Common wisdom holds that an Uncharted movie should be obvious and impossible to screw up. Every year that passes without one is easy money left on the table, and many, many years have passed — we’ve reached the point where the fourth game and its spin-off have been remastered for a new console generation, twice removed from the PS3 original that generated the film idea in the first place. It is all but ready to go, a series with multiple distinct characters already doing the mix of drama and jokes that we demand from a blockbuster and already packaged within a proven premise. It’s about lost treasure, roguish heroes, and bad guys who hire henchmen. It’s Indiana Jones without all the period nonsense and the baggage of actors we expect to see, a vehicle all gassed up and ready to go for the right young up-and-comers.
Of course, common wisdom tends to oversimplify things. There are plenty of ways for an adaptation to go wrong during the long, awkward march between the movie theater screen and the TV screen hooked up to a PlayStation in the living room. And it has gone wrong, sometime during the protracted game of musical chairs that cycled out countless directors and recast Mark Wahlberg as fatherly mentor Sully after a long period where he was supposed to be virile lead Nathan Drake. Worse, it hasn’t even gone wrong in the fun way — something that has spent so much time pinballing around development hell will often bear the signs of its prior incarnations, a human touch that lends a kind of awkward credulity.
No such luck here: the Uncharted movie is remarkable for how pedestrian it is despite a tumultuous history, sort of like how a single 90-minute movie emerged from all those attempts to adapt Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. As a vehicle meant to move Tom Holland from a Spider-Man to a more general action-man, it is no more convincing than his darkly dramatic turns in last year’s Cherry or The Devil All the Time. As an action film, each sequence all but evaporates from memory as soon as we move on to the next scene. And as an adaptation, it suggests that an Uncharted movie isn’t actually a very good idea after all.
The Lure of Adventure
Initially, the biggest problems seem to stem from the film’s position as an origin story. They’ve been done, and they’re done for the most boring reasons: the origin story swaddles us in a familiar structure so that we may be spoon-fed details in the most expedient fashion. We don’t have to deal with the messy business of prior relationships and histories that must be set up on the fly, because we are seeing all of it for the first time just as the characters are.
So we watch Nathan Drake’s childhood, after a flash-forward that promises some death-defying antics down the line. He lives with his brother Sam at an orphanage, and they’re recurring troublemakers to the point where Sam gets kicked out. Then the camera pushes in on the young Nate’s face as it fades into the adult Nate’s face, which, given Holland’s boyish looks, is not as drastic of a transformation as it’s probably supposed to be. He tends bar, although you’d still raise an eyebrow even after triple-checking his ID under a microscope. He meets Victor “Sully” Sullivan there, who is meant to be mysterious and suave even though Mark Wahlberg has neither ability in his acting toolbox.
In a telltale sign of sloppy construction, Nate and Sully relitigate the childhood flashback we saw not ten minutes prior, and then we’re off. They fall into such a familiar groove of mentor/mentee sniping that you wonder why the film even bothered with the setup. In the games, the Nate/Sully relationship isn’t much less archetypal, but it’s most prominently explored in the third entry, after the audience is presumably invested enough in these characters to be curious about how they got to be who they are. The first two games seem to recognize that we can all but look at Nate and Sully standing next to each other and picture their dynamic, so there’s no expansion necessary. The film’s only point of unpredictability here is whether big brother Sam is going to be a pre or post-credits tease (it’s the former, because the post-credits one is about Sully getting a mustache).
The Golden Abyss Stares Back
It is, admittedly, much easier to play the game of what might have been than to engage with the film on its own terms. How might the film have fared under a more distinctive director than the dishwater-dull Ruben Fleischer, or under a producer who lacks the withering poison touch of Avi Arad? My mind wandered as the film went on, and I wondered things like how Antonio Banderas might fare in the Sully role rather than his paycheck villain part.
As Drake, Tom Holland lacks the credible action-comedy presence of a Harrison Ford or a Brendan Fraser in The Mummy, with no amount of sexless shirtless scenes managing to rebrand his twitchy Peter Parker-ing as twitchy Tom Holland-ing. The casting for one of these things is ostensibly half the battle, or else you end up with something like the similar Netflix movie Red Notice and its black hole of anti-chemistry between Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot, and Ryan Reynolds.
But no matter who I imagined as Nathan Drake instead, I couldn’t muster any excitement. Nathan Drake is a white guy who shoots people because video games are about white people who shoot people that have a considerably higher chance of not being white people. When removed from that context, with the gunfights and such dialed back for a format that doesn’t need to prompt you to press buttons every so often, he looks generic. He works as a stand-in video game character, because he stumbles and falls and shouts “oh, crap” in a way that we the audience find relatable even though we have neither the bullet resistance nor the prodigious finger strength that Drake does.
In a medium like games, where so many people behind the guns tend to be stoic or even totally silent, Drake feels different. In a medium like film, where you’d have a harder time finding characters who do not crack wise and stumble around to show that they’re just like us beneath the glamorous competence, he does not. Like so many video game concepts and characters, he’s a facsimile of other mediums, a playable version of Indiana Jones and his assorted knock-offs who becomes far less interesting when he’s played by Tom Holland instead of by someone holding a DualShock. That’s what Tomb Raider is, too, but at least those movies center a woman in a genre mostly led by men. Even National Treasure‘s take on treasure-hunting feels so much fresher, opting less for a straightforward action hero than an eccentric weirdo who can liven up exposition because he’s played by Nicolas Cage.
But if the Uncharted film underlines the thoroughly unremarkable qualities of Nathan Drake as a protagonist, it also lacks the time investment that helps make up the difference. In their sheer length, the games take on the quality of a TV show or a novel where we really get to know the characters. We grow comfortable in that familiarity, and we become willing to follow rambling subplots or mediocre episodes because of that constructed history with the audience, where we have chuckled at their squabbles and fretted over their peril. It’s how the Uncharted games build upon their archetypes — the characters are talking all throughout those long platforming sequences. If the Uncharted games are sometimes dismissed for so blatantly cribbing from movies, the film version clarifies just how easily it all might have come out as flavorless mush.
The only meaningful extrapolation that the movie makes is a sense of mistrust. Rather than any bonds forged by peril, circumstance, and genuine affection, it focuses on the capacity of these characters to stab each other in the back. Sully almost leaves Nate behind at the first sign of trouble, and Chloe (Sophia Ali) initially steals their gear and tries to go off on her own out of pure suspicion. While this is probably supposed to heighten the stakes and inject additional conflict, all it does is undermine the relationships that are, one imagines, the entire point of an origin story. There’s little camaraderie here; they’re all just assholes.
The most amusing detail is one that’s all but superfluous: no place the characters go seems to be genuinely “uncharted,” to a recurring degree that reads as intentional. When they go to some tropical islands, there’s a resort nearby. The wall that completes an arcane puzzle sequence now sits behind glass inside a pizza place, and one of the secret tunnels is interrupted by a trendy underground bar. Even a largely-preserved old church has a rack of postcards and some gates to keep out tourists. None of this really goes anywhere, and if it’s not purely a vehicle for product placement then it’s probably some kind of leftover idea. But as it kept happening, I came to regard it as indicative of the film itself, as I watched the characters constantly rub elbows with the fact that other people had been there before.