Synopsis: A leisurely Mexican holiday takes a turn when friends embark on a remote archaeological dig in the jungle, where something evil lives among the ruins.
Stars: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey, Joe Anderson
Director: Carter Smith
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: When a novel reads like a good movie, you start to picture what it will be like as you flip the pages. The characters turn into A-list stars, and the chapters take on a scene-like structure, which becomes more focused as the plot develops. How would this twist be revealed, you ask yourself. Will they actually show that on the big screen, you muse? Building up these expectations can only set the inevitable adaptation to a high bar that it won’t always reach, and it’s why you often hear “the book was better” as audiences exit a theater while they toss their popcorn in the garbage.
Author Scott Smith’s first work, A Simple Plan, was published in 1993 and brought to the screen by director Sam Raimi in 1998. With Smith handling the screenplay adaptation (getting an Oscar nomination for his efforts) and the movie receiving strong critical and audience support, in the eyes of Hollywood, it was a no-brainer to greenlight whatever Smith had coming up the pipeline. In fact, the film rights to Smith’s sophomore novel The Ruins were sold to producer Ben Stiller and Dreamworks before it was even finished. When it became a bestseller after its release in 2006, the chapter-less novel was moved into production with Smith handling the adaptation and a first-time director, Carter Smith, behind the camera.
Smith sets his horror show in Yucatán, Mexico, finding four friends in the final days of a vacation where they haven’t done much but drink and relax poolside. The two couples are at different stages in their relationship. Jeff (Jonathan Tucker, Monsterland) and Amy (Jena Malone, Consecration) are working through growing pains that come with lives diverging and needs changing. Conversely, Amy’s best friend Stacy (Laura Ramsey, No One Lives) and her boyfriend Eric (Shawn Ashmore, X-Men: Days of Future Past) are taking notes on the rocky road Jeff and Amy have traveled, vowing never to take that same route, keeping things light and fun.
These bonds are tested when they meet Mathias (Joe Anderson, The Reckoning), a German tourist whose brother hasn’t returned from hiking to a Mayan excavation site deep in the jungle. He’s venturing there tomorrow and asks the couples if they want to join him. Desperate for some time away from the pool, a few are easily swayed past the obvious red flags this raises, eventually convincing others to join. When they reach where Mathias’s brother should be, they find nothing except the remains of a Mayan temple covered with a flowering vine…and angry locals who don’t want them to leave. Trapped in the mysterious ruins to escape the locals, they eventually realize they may have been better off taking their chances to run back to civilization.
The Ruins received a critical drubbing when it first came out and was not a massive success at the box office. It essentially stalled the feature film career of its director for a decade, and Smith hasn’t written a novel since, nor has his work in the film industry continued with verve, though he did create the short-lived 2022 series The Peripheral for Prime Video. I vaguely remember seeing it when it came out on video. Still, I wanted to view it again recently after being reminded of its existence through two Carter Smith directing gigs, Swallowed and The Passenger, released this past year.
Time does heal everything because watching The Ruins now provides a nifty film treat. It’s slick entertainment that’s efficient in its storytelling (with its express-train beginning, maybe a bit too much) and delivers on its genre promise to frighten. It takes an ordinary and relatable situation and turns it into a nightmare we could imagine being stuck in. Smith’s novel is a breathless read, and I wholly recommend it, but he’s been smart when moving it to the screen by shifting its characters around, smoothing out some of the book’s more mystical qualities that wouldn’t have been possible to show on screen.
The four central performances are critical to the lasting success of The Ruins (Brit Anderson’s iffy German accent nixes him from the rest of this paragraph), and each actor contributes here. Ashmore is the level-headed center of the group, always keeping an eye on reality when a more dominant presence like Tucker can sway the foursome into making decisions that could have consequences. Giving off some Renée Zellweger vibes, Ramsay has to endure the most heinous of the body horror elements present in the freaky ruins with vines that have a life of their own, and she manages to do it all without overplaying high drama. Acting since she was a child, Malone was transitioning to more adult work, and her experience shows as she grows from a meeker contributor to a strong-willed survivor at all costs.
It’s nice to return to these genre films from the mid-to-late 2000s when the market was saturated with similar entertainment, and audiences would quickly write off projects that might have warranted special consideration. The Ruins is one of those movies that has benefited from a little space and works nicely as a 95-minute shocker…especially if you are unprepared for what it’s really about. I’ve kept most of its secrets out of my review, so go ahead and trek to The Ruins. I think it will grow on you.