The Ruins: Unrated Review
Perhaps it was Scott Smith and the reputation he gained from his first novel A Simple Plan and its subsequent movie adaptation or maybe I was just looking for a page turner, but upon reading Stephen King's early rave review of Smith's first book in thirteen years, The Ruins, I was hooked. Horror is not usually a genre I dip my feet into with any frequency and I probably didn't realise how brutal Smith's book would be when I began reading it. The more I read, the more upset I became - with the characters, the situations, and, especially, the author. As the ending of The Ruins in both page form and on the unrated DVD is at least somewhat similar, I won't enter specifics, but there's a definite feeling of sadomasochism at work. The reader is left wondering why he feels compelled to finish every last gruesome sentence and, likewise, why Smith felt the need to write of a world devoid of any hope or positive resolution. My ultimate reaction was an exorcism via capitalism. I sold the book immediately with the hopes of washing my hands of The Ruins.
Cut to two years later and we have the film version, which I was nevertheless eager to review. On some level, I think Smith's book is brilliant. It's impeccably written, with a narrative both involving and entirely consuming. The prospects for metaphor are abundant and murky enough to refuse at least as many theories as they might inspire. It's also compulsively readable and downright frightening. How does that translate into a film version, albeit one with a screenplay by the author? The easy answer is that it's a dumbed down attempt at horror missing most of the psychologically exhausting undertones present in the book. The longer answer follows.
The premise of The Ruins is initially a simple one. Four American college students, slightly obnoxious one and all, are vacationing in Mexico. They meet a German named Mathias whose brother went to visit an archaeological dig in the vicinity of ancient Mayan ruins. Mathias hasn't heard from his brother and plans to follow the map he was given for the ruins. The Americans, two female best friends and their boyfriends, agree to tag along on their last day in the country as a way of injecting some culture into their vacation. Once at the middle-of-nowhere ruins, things go from ominous to really damn horrible, exceptionally fast in the movie. Locals speak their own language, not Spanish or English, but Mayan, and trap them at the top of a steep hill. The students - Jeff, Amy, Eric, and Stacy - are confronted with one terrible situation after another before finally realising what it is exactly that's out to get them.
It's an exceptionally delicate line to keep this story interesting and accomplished without descending into cliched horror territory. The four main characters aren't particularly likable or sympathetic in the book, but the film, as directed by Carter Smith, makes them blank and stupid. Jeff is the self-designated leader, a pre-med student who immediately takes control of the situation and becomes the decision maker. Everyone else is just there, personalities interchangeable. There are some narrative alterations from book to film that shouldn't really be held against the latter, but they're hardly improvements. A better term might be simplifications, or methods to engage the loyal audience of horror fans who'd probably never read the novel. I'm very wary of placing too much emphasis on the film versus book since it's only the former we're really judging here. However, since Smith's book was able to successfully walk that tightrope required of this type of story, it's only natural to explore why his screenplay for the film version fails to do so.
A criticism I read frequently, initially agreeing myself, was that Smith's book was a bloated short story. If true, a film version might appear ideal. Though the suggestion that The Ruins as originally written seems better suited to a short story than a novel is a valid one, it misses the point of why Smith was able to so unnerve his readers. The fact that the strange, logic-defying happenings here occur at a deliberate pace in the book while zooming along in the film do well at illustrating why the foreboding tension experienced when reading cannot be sustained while merely watching. A short, hour and a half film, at least as conceived presently, is unable to build and build the horror found within the book. Much of the absolute terror found in this story comes from the psychological interplay between these people as they slowly, horrifically lose their minds to an indefatigable enemy.
Nature, at least in some form, turns against humankind and there's simply no equipment capable of fending it off. These vines of an unspeakable malice refuse to yield. The unfortunate aspect of the film is that, in computer-generated form, they're just not scary. What was frightening, terrifying even, on the page becomes, at best, unsettling and, at worst, a slow-moving plant. The effects sometimes look fake and the acting suffers from green screen hysterics. Some mild gore, not terribly uncomfortable even on the unrated cut of the film, fails to equal the mental images conjured by Smith. Then there are the empty characters. Horror movies have this indefensible tendency to serve up characters the viewer cares not a whit about. There's no humanism here and it's hypocritical to ask audiences to provide their own when the filmmakers typically can't be bothered to do so. It's unfortunate that The Ruins, especially in the film, has no desire to make us interested in these young men and women. I'm tempted to wonder whether the writer Smith has done this intentionally, outfitting his protagonists with sunny American names and generically vapid personalities. The casting director has certainly been abiding in this regard. On the whole, that interpretation feels too much like a stretch and is mostly unsupported by what's on screen. As it is, the viewer is left with a horror film that's not terribly horrific and an entire cast of characters who show nothing worth salvaging.
(End of spoilers)
On the less ambitious front, The Ruins is certainly never less than watchable. Scott Smith's story remains fairly compelling here via some lean pacing. If we're entering one of those "what should I watch tonight" scenarios, you could do far worse. Still, the film feels unsatisfying, and not in the memorable way of the novel. It's a minor shame that the more subversive reading, of fresh-faced, obnoxious American tourists facing the horrors of their own failure to act with some manner of caution, doesn't seem to be the primary one on the filmmakers' minds. A great deal of potential exists with that angle, but it's just never followed through in the film. The actual version plays it a little too safe and a little too bland to inspire any real enthusiasm. A slight to modest recommendation would be appropriate, with horror aficionados probably more likely to appreciate the movie's superiority in comparison to most modern efforts in the genre.
DreamWorks has released The Ruins on R1 DVD in both original theatrical and unrated editions. The latter is the disc reviewed here and appears to add about three minutes' worth of scenes proclaimed "too intense for theaters," including a slightly different ending.
The progressive transfer is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and receives high marks. Video quality is pristine with vibrant colours and excellent detail. The film was skillfully shot by Darius Khondji, whose presence offers a good deal of legitimacy to a horror picture. The natural lighting he used adds a depth of beauty that frequently contrasts with the events on screen. This makes for several very darkly lit scenes, but they are adeptly reproduced on this DVD. I chose the screenshot above to help illustrate how impressively deep the blacks are in the film and how nicely they're contrasted.
An English Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 track is, aside from the commentary, the only audio option offered. One aspect to the film's credit is that, after a couple of early attempts, it doesn't usually go for cheap scares. As such, the audio is made less important since abrupt changes in volume or music cues are rare. An atmospheric score never overpowers, but neither does it make much impact. Where The Ruins really needs an aural boost is its treatment of the almost white noise coming from nature. I'd hoped for the rear speakers to place the viewer right in the middle of that uncomfortable situation, but it doesn't really happen that way. The dedicated rear channel sounds are audible at times. They simply don't make the necessary impact. Dialogue is easily understood except when the characters speak in low, whisperlike voices, which had me reaching for the volume and even the subtitles option. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available, and they are golden yellow in colour.
A feature-length commentary by director Carter Smith and editor Jeff Betancourt makes for an informative and worthwhile listen. Betancourt starts out right away prodding Smith with questions and this immediately keeps things interesting. Since this was Smith's first feature film as director, there's also a good deal of insight into the filmmaking process that a more seasoned commentator probably wouldn't have thought to discuss. Another thing I was glad to hear were the repeated references to the book, as it eased my mind a bit that I was unfairly comparing it to the film in my review. Moreover, Smith and Betancourt come across as frequently preferring the book themselves and sounding like they were aware of dumbing it down for audiences. This idea of making a movie to please the masses doesn't entirely sit well and most of the decisions they discuss weaken the film, in my opinion.
It should also be mentioned that the commentary was most likely recorded for the theatrical cut. The alteration to the ending isn't referenced and another scene that's sexually suggestive (the reach-around, if you will, in the tent) is met by total silence. Not having watched the original version shown in cinemas, I would guess that scene was added, or at least extended, for the DVD. Other changes are presumably the more graphic or prolonged shots in the "surgical" scenes.
Three featurettes are the standard, smoke-blowing type of deal expected from new release DVD's, though they're all done a bit better than usual. "Making The Ruins" (14:23) has interviews with cast and crew, including the director and executive producer Ben Stiller. Some information from the commentary is repeated, but it's otherwise engaging. Absent here, as well as throughout the supplements, is writer Scott Smith. A piece entitled "Creeping Death" (15:04) examines in some detail the various processes involved in creating the villain of the picture. It's, again, of some interest and a little above just hearing behind the scenes people congratulate themselves. The shorter "Building The Ruins" (6:18) is a straightforward look at the film's Australian set and the stepped hill where the characters spend most of the movie.
Nearly twelve minutes of deleted scenes include a trio of sequences cut entirely plus an additional alternate ending and the one shown in theatres. These provide some strong ammunition that the character development in the final cut was botched, and I think the deletions would have actually helped the film. The deleted scenes here can be played individually or back to back, all with optional commentary once again from Smith and Betancourt except the original theatrical ending. The two commentators repeat their opinion that anything demanding the viewer's patience was excised from the film. You expect that kind of thinking from the studio suits, but not really from the ones trying to make the best movie they possibly can in terms of artistic quality. Their commentary on the alternate ending is also of interest because they seem to clearly argue against the same resolution that ends up being used in this unrated DVD. I personally found it more effective than the limp theatrical conclusion, though it's still inconsistent and unsatisfying. For those familiar with the original ending, the only difference can be seen in this screenshot, which is otherwise a spoiler.
A brief theatrical trailer for (1:15) is also included. When the dual-layered disc is first inserted, trailers for Tropic Thunder, Stop Loss, and Iron Man start up. Those same previews, plus additional ones of Drillbit Taylor, Cloverfield, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Disturbia can also be accessed from the menu as special features.
The Ruins starts off with an appropriately eerie tone, urging the viewer not to trust the brightness of its beginning while deliberately building the story. Then it hits the accelerator and ignores character development completely. Blood, gore, death, and horror replace the psychological complexities present in Scott Smith's original novel. Those looking for a horror movie with above average intelligence should seek out The Ruins, but it never transcends its genre and the filmmakers seem too concerned with pleasing the average viewer instead of raising the bar. The DVD, however, is an excellent effort, with good technical quality and pertinent extra features.