The film adaptation of Uncharted, the action adventure video game franchise, has been a long time coming. Development was started in 2008, shortly after the first game in the series came out. It went through numerous directors, stars, and release dates in its road to completion, something that as a film you generally want to avoid. In the meantime, three sequels and multiple spin-offs to the first game came out, raising the franchise to a high level of respect and fandom. So now that the film finally came out, why does it feel so much like an obligatory adaptation to an anonymous video game? And why does it feel like figuring out the answer to that question would have made a more interesting movie than the one we ended up with?
The film centers around Nathan Drake (Tom Holland), a young pickpocket and would-be explorer who teams up with Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) to discover a lost cache of gold from Ferdinand Magellan’s attempt to sail around the world. It’s the same thing Nathan’s brother Sam was trying to find when he disappeared years earlier. Teaming up with fellow tomb raider Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali), our…heroes…race to discover the gold against treasure hunter Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas) and his brutal enforcer Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle).
Uncharted is a pretty boilerplate video game movie from start to finish. It doesn’t really do anything to elevate itself or attempt anything new with the format. It has a sort of Resident Evil thing going for itself, throwing elements of the games into the film to tick the right boxes but without trying to stay terribly loyal to the games themselves. The plot is meant to be a prequel to the games, but it contradicts so much of the series canon that it’s incompatible as a prequel. At the same time, it only does enough of its own world-building to make its thin plot work, making the whole thing seem rather inconsequential and airless.
Unlike the Resident Evil films, though, Uncharted as a movie lacks a truly captivating protagonist to make up for that lack of setting and context. Say what you want about Alice, but Milla Jovovich at least makes the RE films fun to watch. Tom Holland is inherently charming, and the extra muscle he packed on for the film looks absolutely delicious (especially in jeans). But there is just nothing terribly interesting about the film’s Nathan Drake as written. His tragic backstory isn’t explored enough to make it compelling, and his motivations seem to shift with the scene. Holland does what he can here, and it should be noted that he’s the only member of the cast with any emotional range at all, but it’s not enough.
Nearly everybody else in the cast gives an entirely one-note performance, especially Mark Wahlberg. Oddly enough, he was originally meant to play Nathan when the film was first announced back in 2008. As Sully, he’s present. He took the cash, he cashed the check. He reads his lines well, but he doesn’t seem invested in doing anything with the character. That goes double for Antonio Banderas, who coasts by entirely on his natural charisma and a low, slightly gravely line delivery that lets you know immediately that Moncada is dangerous. Sophia Ali and Tati Gabrielle fare a little bit better, but both are still trying to desperately make characters out of nothing. And in Garbielle’s case, she only comes off as more dynamic because of Jo’s signature weapon, a wicked-looking kerambit.
There’s a distinct lack of chemistry between most of the characters, and at times it feels like they’re all acting in different films and were composited into scenes together later. It’s especially noteworthy between Holland and Wahlberg, with Holland clearly doing the heavy lifting between the two. His rapport with Ali is slightly better, if only because Ali seems to be at least a little invested. Every character is betrayed by someone else at least once over the course of the film, and it never once feels shocking, unexpected, or dramatic. That just feels like a big problem.
Most of the blame, however, has to rest squarely at the feet of the creative team. The cast, regardless of their levels of investment, are just reacting to the material they’re given after all. The script is relatively straightforward, with little complexity or wit. The opening scenes from Nathan’s childhood are pretty clunky and full of “as you know” dialogue. In some ways, it might be the most video game moment of the film because it feels very much like a prologue cut scene that you can’t skip over, no matter how many new game pluses you start. It’s clearly meant to have some heavy emotional weight, as it details the relationship between Nathan and Sam, but whatever theoretical impact it was meant to have just doesn’t show up on screen.
Director Ruben Fleischer also doesn’t bring a tremendous amount of personality or verve to the film, either. It doesn’t have any of the cheeky subversiveness of Zombieland or even any of the cheesy retrofied vibe of Venom. He does handle the action scenes fairly well, and they’re at least moderately exciting with a mild degree of inventiveness. The film opens in media res with Nathan clinging to life on a series of cargo crates dangling out of a plane while being attacked by Moncada’s forces. The danger is genuine even if the physics are questionable, and it’s one of the few times the film comes close to evoking the excitement of the games. The climactic battle takes place between two 16th-century sailing ships that are being airlifted by helicopters over the coast of the Philippines, and it gets a lot of points for concept if not for execution. The choreography is a little muddy, but it succeeds if only for the audacity of the setup.
Despite all this, the film isn’t an awful slog. It is at least 15 minutes too long, sure, but it’s not as tedious as it might have otherwise been. A lot — and I do mean A LOT — of that comes down to Tom Holland’s inherent likeability and his commitment to the physical (if not narrative) aspects of his character. Even if his Nathan Drake seems bit like a slightly more felonious and swear-ready Peter Parker (are far younger than Nathan was ever meant to be), it’s a role he fills very well. If he’d had a script up to his level, the film could have been something at least close to dynamic.
As it is, it’s just another video game movie, albeit one with grand ambitions that it never really comes close to achieving. It aims high, but it settles low, and the result comes off as fairly anonymous. Sometimes, it feels like a standard adventure film that had the Uncharted IP slapped on it at the last minute. The series deserves better, as does Tom Holland and Nathan Drake both. It might not be a terrible way to spend two hours; just don’t expect to make any new discoveries.
FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C