There’s really no need to rehash the long and painful history of video game movies. For various reasons, video games just haven’t translated well to the big screen. At first, there wasn’t enough to the games to warrant a film version (movies like “Super Mario Bros” and “Street Fighter” are prime examples). These days video games offer more than enough content to fill a movie yet filmmakers still struggle to get them right. Now there’s a stigma attached and many critics are quick to dismiss any movie that carries the ‘video game adaptation’ tag.
Yet these adaptations still keep coming. One reason is because video game developers have become incredible storytellers. Countless video games thrust their players into immersive narrative-driven experiences on par with all other story-based entertainment. These worlds, characters, relationships, and adventures offer plenty of big screen inspiration. It’s the execution part that trips filmmakers up.
The latest game-to-movie adaptation is “Uncharted”, a sprawling action-adventure based on the Sony PlayStation franchise of the same name from game developer Naughty Dog. It’s helmed by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”, “Venom”) who was handed a whopping $120 million budget from Sony Pictures to finally make a movie that’s been in various stages of development for 15 years.
The game and now the movie’s chief protagonist is Nathan Drake, an ambitious treasure hunter and descendant of famed 16th century explorer Sir Francis Drake. Here, Nathan is played by Tom Holland who gives us a noticeably younger version of the character. He fits the story (penned by Rafe Lee Judkins, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway) even if not everything about his character makes sense. That’s because the movie rushes through his backstory, confining it to a brief prologue and a couple of exposition drops. That helps get right to the action, but it also leaves Nathan feeling a bit shallow.
Getting by as a part-time bartender and a part-time pickpocket, Nathan’s true love is history. He learned it from his older brother Sam who took off 15 years earlier. Sam swore to come back and get Nathan but never did. I believe that’s meant to be a point of conflict within Nathan, but (as with so much of the movie) there’s very little time given to the emotions of the characters. I think Holland gets to shed a tear in one scene, but otherwise none of the characters ever get to convey any deeper feelings.
One evening Nathan is approached by seasoned treasure hunter, Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) who tells him about the lost gold of explorer Ferdinand Magellan. Sully thinks he has found the key to discovering the gold’s location, but he needs Nathan’s help. Despite his love for history and his dreams of adventure, Nathan is reluctant to sign on. But when Sully mentions his past connections with Sam (who was also after Magellan’s loot) Nathan agrees to come, thinking if he finds the gold he may find his brother.
Of course with such noteworthy treasure still undiscovered there are sure to be other parties on the hunt. Enter Santiago Moncada, a wealthy and quite ruthless Spaniard who has long had his sights on Magellan’s gold. He’s played by the always good but (here) woefully underutilized Antonio Banderas, who gets to do a little mustache twirling but never gets to fully extend himself as the antagonist. And there are other people in the mix including Moncada’s hired mercenary Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) and Sully’s untrusting colleague Chloe (Sophia Ali).
As the movie hops from New York to Barcelona to the Philippines, we get a couple of big set pieces, a few fight scenes, and lots of parkour. We get questions of loyalty as the old ‘honor among thieves’ mantra pops up again and again. And of course there are a handful of Easter eggs that people who haven’t played the game will never get – a naughty dog decal stuck on a trunk, Nolan North (the voice actor who plays Nathan in the games) lounging on the beach, etc.
“Uncharted” really leans on its star power, especially Holland who plays a very Holland-like character – charismatic, boyishly charming, a bit daffy, and with an unshakable innocence (even when he tries to talk tough). Wahlberg is a sturdy fit for an otherwise one-dimensional role and Gabrielle has quite the screen presence. Unfortunately the story keeps them all tightly confined in their genre roles as the movie checks off the typical boxes. No one is allowed to really dig deeper into these characters. Still there’s enough entertainment packaged into this otherwise conventional action flick to offer a nice two-hour escape.
Sadly, many critics will automatically lump “Uncharted” in with all the other video game movies. And they’ll examine it first and foremost through that particularly sour and jaded lens. So right out of the gate the movie is forced to tote baggage it shouldn’t have to. In reality, there’s nothing about “Uncharted” that screams “video game adaptation”. It’s an action-adventure movie that borrows more from Bond and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” than some video game movie formula.
So with that said, how does “Uncharted” play as a MOVIE – no qualifiers or categories. In a nutshell, it does what it sets out to do. It’s entertaining enough with a couple of set pieces that really pop on the big screen. The banter between Holland and Wahlberg is fun although it does run its course. It’s all far-fetched and silly and relies on a lot of conveniences to propel its story forward. But whatever, “Uncharted” gets by and is worth a watch for genre fans and fans of the characters. It’s not a movie you’ll revisit over and over again, but it’s also not the train wreck some will be quick to label it as. “Uncharted” is now showing in theaters.