Sunday, April 20, 2008

WIBW @ The Movies: THE RUINS

The Plot: Two young couples on vacation in Mexico decide to accompany a young man in search of his brother on a day trip to an archeological dig somewhere in the nearby jungle. When they arrive at the site of the excavation they find themselves surrounded by locals armed with guns and bows who refuse to let them leave. Cut off from society and with little hope of rescue, the small group of twenty-somethings have to figure out how to survive, how to escape, and perhaps most importantly, why they're being detained.

The Review: Let me apologize in advance for the vagueness of this review. The Ruins is one of those films that, if you don't know what to expect, could be completely ruined for you by one slip-up from a careless reviewer. I always try to refrain from giving away spoilers, but I'll be taking extra care not to do so in the case of this film.

I read the novel of the same name upon which this movie is based not long before the film's release. The Ruins is the second book, and coincidentally the second screenplay, from writer Scott Smith, who also penned the text and screen versions of Sam Raimi's film A Simple Plan. These two stories are far removed from one another content-wise, but rather similar in tone which, if you've had the pleasure of seeing A Simple Plan, should clue you into how tense a thriller The Ruins is. As I mentioned above, I won't be giving away any spoilers, which means that I can't really talk about any of the events of the last hour or so of the film in any great detail. To compensate for this fact, I can only tell you that I absolutely loved the novel and that the film surprisingly lived up to the high expectations set by it.

For a science fiction/horror aficionado such as myself, The Ruins was a breath of fresh air among the standard horror films being released these days. I am, of course, speaking of what have been dubbed "torture porn" movies. In many ways, the characters in The Ruins are put through some rather torturous situations, but that and the beautiful young cast are about the only things that this film has in common with the rest of the horror fodder that has been coming out as of late. Speaking of which, though the cast is comprised of several attractive, up and coming young actors and actresses, they truly manage to come off as real people instead of the cookie-cutter hapless victims that the horror genre usually provides. This is a testament to the abilities of the stars of The Ruins, but also to the expert realistic character development skills of writer Scott Smith. One of the elements of this film which allows it to succeed so well is that each of the four main characters represents a different way of looking at every outrageous decision and situation that the group finds itself faced with. In this way, I can easily envision four different types of viewers each agreeing with and getting behind the opinions of a different character from the film, which isn't, in my opinion, something that can be said about a whole lot of movies.

The Ruins doesn't rely heavily on shock value to achieve it's mood, but rather on a constant sense of desperation and dread provided by the situation that it's characters have happened into. Tonally, as far as horror films are concerned, I would relate it to John Carpenter's The Thing, the original Alien film directed by Ridley Scott, or last year's Stephen King adaptation The Mist. Like all of those films The Ruins deals with a small group of people suddenly thrust into a situation that they are unfamiliar and, in many ways, unable to cope with. The drama that plays out between the characters is just as, if not more important than the events going on around them which are causing said drama. This is not to say that there aren't instances when the dire situation takes over and causes very real problems for the protagonists, but since there is such a heavy reliance on character development and relationships, when something directly puts them in danger, the impact is greater that it would be if the tension wasn't kept so high by the constant character-driven drama.

While I greatly enjoyed the experience of discovering the progression of events in the story of The Ruins while reading the book, I can't help but wonder how I would have viewed the movie if I'd seen it first. In fact, the few problems that I had with the film were probably all based upon my having read and become familiar with the story beforehand. For example, the ending, for reasons which I cannot/will not go into, left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Thinking about the story logically, the way that the film ends feels slightly flawed and less impacting than that of the novel. Also, the very beginning of the film felt a little cliche as though it was added in as an afterthought to make the film more approachable by everyday audiences. Aside from those few (what I would consider) errors in The Ruins, the rest of my qualms lie with the running time of the film. I have no preconceived opinions about how long any film should be, but while watching The Ruins I couldn't help but feel as though a few good opportunities for character development and/or otherwise unexplored plot points were missed out on. Again though, I probably would have felt differently about these matters had I not previously read the book upon which The Ruins was based.

The Verdict: While I do prefer Scott Smith's novel to this film in a few ways, The Ruins probably came about as close to equaling the quality of a widely praised book as is possible for a Hollywood adaptation. The characters were 100% believable, the tone of the film was perfect for the subject matter, and the story was engrossing in a way that that of few sci-fi/horror films are. If you're in the market for a blood and guts extravaganza you're better off looking elsewhere, but if you'd like to scare yourself with an intelligent concept that holds some weight, The Ruins is the movie for you.

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