The Uncharted franchise is known for already being a love letter to films of the globe-trotting adventure genre, so how could this have gone wrong? When faced with the question of why a film adaptation of a video game exists in 2022, the reasons become disappointingly simple. Where, early on, there were limited ways to envision games through sounds and chiptune music, and films could fully realize them beyond their own medium, we’ve reached a point where the lines of both have begun to blur. Now, much like adapting anime to live action, one of the very few reasons to do so with known video game properties is to expand the brand to a non-game playing audience.
The resulting film of such an effort on Sony’s part is an over baked, overwritten studio production that fails to capture the soul of both the fifteen year legacy of one of modern gaming’s most iconic main characters, as well as being a disservice to the Hollywood films that inspired that franchise in the first place. It is a movie that sure does look and sound like Uncharted on its surface, but that’s because, through a bad game of telephone, we’re seeing a watered down interpretation of what Naughty Dog was trying to achieve in their game series. The games made their claim to fame by being loving homages to Indiana Jones, but with bigger set pieces, parkour and the novelty of player engagement, and all through the lens of pushing the limits of what a PlayStation console could do at the time.
When players gawk at the visual design and graphical fidelity of a game like Uncharted 4 upon its release, it’s the same sensation people felt with each latest Christopher Nolan or James Cameron film. While watching Nathan Drake fumble about, crack jokes, shoot large men in leather coats and scrounge for treasure is fun, An Uncharted story is always carried by the massive weight of Naughty Dog’s developers pushing the limits of technical spectacle with the results being comparable to watching IMAX from the comfort of your sofa.
The Uncharted movie, however, does none of this.
There is a rich history of good character work that the games’ directors Amy Hennig and Niel Druckman built. The film attempts to draw from the well, steering this ten year vessel of development hell towards a focus away from inventive spectacle and instead on an origin story arc for Tom Holland’s Nathan Drake. Screenwriters Matt Holloway, Arm Macum (Transformers The Last Knight, Men In Black International) and Rafe Judkins (Amazon’s Wheel of Time) try to endear the audience to Nathan through setting up a backstory with his lost brother Sam, learning the harsh world of thieving from Mark Whalberg’s passionless interpretation of Victor Sullivan, and discerning whether to trust peers in the treasure hunters world like Sofa Ali (The Wilds) as fan favorite character Chloe Frazer.
While Tom Holland initially seems a bit young for the part, leaning into his wanting to reconnect with his older brother after going missing for ten years is a simple enough character motivation to drive the audience through this journey to finish their wide eyed dream of hunting for the treasure of Ferdinand Magellan’s crew across the globe. However, the film also gets caught in a quest to keep audiences on their toes, putting Nathan on a path of learning never to trust anyone when working in a thief’s line of work. While interesting on paper, it keeps internal conflict so face-forward between our main characters that it drags down the pacing of the film, with a few too many twists contributing to an exhaustive runtime even though it clocks in under two hours.
Casting Mark Wahlberg in the film might make sense on a marketing meeting, but in order for a young actor like Tom Holland to work as a co-lead with an older mentor like he did with Robert Downey Jr, you need a character actor with more natural comradery with Holland to really sell the dynamic of treasure thieving partners, but what is on screen is more stilted even some clunky game cutscene animations. A character like Victor Sullivan was based on the likes of Bruce Campbell and Burt Reynolds, and while Mark Wahlberg can banter, having him mentor Tom Holland feels like taking Jason Bateman and making him co-lead as two leads in a straight man role. It’s hard to say whether it was purely miscasting or the comfortability of the two on screen hasn’t been worked out yet, but its unfortunately that the rapport between the two is at its best in an isolated post credits scene that is already in the trailer for the films anyway.
Credit can be given to Tom Holland, however, who really is beginning to show reach as he comes of age that he holds the same cinematic presence thought long past, easily comparable to Harrison Ford. But while Ford was given carte blanche to be charismatic on screen, Holland as Drake is unable to capture the smugness and confidence the character is supposed to embody, and even though we see stunts that use what he’s learned on the Marvel films, we never get to see Drake do treacherous free solo climbing or grand escape sequences.
It says a lot that the most standout set piece of the film is the only one adapted directly in one of the games, and we technically see it twice. It also speaks volumes that characters fighting for control in a climactic sequence in which two ships being helicarried over the east indies comes across as kind of dull.
While admirable that the film tries to justify its existence through mostly original content or different interpretations of characters, the attempt to do so keeps the Uncharted film from feeling like Uncharted. The Uncharted games are known for being the perfect summation of what anybody loves about the adventure genre, and they at least understand what makes Indiana Jones work: fun, charismatic characters and old-school production values.
When a third-hand adaptation instead makes the characters jerks to one another, and the sets and stunts feel more rubbery and unrealistic than actual video games despite, in 2022, using the same exact technology to render and composite sets and scenery, the long sigh comes along followed by the question for the millionth time: why bother adapting a video game that’s already trying to be like a movie?
If you haven’t yet, play Uncharted 4, or watch a let’s play of it as though it were an animated film. The reasons for which it’s better is so immediately apparent.