Movies based on video games have rarely worked out. In the past, you could argue that video games were so different from movies that it was difficult to translate the material onto the silver screen, giving something of an excuse to the lackluster quality of video game movies. But as video games became more and more movie like, you would think they’d be easier to adapt to the cinema. But apparently you’d be wrong, because video game movies didn’t get any better (you could say they even got worse, considering they no longer had the excuse of trying to adapt something that was so fundamentally different from movies).
However, the past few years have seen a rise in quality for the video game movie, with three entertaining films in the sub-genre being released in as many years: 2019 gave audiences the cute and charming Detective Pikachu, 2020 surprised us all when Sonic the Hedgehog actually ended up being good, and 2021’s Mortal Kombat reboot was also solidly fun. They may not have been great movies, but they each proved to be entertaining features in their own right, and also notably paid respects to their source material, whereas the video game movies of yesterday seemed embarrassed by the video games that inspired them. Simply put, things are finally starting to look up for the video game movie.
That brings us to Uncharted, based on the video game series by Naughty Dog. The Uncharted games took inspiration from the Indiana Jones films with their non-stop “BANG ZOOM” style of action set pieces. The characters are fun, and the games have witty dialogue. If any video game should have a smooth transition into the world of movies, surely it’s Uncharted.
Which makes it so strange that this Uncharted movie has had such a turbulent time getting made at all, and that the finished product only kind of works.
Plans for an Uncharted movie go all the way back to 2008, the year after the original Uncharted game was released on the Playstation 3 (feel old yet?). Actor Nathan Fillion famously wanted to portray series lead Nathan Drake in whatever movie ended up being made (he even looks like Nathan Drake and shares his first name), but the closest he got was starring in a fan made short film as the character. For a few years in the early 2010s, Mark Wahlberg (who looks kinda like Nathan Drake) had been cast in the role. Though the ongoing turbulent production meant that never happened, either.
Fourteen years and a revolving door of directors and writers later, the Uncharted movie is finally a reality, with Tom Holland (who looks nothing like Nathan Drake) in the lead role. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg, still contractually attached to the movie, has to settle on the role of Victor “Sully” Sullivan, Nathan’s friend and mentor who is much older than Wahlberg in the games (to be fair to Wahlberg, Sully is the best character in the games, so I wouldn’t call it a demotion).
Right away, I can tell you the two leads are miscast. Both Holland and Wahlberg are good in the movie in regards to acting (though they severely lack the chemistry of the characters in the game). But neither actor looks like – nor captures the essence of – their respective character. Nathan Drake always had kind of rugged, everyman good looks, not the babyfaced boyishness of Tom Holland (something that’s reinforced by the Playstation Productions logo at the start of the movie which shows us what Nathan should look like). Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg is not only too young to be Sully, but the fact that he’s constantly standing right next to Nathan Drake while looking more like Nathan Drake than Nathan Drake is just awkward. Plus, some of the humor of the character is lost with the reduction in age (surely I’m not the only one who thinks J.K. Simmons should have been Sully?).
That’s not to say that the movie gets everything wrong. Uncharted continues the recent trend of video game movies paying respects to their source material. The film begins similarly to the beloved Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, with Nathan Drake awakening in the middle of a death defying set piece before the story takes us back to the beginning and leads us back to this point midway through (a set piece which, by the way, is ripped directly from Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception). We’re also given flashbacks of a young Nathan Drake (Tiernan Jones) during the time he spent with his older brother Sam (Rudy Pankow) and how that inspired him to become a treasure hunter, something taken directly from Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. And the film even uses the overall template from the series by taking a real historic figure or event (in this case, Ferdinand Magellan and the Magellan Expedition) and giving it a fictional, treasure-centric spin (though now that I think about it, it’s kind of weird how the first three games had a supernatural twist, but the fourth game and this movie do not). So the movie is respectful to the games, which should sit well with fans.
The film is an origin story for Nathan Drake, showing how he met Sully and became a treasure hunter. Sully was once partnered with Sam, before Sam went missing. But the connection to his brother leads Nathan to join Sully on his adventure to find the treasure of the Magellan Expedition, the same treasure Nathan and Sam used to dream about finding. Along the way, Nathan and Sully are also joined by Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali), a mysterious treasure hunter who’s as much a rival as she is an ally (another observation: Chloe wasn’t introduced until the second game in the series but made it into the film, while the original female lead, Elena Fisher, is absent from the movie). Naturally, there are also villains after the same treasure, in the form of Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), a millionaire willing to do anything to claim the treasure, and his hired mercenary Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle).
Uncharted is a fun movie that follows the structure of the games pretty well. The big set pieces are entertaining, even if they don’t quite match up to those from the games (the finale comes close though). Maybe that’s partly because in the games you actually got to play those set pieces, which I kind of appreciate all the more now that I write that out. And it’s a well acted movie despite the miscasting. But there’s just something missing in the translation to the big screen. The Uncharted video games featured some strong character moments, and some sharp dialogue and banter between characters. The movie makes attempts at these, but such moments always end up feeling kind of rushed and flat. The aforementioned lack of chemistry between Holland and Wahlberg doesn’t help this at all, either.
It’s difficult to describe. Uncharted has most of the elements that made its namesake video game series so memorable, but it just never really seems to come together. It’s enjoyable enough, but Uncharted somehow just doesn’t click.
There are many worse video game movie adaptations than Uncharted, but there are a few better ones. Uncharted should have had a seamless transition from video game to movie, and could have been a great action-adventure flick in its own right. It’s a fun movie that has some exciting set pieces, but Uncharted ultimately feels like its treading familiar ground for the genre, and doesn’t reach the potential of what an Uncharted movie could be.
I think we’ll see more Uncharted movies in the future (whether they’re sequels or a reboot depends on the success of this film), and hopefully one day we’ll get an Uncharted film that lives up to the video game series. But Uncharted’s first big screen outing is simply an ‘okay’ movie.
Who would have thought that Sonic the Hedgehog’s big screen debut would have ended up so much stronger than Nathan Drake’s?