The Ruins

ruinsThe trick to writing unpleasant, selfish, nasty or self-serving characters is (if you want the audience to give a damn): they have to be human. It’s easy to say that if you make them selfish, that’s all the characterization they need. For a character to seem real and not just jerked around by the author at the service of a plot, all action – good, bad, douchey, angelic – requires internal motivation. A dick isn’t more interesting to a discerning audience than a saint, if the dick is just a trait and the saint is a character.

What sinks The Ruins, an intermittently frightening and often disgusting but never very good horror film, is that the characters, bastardly and not, are semi-nothings. They engage in less stupidity and ugly behavior in the film than they do in Scott B. Smith’s tense novel (Smith also wrote the screenplay), but when they are stupid here, it seems like stupid movie behavior, not the product of American entitlement or the impetuous indestructibility of youth.

Two American couples (the girls are friends, the boys are the girls’ boyfriends who don’t particularly like each other) follow a German and a Greek to visit some old ruins, looking for the German’s brother. The ruins aren’t in the guidebooks, the taxis don’t want to go there, and when they arrive, the Mayan natives are spooky and spooked. Our intrepid adventurers and their whiny women soldier on, unconcerned, until they reach the pyramid: ugly, dusty, and covered with strange red flowers.

When they climb the pyramid, the natives won’t let them leave. They surround it, armed with bows and guns; they kill the Greek and are ready to kill anyone else. From here the novel proceeds with a terrible, implacable logic as the protagonists try to find some way to survive when they have more booze than water, have to spend their days on top of the pyramid in the blazing Mexican sun, and have a unique monster that lives off the ruins stalking them.

A smattering of story sense tells you that, barring an axe-wielding maniac or something equally dull (and the monster in The Ruins is imaginative), group dynamics are going to be the meat we feed on. This is true in the book, too, but here the tension between personalities is given short shrift. They aren’t replaced by a deeper look at the visual-physical aspects of being stuck in the sun, running out of water, trying (disastrously) to explore one small part of the ruins.

A number of plot points are hit: The German, climbing down into the ruins, falls and breaks his legs. One of the Americans is wounded, the blood feeding the ruin’s aggressive fauna. Most of what happens in the book, and is horrible, happens in the movie. But here it just happens. These are dull people in a fascinating situation, which the film does not exploit.

In John Carpenter’s The Thing, men are defined by their tasks. But they are scientists or military men, in a situation where focus on anything but their tasks would mean death. The victims in The Ruins are just as isolated, but they do not have a camp or jobs to define them. They need to be people, and here they ain’t.

About Kent Conrad

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