In a sense, The Ruins is analogous to a courageous expedition that doesn’t quite get where the people involved are trying to go. We can salute their fortitude, dedication and ability to get as far as they did, while still noting that they fall short of the destination.
Following a prologue where something lunges out of the dark to ensnare an already terrified woman, The Ruins introduces us to two young American couples, Amy (Jena Malone) and med student boyfriend Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Amy’s best friend Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and Stacy’s laid-back lover Eric (Shawn Ashmore). Meeting German tourist Mathias (Joe Anderson), the Yanks decide to accompany him to an ancient Mayan ruin off the beaten track, where Mathias’ brother went earlier with an archaeologist lady friend. When they arrive, the local natives – who speak neither English nor Spanish – are violently unfriendly but won’t climb the towering pyramid where our group take refuge. Something else lives there as well, which leads to an extraordinary amount of bloodshed.
The Ruins is directly comparable to several other films, but to even name them would be to give the game away. Director Carter Smith and writer Scott B. Smith, adapting his own novel, try to give a moral and emotional dimension to the material. That they succeed as well as they do is a testament both to their own conviction and to the skill of the actors. However, there are numerous obstacles. The largest obvious problem is the nature of what’s lurking in the ruins. Smith and Smith do their very best to make this scary, but despite the copious amounts of gore (we’re talking Cabin Fever/Hostel quantity), any viewer with even the slightest sense of the absurd is going to be strongly put in mind of old Star Trek and Twilight Zone episodes that were alarming in their day but now seem rather quaint and amusing. This is one of those situations where they had to make the effort to know for sure that it didn’t work.
One problem that the filmmakers could have foreseen is that apart from med student Jeff, none of the characters seem to have external/prior lives, and for the first portion, Amy and Stacy are both on the hysterical side. This is not the fault of the excellent Malone and the very game Ramsey, but we start to wonder at their sanity long before it seems we’re meant to think they’re being driven to the brink by their straits. We certainly understand why they – and the guys, for that matter – want to get off the pyramid, but it’s impossible to fathom why they don’t take the mundane but immediately lethal danger on the ground more seriously.
Tucker gives a committed performance as the one character with some frame of reference for his actions and Ashmore does well with Eric’s transition from carefree to horrified. Anderson is highly expressive (though his accent sounds a bit strained at times).
The flesh-and-blood effects are gruesomely persuasive, but the supernatural ones, while providing creepy visuals, also are dangerously comic in concept. This aspect of the movie, along with its reliance on bloodletting rather than suspense or jolts, ultimately mars The Ruins enough to deter many theatre-exploring tourists to venture within.