A satisfyingly gruesome but brutally abbreviated version of author Scott B. Smith's epic downer of a novel, the feature-film version of The Ruins feels like someone blasted through the book with a highlighter in order to assemble the screenplay, and in their haste just happened to overlook some of the most interesting and disturbing details therein. Of course, a quick glance at the running time will be enough to let any fan of the 528-page novel know that the filmmakers aren't exactly striving to craft a direct translation of the written word -- despite the fact that the same man responsible for the novel penned the screenplay -- so those who are prepared for something a bit different from the onset may ultimately end up enjoying the film despite its clearly botched, over-test-marketed ending. The setup here is as simple as it is in the book: a group of American twentysomethings are vacationing in Mexico when they meet up with a German tourist whose brother has gone missing after running off to explore an uncharted Mayan temple. Since it's the final day of their vacation, the Americans agree to join their new friend on what was supposed to be a simple day trip to the nearby temple. Upon arriving at their destination, however, it quickly becomes apparent that forces beyond their comprehension are at work, and that any hope for escape becomes less likely with each passing minute.
The Ruins flows well, features solid performances by all the leads, delivers the goods in terms of gore, and successfully maintains the building dread and dying hope that made the original novel such a success -- especially in the early scenes when the group first arrives at their destination. Darius Khondji's handsome photography serves well to emphasize the sun-soaked menace of the otherwise scenic Mexican landscape, and the special effects used to create the film's primary terror are effective both when the threat is still external, and after it ultimately becomes internal. As with any film adaptation of a popular novel, there will be fans who lament the more intriguing aspects of the story that didn't make it into the movie. Many of these arguments will be justified; perhaps in a different era the studio producing the film would have been willing to take a few more risks and see this downbeat tale through to its logical conclusion (as the book did). Given the detailed setup, the revised ending just doesn't make any sense. For the purists, this Cliffs Notes version of the novel delivers enough satisfying thrills and chills to fill a solid 90 minutes; for everyone else, it'll just have to make do until some brave soul attempts a more faithful -- and utterly depressing -- miniseries somewhere down the line.