Screenwriting gurus Syd Fields or Robert McKee will tell you that you need ten solid scenes to make a movie work, and the rest just needs to stay out of the way. If "The Ruins" has ten such scenes, there certainly isn't much else. The film, directed by former fashion photographer Carter Smith, breezes by, feigning at both character and plot without bothering to develop much of either.
The story centers on a pair of couples—Amy and boyfriend Jeff, and Stacy and Eric—on vacation in Mexico. In effort to make the most of their experience the group decides to venture to an archaeological dig to retrieve the brother of a young German they befriended at the hotel pool. In short order, the group is trudging through the jungle, eventually arriving at a scenic Mayan pyramid. Only the locals from the nearby town don't roll out the red carpet. Instead, once Amy makes contact with some of the vines that have grown over the structure, the young, idealistic Americans are forced to ascend or be shot by the incomprehensible and violent locals.
Trapped on the top of the ruins, the group immediately finds itself in a struggle to survive. So quickly does this setup fly by that there's little time for the characters to develop before they are thrust into a high-pressure situation. The characters take on stock rolls: Jeff, the leader; Amy, the whiner; Eric, possessing rash bravado; Stacy, the flighty one. Taking off from there, the survivors are forced to react like the cornered animals they are as the ruins' vines reveal themselves to be a carnivorous horde.
The scenic Mayan ruins, shrouded with a monstrous plant, should have served as an ideal location for the unfolding of a horror film. Smith though, tosses this fertile ground to the side and chooses to focus "The Ruins" on a handful of gory set pieces. The most graphic of these, an anesthesia free double amputation, shocks, but like the rest of the film, never truly grabs. The primary actors, Jenna Malone the most recognizable of the bunch, never get much to do other than cower, cry, and eventually die.
"The Ruins" drama, when it works, is drawn not so much from the threat of the vines—although that is ever-present—but from the threats that the characters present to one another. In a situation previously unimagined by these coddled American college students hard decisions become even harder. Agreement among the group is rare, and when it comes it's usually from conciliations that will come back to stir the pot. The film never truly allows these relationships to breathe though
At the outset there's much that might lead one to think that "The Ruins" will be a nice little ride. It all spins out of control quickly though as the film is never really allowed to breathe. Capably acted by the four pretty faces, "The Ruins" could have delved deeper into the relationships of these characters as they are played against one another. It all feels abbreviated though, perhaps due to the high-concept nature of the plot or perhaps that's just a tell-tale sign of filmmaking by Hollywood committee. One never gets a sense that the film had a creative vision. Of course that shouldn't come as much of a surprise: like the Mayan ruins littered with bones of past victims, history is littered with movies that could have been if not ruined by the slow strangulation of groupthink.