I always get some weird looks when I say I like video games more than film and television. I guess that’s hardly a hot take considering gaming has become a staple medium for crafting cinematic stories, but I still run into disdain when I share this opinion with people who aren’t gamers. Ironically most of them tend to only have experienced games through the movies made about those games, and I’ll readily admit, those don’t have the best track record. The genre started off with Bob Hoskins’ Super Mario Bros disaster, and continued with years of other messes like Doom, Resident Evil…well, the list goes on.
Sure, Tomb Raider got it right (though I’ve debated this with naysayers many times), and we’ve had some better entries as of late with surprisingly fun romps like Detective Pikachu or the new Sonic The Hedgehog series. But when they announced the adaptation for Uncharted, one the best written cinematic masterpieces from gaming’s last decade, I caught myself asking the dangerous question, “how could they mess this up?”
That really is the question isn’t it. But leaving the theatre, I yet again found myself begging my non-gaming compatriots to still give the gaming series a shot. I promised that the boring characters, the lazy tone, the jokes about millennials that we’d just witnessed on screen all felt so far removed from the brilliant, exciting, eerie, and thoughtful multitudes the Nathan Drake saga contains.
Rewriting large swathes of the game’s lore, Uncharted the film pits Nathan Drake (sweet baby Tom Holland) as a bored bartender and hustler in New York City who’s recruited by emotionless and greedy Victor Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg in his typical Mark Wahlberg glory), to follow the trail of Magellan’s gold. With the legend being something Drake has wanted to pursue since childhood with his brother Sam, and Sullivan having a connection to Sam’s last known whereabouts, Nathan cautiously allies with him, and sets off on the adventure of a lifetime.
Though the issue is this adventure is hardly one of a lifetime. It isn’t cohesive in any memorable way, and jumps from NYC historical auction, to the streets of Barcelona, to a plane sequence pulled directly from Uncharted 3, to a resort in the West Indies, to a series of islands in the Philippines, all without much tangible change. The story’s sense of progression quickly dissolves into a vapid slog of x marks the spot every time, and there’s no connection to the franchise’s established lore to engage the audience in the importance of the history of Magellan other than capital G Gold is here. There’s no real sense of comradery. There’s no foreboding supernatural history. And there’s no tangible or meaningful character growth.
A lot of these problems stem from Wahlberg’s boring, childish, gold-loving interpretation of beloved series icon Sully. Gone is the rich depth of a Sully who’s parented Nate even when it was inconvenient or dangerous to do so. Sully’s lovable Hawaiian shirt-wearing, Cuban cigar-smoking, “I’m too old for this shit” pilot aura is traded for a bland conman. And while the Sully of the games is the suave and smart practical thinker behind a scheme, Wahlberg’s is just this stupid and cowardly asshole who’s blinded by riches. His moment of growth at the end feels completely unearned, and he resorts back to being a smarmy gold-obsessed dick.
Also as much as I respect Tom Holland’s efforts, his baby-faced Nathan Drake is built to be likable in this pathetic “do the right thing” rookie way, while simultaneously being a brilliant historian and a thief with no real reason for his thievery. Outside of his attachment to Sam, we don’t know how he’s obtained his love and interest in history, let alone why he’s cultivated the intelligence for certain fine goods like a Negroni or a map, only to remark something of equal historical value looks “expensive” in a later scene. Compared to the confident, well-meaning, brash, smart ass with a trick up his sleeve Nathan from the games, Tom Holland’s Drake just flounders in an identity crisis of contrasting emotions and personality quirks.
Antonio Banderas is gone far too early. Wasting his potential for a true classic rich madman villain, he’s offed and replaced with a forgettable cold killer Braddock (Tati Gabrielle). Sophia Taylor Ali tries, but her Chloe is also stripped of any nuance found from the games. It frankly feels like Uncharted the film started as a boring pulp fiction script that needed brand recognition to get made; they lifted the game’s iconic sequences, but ignored its quippy and cutting dialogue and carefully constructed story arcs.
There are still some golden moments worth picking off this sinking ship. The fight choreography is superb, with creative parkour moves and use of props that do feel like a creative combo from a game. The set pieces are larger than life and entertaining, with highlights including a pair of airborne pirate vessels and the iconic cargo plane fight. There’s a cute little cameo from the original voice of Nathan Drake, Nolan North, that made me immediately want to go play the original series again. And while they’re as goofy as ever, moments where a CGIed Braddock or Drake make a hilariously ridiculous jump were a fun reminder of the stunts we’ve come to love from the series.
These fun video gamey moments and the silly over the top goofy stunts are a huge part of why so many of us got excited about the Uncharted series in the first place. But the reason we were able to buy in, to engage, and to get thrills instead of laughs out of these moments from the game was because we cared about the characters. Without the rich relationships, without the crafted character faults, without that sense of growth, Uncharted the film ends up feeling like you’re just watching someone control a video game character from point to point. At the end of the day, Hollywood has yet again ignored one of the best scripts in video game history, ironically in favor of a hollow and flashy mess, what video games are often accused of being. If anything, this shitty adaptation has reminded me how artful and special games can be.