For a very long time, it has seemed like I have been hearing the general opinion that, of all the video game properties out there, the one that would be most easily turned into a movie is Uncharted. I mean, they are the very definition of cinematic video game experiences, replete with top-quality writing, voice acting, action gameplay and satisfying character arcs (seriously: A Thief’s End is a masterpiece on that last score). Those games mean something to me and to people in my life, so all you have to do is play a few bars of “Nate’s Theme” and you’ll have me in the seat. But we’ve been here before, and I won’t soon forget the crushing disappointment that was Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed. Was Uncharted able to get beyond a somewhat troubled production history and a somewhat ill-received set of casting choices, and come off any better?
Working as a bartender and lifting jewellery from clients on the side, Nathan Drake (Tom Holland), a descendent of Sir Francis, dreams of following in the footsteps of his absent brother Sam (Rudy Pankow) and seeking out the legend of Magellan’s lost gold that united them as children. When approached by Sully (Mark Wahlberg), a former partner of his brothers with trust issues, Nate embarks on the adventure of a lifetime in the hopes of finding the gold and seeing his brother again. Standing in his way is opportunistic treasure hunter Chloe (Sophia Ali) merciless Spanish banking scion Moncada (Antonio Banderas) and his fearsome enforcer Braddock (Tati Gabrielle), who are also seeking the gold, and will do anything to get their hands on it.
It is far from a unique or Earth-shattering insight, but video game adaptations are very, very hard to pull off for one key reason: the removal of interactivity. Video games are singular in that respect, in that you are experiencing them as an active participant in the art form. Remove that interactivity, and you have removed something as vital to the story being experienced as the heart is to the human body. With that reality, any filmmaker working with a video game property is struggling just to get back to zero before they have even started.
Well, I would say that director Ruben Fleischer just about gets back to zero in the course of Uncharted, and maybe takes a few steps beyond. I think it’s a slightly above average movie, one that captures at least a bit of what makes the Uncharted games as fun and memorable as they are, without ever really looking likely to replicate their overall quality or success. There are ups and downs here, and the ups just about win out: that this makes Uncharted automatically one of the best video game adaptations is probably a point of concern for the genre.
The story follows the beats we’ll be used to from the games though, with the exception of a set-piece or two, it’s a new adventure. It’s at its best in the first and last thirds: in the first instance as things get set-up, heists are executed and the villains get the chance to look effective and, at times, a little scary, and in the last as we experience a genuinely rip-roaring action finale in very unique surrounds, involving lost treasure ships, aerial combat and gold for weapons. It’s in the middle that Uncharted may well lose you, with an elongated trek through the underworld of Barcelona a bit of a slog, as the lack of interactivity really becomes obvious: it’s much more fun to play through the finding of dark passages and the dodging of traps than it is to watch people doing them.
For all that Uncharted maintains a drive and purpose, rarely staying in one scene too long and always with an action beat around the corner, ensuring that you’re never likely to be looking at your watch at least. There are the required twists and turns peppered throughout, and a decent journey for the cast based around themes of trust, alternative ideas of reward and the poison that is greed. The script has been a long time in the making (some of the earlier ideas for the film, when David O. Russell was attached to direct, are bafflingly different to the source material), and I think does a decent job with these characters and with the story: this isn’t a brainless action procession, with just enough quips and agile back-and-forth to keep things ticking over.
I had doubts about Tom Holland in the lead role as he doesn’t quite fit the look or presence of Nathan Drake, but Uncharted gets beyond this easily enough by presenting itself essentially as his origin story, before he’s a little bit older and a little bit wiser. In that it also serves as a bit of an introduction for Holland to the realm of being a bit more of a traditional Hollywood action star, more in the Chris Pratt than Peter Parker line, and he rises to the occasion. Holland captures the required sense of wonder, moral centre and occasional naivety that is vital for the Nate character, all while portraying an outward aura of confidence that we can tell is buttressed by a not especially great upbringing ( a great example being when he wows a woman with his knowledge of cocktails early on, while stealing her jewellery). He’s able to make Drake knowledgeable about antiquities without coming off as a boring academic, as capable in a fight without being unstoppable and charming without being obnoxious. He isn’t Indiana Jones, despite the comparisons, this is a thief with notions of higher greatness, but he is more interesting for that.
A big problem is the guy opposite him though. Aside from not really embodying the look, age or personality of Sully, Mark Wahlberg doesn’t seem especially interested in Uncharted, and one suspects this may be because of a rare second billing for the actor (who, ten years ago, was in line to play Drake). Wahlberg is basically acting opposite a guy who is growing up to replace him, and and this is reflected in a frequently somnambulist performance as Sully, who ghosts into the film a few minutes in, vanishes for lengthy sections and never fully establishes the kind of rapport necessary to feel like Uncharted could be a goer for future films from a creative standpoint. Wahlberg can carry off a certain measure of cool (such as in interactions with Gabrielle, a former paramour turned rival) and can handle action (also with Gabrielle, actually) but in general the actor seems bored with a film where the camera isn’t on him all that much. In comparison, the supporting cast does a decent job: Banderas doesn’t get a tonne of screen time but is suitably menacing as the greedy millionaire, Gabrielle is fun as his right-hand woman inhabiting what has traditionally been an almost automatic male role and Ali stakes a claim for future appearances as the inherently deceitful Chloe Frazier. In fact, on the latter score Ali has more chemistry with Holland than Wahlberg does, and will help smooth the ruffles of fans pining for an absent Elena. And hey, always good to see, and not just hear, Nolan North, in a scene-stealing cameo.
Visually, the film actually is a bit of a treat. The director’s priors in Zombieland and Venom along with cinematographer Chung Cung-hoon insure that Uncharted does not just lazily attempt to replicate that which occurred via a PlayStation, with the very notable exception of an sequence where Tom Holland makes a series of unlikely jumps from crate-to-crate hanging out of the back of an airplane, taken from the third instalment of the games, Drake’s Deception. It’s a fairly thrilling set-piece that is realised well enough that you’ll certainly have memories stirring of controllers in use, and is just one of many action sequences that the run the gambit between down-to-earth – Wahlberg brawling with Gabrielle inside a Papa John’s – and bombastically crazy – the finale, which involves air-lifted sailing ships smashing into each other – to make up for the film’s lack of a supernatural element, as is evident in many of the games. It’s also not a gore fest – the oft commented upon dichotomy in the games between the storyline in cutscenes and Drake’s penchant for mowing down hundreds of bad guys in gameplay is not replicated here – which I do appreciate.
Beyond that, Uncharted has a good look. There are obvious influences coming into play, from Ocean’s 11 to National Treasure to Casino Royale, and of course Indiana Jones and and the whole treasure hunting genre (in truth I’ve always thought Uncharted owed more to the likes of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre on that score) but the overall effect is a clean, pleasant production that makes the best use of exotic filming locations as they appear, understands the benefit of practical effects next to CGI and rarely allows its principals to be overshadowed by spectacle. I would go so far as to say that if the closest Uncharted gets to feeling like the video game it is based on is in the visuals, where the right shot does make you feel like you are about to meld right into an adventure with controller in hand. Fleischer leans into the craziness that Uncharted can demonstrate at times, and that is to be commended.
I wish I could say the same about the film’s score and music, from Ramin Djawadi, which is unfortunately not a patch on the work of Greg Edmonson and Henry Jackman in the video games. Only when the familiar strings of “Nate’s Theme” are playing did I really sit up and take notice, with the rest is a pretty generic accompaniment punctuated by a few old hits. Considering that the Uncharted series has always had really high quality scores, I find this a little shocking, and can only put it down to a lack of finance or a lack of effort. You aren’t going to be listening back to this OST on Spotify, that’s for sure.
Leaving aside the gaping black hole of charisma that is Mark Wahlberg, easily the biggest flaw in Uncharted, it’s honestly hard to find too much wrong with it. Holland is great, the supporting vast is fine and, with the exception of a middle section that gets a bit too bogged down in archaeological skulduggery, the film rolls along nicely from set-piece to set-piece. It captures enough of what makes the game great to be considered an above-average adaptation, though it never comes close to really reaching the same level of polish, captivation and general quality. As video game movies go, this is far from bad, and I would probably watch another one. If only it was Bryan Cranston instead of Mark Wahlberg though. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Sony Pictures Releasing).