well written and, for this kind of movie, well played). It’s just that their intelligence or lack of it doesn’t really matter. Good decisions, bad decisions, human actions of any kind mostly have a marginal impact; you can die sooner or later—those seem like the only real options. Which of course is true of life in general, and that’s the larger theme of the book; the “ruins” of the title refer not to archaeology but to biology, specifically the piles of bones that litter the narrative’s landscape. The book is a study in how humans deal with the inevitability of death.
The movie, which moves briskly through its 91 minutes, doesn’t have time for that kind of rumination. Carter Smith shows some promise as a director, and he navigates the story’s fundamental implausibilities with a fair amount of verve. He’s also smart about what he shows and what he doesn’t, so that the scenes of graphic gore (which mostly involve crude attempts at surgery) are effectively uncomfortable. But minus the book’s moody underpinnings, he’s stuck with a kind of silly story that doesn’t have enough of anything: frights, drama, action, significance. The only philosophical question The Ruins is likely to produce for the multiplex viewer in the stadium seats is, “Why am I here?”