Not entirely unlike the remains the vegetal baddie of The Ruins leaves behind, the film version of Scott Smith's sophomore novel is stripped to the bare bones. Compressing Scott Smith's 300+ page book into in a nimble 91 minutes, director Carter Smith (no relation) pares the novel down to its most basic moving parts. The results are mostly postitive. The film takes the often dreadful, dwindling feeling of the novel and tightens it into a more muscular and propulsive tension. This is, I think, a good move: the screen usually demands tighter storytelling. The cost, however, comes at the characterizations of our protagonists, whose personalities and conflicts are flattened for the sake of dramatic efficiency.
The plot, for those familiar with novel, remains pretty much the same. Four young Americans partaking are busy drinking, dancing, sunning, and puking their way through a Mexican resort vacation. There's Jeff, the Responsible One, who horror fans might recognize as one of the teens/meat sources from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. Jeff's dating the boozy and flirty Amy, who played Donnie's love interest in Donnie Darko. They're traveling with ex-X-man Iceman, here known as Eric, and his Stacey, who appeared as herself in, of all things, The Real Cancun, the MTV produced Spring Break trash-umentary that would have been greatly improved by the presence of a man-eating plant. These four victims to be fall in with a German tourist and a trio of wacky Greeks. The German is named Mathias while the Greeks are totally unintelligible and remain unnamed, but this hardly matters as the Greeks' chief interests seem to be drinking heroically, wildly flailing about in a wacky manner, and shouting "Whoooooooo!" a lot.
For their last day, the named protagonists and one of the Greeks (it doesn't matter which) decide to trek into the jungle to check out an archeological dig that Mathais' brother is supposedly working. On arriving at the ruins, a single stair step pyramid covered in vines, the tourists are quickly surrounded by locals armed with bows and firearms. These locals are determined to keep our hapless hikers at the site. They're so determined, in fact, that they kill the nameless Greek when he attempts to approach one of them. Trapped on top of the pyramid, our soon-to-be-fertilizer learns the grim secret of the ruins. The decaying structure is home to a sinister meat-eating plant species. From this point, things go from "downhill" to "shear cliff-face" and we watch as the heroes have what must surely rate as one of the single worst vacation experiences of all time.
There are a few key differences in the plot: the character list gets whittled down faster, the vine is somewhat "depowered" (no acidic sap and its powers of sonic mimicry are scaled back a bit), the story unfolds over the course of fewer days, some of the escape attempts that appear in the book are dropped entirely, and, perhaps most importantly, the film has a very different ending. The tone is shifted too. In the book, personality clashes between the four main protagonists - five really, Mathias is more important in the novel - are crucial to the story. In the movie, these get reduced to a couple off dramatic screaming matches that come and go without really impacting the film's direction. This is for the best. The characterization and tangents Smith could use to build his cast of characters would have bogged the movie down. Instead of being a strange parable of the failure of people to work together (shades of Smith's first novel, A Simple Plan), the film becomes a pretty straightforward struggle for survival.
Like the book, the tension the film builds is not one of sudden "jump-out" scares (though there are a couple of those). Instead, the film's suspense comes from a steady ratcheting up of the hopelessness of our protagonists' situation. This is less about thrills than a steady sinking feeling. This doesn't mean the flick isn't without its gory moments. Two surgical scenes, one well-meaning but conducted under nearly Neolithic conditions and the other more crazy and self-inflicted, stand out at the high or low points in this, depending on your point of view. The plant looks good – the combo of puppets and CGI go a long way to making the most outrageous aspect of the flick believable enough to be enjoyed without feeling stupid. The acting on the part of our four main characters is solid. Because this is almost a stage piece, with a majority of the action taking place on a tiny little chunk of the pyramid's roof, the actors all had to carry a considerable portion of the film. All of them did a good job.
The Ruins is a smart, effective, and mostly entertaining adaptation of a deceptively simple novel. Less a dumbed-down version of the original than a distilled version, the film is an original standout creature feature in a year that looks like it will otherwise be dominated by limp, half-hearted slasher remakes and retreads.
Now, just so you get the full story, here's a really hilarious review that thought the movie really sucked – and it acts the film out with figurines in the blogger's garden (sort of garden, I guess – she lives on a Christmas tree farm, no foolin' – perahaps her blatantly pro-vegetation lifestyle is at the root, so to speak, of her The Ruins hate, but that's just unfounded speculation on my part). It's darned funny, but the reenactment does give away the end, so you've been officially spoiler notified. Don't bring your bitchin' and moanin' to me, 'cause I won't give a hoot.