By Leo Goldsmith
Dir. Carter Smith / USA / DreamWorks
Fans of the cinematographer Darius Khondji are having a bit of a busy week, with the opening of two new, albeit distinct, films captured through his masterful lens. Wong Kar-wai's sickly sweet tourist film, My Blueberry Nights, and Carter Smith's sick-inducing film about tourists, The Ruins, are each the work of the erstwhile cameraman of choice for Fincher and Jeunet-Caro, though one can scarcely imagine two more divergent films. Of course, world-class DP aside, there's not much that unites them: the former is a loose collection of episodes about lovelorn twentysomethings in search of America, while the latter is a one-note survivalist horror film about horny college kids in search of the way back home. Indeed, at first glance, these two would hardly even seem the work of the same cameraman: Wong's film is shot with the restrained palette of a Texas whorehouse, while The Ruins looks as gray as a skeleton baking in the Mexican desert sun. The only common theme to be derived from the two films is one that's obvious and fashionable everywhere these days: a vaguely condescending attitude toward Americans. But at least in Smith's film the culturally insensitive gringos get the chance to redeem their more selfish habits, while Wong's itinerant Yanks only have their insatiable Western appetites for drinking, gambling, and pie-eating rewarded with a gooey Hollywood ending.
Gooeyness is to be found everywhere in The Ruins, and it's more or less the one thing this film gets right. But first, there's a dispensable set-up: two young, rich-ish American couples on a Cancun getaway decide to while away a few hours between hangover and Make-Your-Own-Taco Night by following a fellow foreigner from Germany and his seemingly mute Greek pal on a jaunt to some local Mayan ruins. (See how quickly you can guess who dies first.) But these are no ordinary ruins: these are secret, "VIP-only" ruins, and only Europeans know how to get there. So, armed with the German's "vorld-phone" and despite the warnings of a local taxi driver (who's fortunately unscrupulous enough to be hushed with a few pesos), the sightseers soon arrive at a big temple covered in mysterious ivy. With a quick splatter of brains and some girly screaming, our protagonists are inauspiciously surrounded and trapped atop the ruins by a tribe of toothless, corn-eating Mayans who don't even comprende dinero.
Led by the loutish Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), a poor man's Christian Bale who is (luckily or unluckily) also a know-it-all med school student, the group begins to enact a boy scout guidebook’s worth of survival efforts—hoarding water, keeping wounds clean, chasing after cell-phones down dark holes—most of which lead not unpredictably to bone-crunching, blood-gushing catastrophe. Backs are broken and then (rather comically) re-broken, legs are amputated, and all the while the menacing, if plastic-looking ivy begins to spread, taking a particular interest in open wounds and eventually—when all hope for the humans seems lost—giggling.
This truculent trumpet creeper ultimately proves The Ruins’ undoing as well as the protagonists’, as there are few real jolts to propel the film along. It occasionally reaches out to snag a corpse or to propagate eel-like shoots in their bodies, but in all cases it resembles nothing more believable than your garden-variety plastic cubicle decoration. Nor do the location or special effects help much: wide shots of the ruinous temple and its environs (actually New Zealand, but it all looks more like central California) employ a mosaic of computerized blobs to represent the creeper's deadly, all-consuming growth. Duller still, once atop the temple, the movie simply languishes, dying along with its characters, with only a single, cheap-looking variation on this one set and not a lot of activity to pass the time.
One imagines that the filmmakers (including Ben Stiller as executive producer) were desperately trying to inject some creative flair into the movie by employing Khondji, but I dare say they didn't get their money's worth. And with college tuition payments and the economy in the toilet, who can blame poor Darius for slumming it (if not actually trying very hard) in B-horror between prestige projects? It's certainly no concern to the moviegoing public who, when wandering into the multiplex jungle in search of cheap thrills, will no doubt ignore the desperate pleadings of well-meaning movie critics who mean to ward them off such dangers. But listen to this movie critic snob, guys: The Ruins is so bereft of creativity that it fails even to deliver to its base—teenage boys—the ghouls and boobs they so desperately want to see. There's exactly one scene involving a naked woman and some moisturizer, and it's just not worth missing Make-Your-Own-Taco Night for.