Far from cliché
THE RUINS is based upon the novel by Bruce B. Smith, who also wrote the screenplay. The beginning offered the usual, hackneyed fair: four American college students on a trip to Mexico. Snooze. Thankfully, I hung on, and witnessed one great dramatic tale of foreboding.
Our college quatro are gearing up to go home when a German traveler, Mathias (Joe Anderson), mentions that his brother and several people are working at a remote archaeological dig. Enraptured by the rare opportunity, the students head out to THE RUINS.
Up until this point, the story seemed cliché laden, but some elements were different from the start. The group is comprised of two heterosexual couples, but none of them fell to the trappings of stock character malaise. No dumb jocks, no geeks, no arrogant beauty. Simply four bright young people ready to engage something a bit more thrilling than a resort and endless alcoholic beverages.
The students soon find themselves at the base of a Mayan pyramid with vegetation covering most of the ruin. However, when they near the structure, they’re met with armed locals who keep themselves at a distance. The Spanish speaking villagers yell at the tourists, but all is for naught since none of the travelers know the language. This leads to a tension filled scene where our group is forced up onto the pyramid to escape the local wrath. In an instant, the conventions of horror entrap the group: isolation, limited if any cell phone usage, little food and water, fears regarding self-preservation, and a sense of impending doom.
The group is led by medical student, Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), who’s logic and pragmatism keeps them all grounded – as much as one can since the pangs of fear are overwhelming. Eric (Shawn Ashmore) reluctantly follows, as well as Stacy (Laura Ramsey), and Amy, played by the ever wonderful Jena Malone.
Director Carter Smith, no relation to the screenwriter/author, brings us a strong, emotional tale that takes place in mostly daylight hours. Under the hot Mexican sun, the group must be aware of water intake as they try to determine a way out. Yet, they have no clue why the locals are bloodthirsty, why they won’t come up after them – and why the archaeological team is dead. In THE RUINS, the one item that may save the tourists is a shaft leading into the heart of the pyramid, where a fully functioning cell phone rings on occasion. Can they get to it?
The pyramid represents a tower, and as imagery goes, one only has to think of the old biblical tale of the Tower of Babel. Builders of that structure had hoped to reach their god up in Heaven, only to be smitten with many languages so they could not understand each other. Building stopped. The movie mirrors the story in two forms: Our college students can’t comprehend the locals, and their privileged lives may make them seem as if they are above the uneducated and poor villagers. Though the students don’t bark that they are better or smarter, the symbolism is clear, though in this case, whatever deity they believe in has no intention of rescuing them from their predicament. For all that privilege and money, two artificial gods of their own, they are trapped. They’ll have to make it on their own or die trying.
Interestingly, with their only hope seemingly being that cell phone at the bottom of a dark shaft, they must lower themselves to gain possible egress. But the uncanny, the element of Robin Wood’s “otherness” surrounds them. The “other” is multifold as well. Besides the “monster” they must face, the thing which must be rejected and annihilated, the villagers also represent that “other” – the natives who cannot be trusted since they are unlike the foreigners. In this case, the students represent the “other” to the villagers. And what follows is a story of attrition and despair.
Carter Smith does a great job in keeping the story moving, and none of the actors fall short of emotion, which is largely a fear driven response to uncanny stimuli. Director of Photography, Darius Khondji, relies on natural light to keep the production grounded, and even in the dark scenes of the shaft, one knows exactly what is happening at all times. Jason Baird’s prosthetic effects are absolutely mind-blowing, and his creation leads to several cringe-worthy scenes. Best of all is Bruce B. Smith’s nice twist and imagery that delivers a cautionary tale about curiosity, as well as self-assuredness.
In the end, desperation leads to action, and one should be grateful that of the three endings Carter Smith had shot, he chose the very best one for THE RUINS. We’re left with that element of the “other” hinting that there is more to come, and one can only imagine where that might lead.
If you are looking for a dramatic horror that offers something a bit different, THE RUINS should prove worthy. Granted, the movie is not perfect (questionable German accents, and a slow pace on occasion), but this should keep your mind churning long after the credits roll.
3.5 out of 5 stars
(Photo from Collider.)