The Ruins

David Swindle
Grade: B+

It does not mean the game is over just because you lose your queen.

One of the bright spots of my work day is when I get to play chess with my co-workers while we're on one of our breaks. And all too often as soon as they make a mistake or lose a valuable piece they immediately declare "Oh no! It's over! I've lost this game."

And my response is usually some variation on the same theme: "Hey, you're still alive. Who knows what could happen? You think you've made a mistake? Who knows what worse mistakes I might make later. You could still win this."

No matter how bleak the situation might be, as long as you're breathing there's some chance you might triumph. Even if the enemy is very sophisticated and you're at an extreme disadvantage, you keep fighting and keep pushing until all hope is exhausted.

That idea is at the core of "The Ruins," a horror-thriller that stands a step above most of its peers. Survival is a pretty key theme in most horror films. Gruesome death is staring right at you and you do just about anything to overcome it. Most horror films don't really do very much with the potential that these concepts possess. They're more interested in the cheap, easy thrills of just throwing some sex and gore up on the screen - and for the most part that's all that horror audiences are expected to want. Hence the bad reputation for the genre as a whole.

"The Ruins," though, goes places and does things that your average hard R horror movie does not. It also avoids several of the common pitfalls that plague most films of its kind. The protagonists are two college-age, American couples (played by Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, and Laura Ramsey) vacationing in Cancun. So far their trip has been pretty laid back - mainly just drinking and partying around the pool and beaches. When they meet Mathias (Joe Anderson,) a young German tourist with information about an archaeological dig at an obscure Mayan temple, the group decides to take in a little culture before the end of their trip.

The ruins are rather difficult to reach. They're not listed in guidebooks and the group has to hike through the jungle. Once it arrives the group is certainly impressed by the large pyramid-like temple they find covered in vines. It's then that things start to go downhill when they're confronted by several armed, modern-day Mayans who start yelling at them in a language they can't understand. When the Mayans kill one of Mathias' friends the group flees, retreating to the top of the ruins. There the Mayans choose not to follow, instead deciding to set up camp and surround the ruins to prevent the tourists from leaving. So Mathias and the four Americans are trapped on top of this mysterious pyramid.

And unfortunately that's all that can really be said about the plot, lest important details and surprises be given away. The nature of the threat, just why the Mayans are willing to kill to protect the ruins, and the terrors the group must go through are all best left in some degree of mystery, to be discovered by the viewer.

One of the common horror failings that "The Ruins" manages to overcome is one that fans have generally come to accept and tolerate: the characters in these movies are idiots. Ever since the hardcore horror genre came alive in the late '70s and early '80s, its protagonists have generally been doing really stupid things that cause themselves to die. Sometimes it's almost as though they deserve what they get! And if they're not stupid then they're just horrible people. They're cruel, shallow, selfish, way too into sex and drugs... the list goes on.

With "The Ruins" the characters really do not do anything wrong. And they're all half-way decent people. The girls are not overly-promiscuous emotional wrecks, the guys aren't arrogant, beer-guzzling jerks. They don't really do anything to deserve what happens to them and once they're in the situation the decisions that they make are actually based in reality. It's just such a breath of fresh air to have one of these horror movies and not have some offensive stereotype "jock" or "frat boy" type who continually says and does one dumb thing after the other.

So because of this, it's much easier to get into the film and to live vicariously through it. It's easier to put yourself into the situation and empathize with the characters' plight.

What that means is that "The Ruins" is an actual movie. It acts and succeeds as a film instead of just a collection of creative, entertaining, violent, torture scenes. This very clearly sets it apart from the so-called "horror porn" films that work primarily on a more base, visceral level. Most of the rather extreme violence of "The Ruins" is much more justified and well done than in other horror films. It's used effectively and appropriately.

All these successes do not mean the film is not without its problems - relatively minor and tolerable ones. The film is fairly weak and dead until the group gets to the ruins. It's generic and does little to distinguish its characters and draw us in. There are some conflicts and bits of drama set up between the four American characters but none of it is really as thoroughly mined as it could have been. That's OK, though. There's still enough going on and the film works well enough that it's really the difference between a great film and a pretty good one. (Hence the B+ instead of the A.)

And because the film does such a good job of setting itself apart from the failings of the horror genre, there's something lurking in the background that's always very important for a survival picture to work as effectively as it must: no guarantee that the characters will live. Throughout "The Ruins" it was very clear that it was possible that all the characters would die. Whether or not they'll manage a stalemate, checkmate their all-too-talented opponent, or just surrender and topple over their king is a question "The Ruins" leaves open until its tense conclusion.