College student Amy (Jena Malone), her boyfriend Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), Eric (Shawn Ashmore), and his girlfriend Stacy (Laura Ramsey) are on vacation in Mexico when they meet friendly Mathias (Joe Anderson), who invites them to join him on a trip to a Mayan temple that his brother is exploring. Once there, they discover the Mayan locals don’t cotton to visitors. Thanks to Amy touching temple vegetation, which is forbidden, the Mayans won’t let them leave. Between their captors, subsequent injuries, and the deadly plants that inhabit the ruins, their chances for survival dwindle fast.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t pause here in my 2020 edit and note that while the movie is wrenching and the characters are sympathetic, it’s still premised on the idea of white American tourists being menaced by sinister, primitive villagers, which is something I should have at least acknowledged–not sure why I didn’t. While it’s established that the captors are supposed to be Mayans and not just typical Mexican citizens, it’s still a bit cringe-worthy. Gah look at these assholes!
There are many parts of the movie that just seem silly, for example when Stacy is being lowered down a well to fetch Mathias, who has broken his back. She falls a couple of feet and cries “I cut my knee!” Stacy’s level of dismay over a minor injury compared to Mathias’s seemed ludicrous, and I laughed aloud the first time I saw it. I was quite disappointed on that viewing, but the movie stayed in my head and planted roots. I read the book, appreciated the movie more, and actually bought it when it came to video, as one did in 2008. After subsequent viewings, I came to love it. It’s gory, disturbing, and haunting. A scene that stays with me is when Stacy, who’s a bit barmy after having a plant growing inside her, pleads, “Why won’t you look at me?”
There are dozens of changes between the novel and film, not the least of which is killing off Pablo (Dimitri in the movie) early and placing the misfortunes that later befall him onto Mathias. The choice makes sense; Pablo is a throwaway character, and Mathias, while important, is never really on the same level of attachment for the reader as the four main characters—he doesn’t even get a narrative from his point of view. Though in the movie the characters are less complex and interesting, they are also far more likable. Jeff is less grumpy and contemptuous, Stacy is less whiny, Eric is less erratic, Amy is less cowardly, and Mathias is less cold and robotic. Although the novel does a better job of making the concept of sentient, mimicking plants seem not asinine but creepy, the film takes the plants’ intelligence to less of an extreme—they don’t create phantom smells or speak German.
I also appreciate how less time in the movie is spent focusing on the lack of food and water; they don’t have to contemplate preserving a corpse with urine so they can eat it. The book and the screenplay were both written by Scott Smith, and they can be taken well as a set—check them out if you‘re in the mood for something highly charged and devastating.