Big-screen adaptations are tricky, both to make and to revise. For the filmmaker, the challenge is trying to capture the spirit of their source material while telling a story that works on its own merits. For the reviewer, it’s all about how well the filmmaker has balanced these two competing goals — and if they haven’t, if that ultimately matters.
All of which brings us to Uncharted, Sony Pictures’ new live-action reimagining of the acclaimed Naughty Dog video game series of the same name. In many ways, this film is the epitome of the dichotomy at the heart of every adaptation – the contradictory need to be both the same and different from something that already exists. And it turns out that, as a standalone movie, Uncharted is passable (if only fair), but as a cinematic retelling of the original games, it lands way off the mark.
In fairness, director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriters Rafe Lee Judkins, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway clearly tried to translate key elements of the Uncharted formula to the screen. As in the games, the film sees affable thief Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) and his mentor Sully (Mark Wahlberg) in search of a mythical lost fortune (here, it’s Magellan’s gold stash). Along the way, the pair must face off against rival treasure hunters, including seductive potential ally Chloe Fraser (Sophia Ali) and ruthless billionaire Moncada (Antonio Banderas) and his equally straight-laced wife Braddock (Tati Gabrielle). There are thrills, spills, and a dash of romance, and it’s all wrapped up in less than two hours.
It’s harmless fun and boasts a solid underlying structure and fast pace. Yet even for an action-adventure game, Uncharted’s plot feels surprisingly thin and shallow, especially since Naughty Dog’s original video games are celebrated not just for their strong storytelling, but also for their aspirations. cinematographic. Here, plot points are ticked off like the objectives of a video game – a way Uncharted actually manages to get too close to its source material.
This robs Uncharted of the sense of breathless wonder it clearly aims for. Watching Indiana Jones, one of Nathan Drake’s major influences, solve diabolical ancient puzzles felt eye-opening, while watching Drake perform similar feats of deduction is downright underwhelming. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas made sure we always had a window into Indy’s thought processes, so it felt like we were deciphering clues with him. Fleischer, Judkins, Marcum, and Holloway blitz through or even omit Drake’s own brainwork outright, and the end result is far less satisfying as a result.
The same goes for Uncharted’s action sets. Fleischer clearly modeled these sequences on the exuberant matinee-inspired escapades that defined the Indiana Jones franchise, however, Uncharted prefers the weightless, CGI-driven spectacle over the hands-on stunt work needed to sell such over-the-top shenanigans. And when Holland and Wahlberg finally get the chance to really take a death-defying jump or throw a big right hook, it all feels too slick – there’s none of the grubby, rambling vibe that defined the Uncharted movies. is so desperately trying to imitate.
But mostly, where Uncharted really falls short – both as a standalone movie and as an adaptation – is in telling a story we can properly engage with. Certainly, Fleischer, Judkins, Marcum and Holloway really try to make us love Drake, Sully and their big adventure. Both Drake and Sully have (very) basic character arcs that see them trying to work through their trust issues, and Drake’s tragic backstory – he’s not driven by greed, but rather by the prospect of finding his long-lost brother – is meant to add an emotional dimension to Uncharted’s treasure hunt. But none of those beats really land, despite committed performances from Holland and Wahlberg.
Holland, in particular, really gives his all in Uncharted, channeling the full force of his likeable energy and impressive physique as Nathan Drake – so it’s a shame he’s so hopelessly wrong. Instead of the strapping, 30-something from the video games, 25-year-old Holland casts Drake as a cockier, slightly less grounded variation on his Peter Parker persona from Marvel’s Spider-Man movies. To its credit, Uncharted cops the many discrepancies between pixel-fueled and live-action incarnations of Drake (how could it not?), however, even non-gamers will cringe at the sight of the fresh, more modestly The statured Holland takes on a role clearly designed for Harrison Ford-type action star.
On the other hand, Wahlberg is more convincing in Sully. Granted, he doesn’t look any more like Sully than Holland looks like Drake, but he does come a little closer to evoking Sully’s presence as depicted in the games. More importantly, Wahlberg shares a strong chemistry with Holland, and the banter between the two – much of it built around the fact that 50-year-old Wahlberg is old in the eyes of his young co-star – is the closest to forge a real emotional connection with these characters and their story.
The rest of the cast fares poorly by comparison. Sophia Ali gets points for her physical resemblance to the Chloe Fraser from the Uncharted games, but doesn’t exactly share a spark with Holland, and brings nothing more to the table than what is – to the ears of this Aussie reviewer, at least – the most painfully broad faux-Australian accent in recent memory. Then there’s Antonio Banderas and Tati Gabrielle, whose considerable talents are squandered as Uncharted’s forgettable villains, barely sketched takes on the genre’s titled wealthy type and gasping femme fatale tropes.
That’s not all that seems wasted in Uncharted, as even the film’s great locations are overlooked. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung makes Berlin (replacing New York), Barcelona and the Costa Brava (dubbing multiple locations in Southeast Asia) as gorgeous as expected. Yet, apart from a handful of settlement shots, Fleischer never gives us a sense of these places as real, inhabited environments, and – with one notable exception involving a pair of airborne pirate ships in endgame – doesn’t do anything too inventive with them in the same way that, say, a Bond movie would. You can’t help but think we deserve more.
Apparently that’s what we’ll get too. Uncharted ends with a pair of now obligatory post-credits scenes teasing an upcoming sequel. So here’s hoping that whenever Uncharted 2 finally arrives, those involved chart a different course than what Fleischer, his cast, and crew charted here.
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Uncharted’s action-adventure vibe may be enough to appeal to thrill-seeking moviegoers, but fans of the Naughty Dog video game series should seek their fortunes elsewhere.