For a movie about the children of white yuppies who venture into the big, bad Mexican jungle only to be trapped by violent Mayans, “The Ruins” is a surprisingly polished and effective movie, if not a very good one. Based on the novel by Scott B. Smith – whose debut, “A Simple Plan,” was adapted into one of the best American thrillers of recent years – the movie marries the recently popular genre of rich white people terrorized while on daddy-funded vacations and the classic setup of survival fiction, where it’s only a matter of time before a once tight-knit group lashes out at each other.
The combo makes for a pleasingly nasty concoction, at least until the movie reveals its secret, an inert evil nearly as dull as the film’s humans. The film opens as a pair of well-off young couples (a crowd of familiar B-list faces including Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore and Laura Ramsey) splash around a Mexican beach for the last few days before they head off to grad school. Sun-kissed and barely ever dressed, the smiley Americans get a casual invitation by a German tourist (Joe Anderson, “Across the Universe”) to spice up their trip with a wade through the jungle to some old, uncharted ruins.
Of course, they take the offer, and the movie wastes no time from there: there are the customary ominous signs until a stunning sequence of graphic violence leaves the group trapped in the ruins. It’s the most frightening moment in the movie, if only because it has the ability to surprise, which the rest of the film does not. It collects a familiar clan of vapid, tequila-slugging tourists who each fill comfortable stereotypes of college grads, only vaguely bright enough to be believable. Even when first-time feature director Carter Smith deftly limits the gore to a few ultra-violent moments in favor of psychological suspense, the stakes are never very high because it seems pretty clear the characters are in a hopeless dilemma. They spend most of their time pointlessly trying to help the injured when it’s clear they will be the first to go, and while the movie is not reluctant to shock with amputated limbs and dead little kids, there’s a point at which its horrors lack the dramatic impetus to compel us to care.
And especially once that implacable horror hidden in the ruins becomes clearer at the film’s midsection, the dramatic stakes are quashed. There is a crafty, flesh-hungry vine that inhabits the site, and the riotous natives who will not allow the Americans to leave once they’ve set foot on the site have good reason. Why a good flash fire couldn’t take out the apparently ancient threat is beyond me, but it does seem clear that Smith, who adapted the screenplay from his own book, thinks his monsters are less important than the way the human characters turn on each other.
To be blunt, he’s wrong. The film’s appeal of claustrophobic terror and the defeat of Yankee privilege (“This does not happen to Americans!” a character declares) works well to a point, but these people simply aren’t dynamic enough to have their violent downfall be the movie’s lone selling point. As at least cinematographer Darius Khondji (who has served under Wong Kar Wai and David Fincher) seems to understand, the locale is half the appeal, but for the most part the camera just sits idly on the actors and doesn’t bother to explore the creatures that want to eat them. Unsettling though it is, “The Ruins” mistakes a premise for a movie. For a horror film that wants to be taken seriously, that’s tough to overcome.