Naughty Dog’s Uncharted video game franchise has long been eyed for a film adaptation. The PlayStation exclusive action-adventure games were inspired by games like Tomb Raider and films like the Indiana Jones franchise. It’s bread and butter was strong shooter gameplay mechanics, puzzle solving, and platforming. Above all else, the Uncharted series had engrossing visuals and stellar storytelling. That large scale cinematic storytelling was what has had fans frothing at the mouth for a film adaptation ever since the first game’s release in 2007.
Now, after many stops and starts and a revolving door of nearly half a dozen directors signing on and dropping out along the way, Sony’s PlayStation Productions has finally released a film adaptation of the beloved video game franchise with Ruben Fleischer at the helm. Starring Tom Holland as treasure hunter Nathan Drake and Mark Wahlberg as his cantankerous thief mentor, Victor “Sully” Sullivan, the film is a globetrotting adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones that struggles to keep its narrative buoy afloat between each of its set pieces.
Uncharted doesn’t set out to adapt any specific storyline from the video games. Instead, it draws most of its inspiration from the fourth installment, 2016’s A Thief’s End, to tell an original story that serves as an introduction to a younger and less experienced Nathan Drake. Drake’s “not so chance” meeting with Sully leads the pair on a perilous and duplicitous hunt for the lost treasure of Magellan. Also seeking the gold is Antonio Banderas’ Santiago Moncada, a wealthy man who’s willing to kill to secure the treasure he believes to be his birthright. Along the way, Drake and Sully team up with a fellow thief of questionable alliances Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali) to follow clues leading them to a treasure trove of henchmen and other dangers.
It’s not an exaggeration to say nearly everything that happens between the action set pieces is forgettable or otherwise lackluster. Antonio Banderas gives a rather bland performance that compliments an equally lifeless character backstory. In fact, the film wastes too much of Banderas’s screen time with a melodramatic subplot involving him, his father, and their family fortune. This is meant to develop the character, but ends up just being an uninteresting walk down a detour toward a clichéd villain arc.
Likewise, the “second in command” of Moncada’s organization is a dangerous woman from Sully’s past named Braddock (Tati Gabrielle). She’s one of the few really interesting parts of the film, but is still saddled with weak, almost nonexistent, backstory. This is a real shame as Gabrielle really embraces the deadliness of her character and would have thrived if the film had a better screenplay behind it. What we get is fine enough but the film leaves a lot of potential on the ground.
When it comes to Drake, Tom Holland proves to be as charismatic and strong as you’d expect from his turn as Peter Parker in the MCU. However, the weak storytelling in the film puts a damper on the energy of his performance. There’s a plot line involving his brother, who he hasn’t seen in 15 years. The script largely does nothing of interest with this and the emotional heavy lifting is left to Holland’s acting. Fortunately, he does elevate it slightly, but you can only do so much with the material you’re given. As with most big budget blockbusters, Uncharted was developed with a franchise in mind. So instead of telling an engaging story or paying off a central mystery within this first (and potentially only) film, Uncharted banks on itself by leaving plot threads in the air with the expectation that they’ll write conclusions to them in future films. Of course, this means the story told in Uncharted is overall largely unsatisfying and incomplete.
Mark Wahlberg’s turn as Sully is surprisingly enjoyable. He captures the self-serving and slightly curmudgeonly quality of Sully well and his back and forth with Holland’s Drake is one of the high points of an otherwise disappointing script. It’s hard to believe he was once in line to play Nathan Drake and, truth be told, him being cast as Sully only induces slightly less head scratching. But the finished product proves that Wahlberg isn’t as entirely miscast as fans of the franchise may think going into the theater.
The action of Uncharted is its biggest strength. Alongside some solid comic banter between Holland and Wahlberg, the parkour foot chases and hand-to-hand fight choreography give the film a kinetic energy that breathes much needed life into it. Fleischer uses the environment to strong effect when setting up and executing the action. One fight at a nightclub is highly entertaining as Holland uses liquor bottles and other objects behind the bar to fight off a henchman. Even though getting them into that location and situation feels contrived from the weak script, the end product is still entertaining.
The set piece the film teases in the opening is outlandish and exciting as Drake struggles to get back into a cargo plane in mid air. It’s a set piece straight out of one of the games and it works well in the moment. However, given that Uncharted never reaches that level of action outside of that set piece makes the choice to open the film with it (only to return to it and resolve it later) slightly questionable. The film showing us its cards that early takes some of the wind out of the sails when we’re returned to that moment later on. And while Uncharted‘s third act does attempt to outdo the cargo plane sequence in its audacity, it ultimately proves not to be as effective simply because it’s another aerial focused sequence.
Fans of the video game franchise should go into Uncharted knowing there’s little chance of any film capturing the narrative magic of the video games. This foregone conclusion is partly due to the massive gulf between the mediums of video games and film. Generally speaking, the interactive participation aspect of video games is simply too difficult to translate to film. When you consider the top tier narrative aspect of the Uncharted franchise, adapting that experience to film is a puzzle worthy of Nathan Drake’s expertise.
With that caveat, Uncharted is successful enough as an action-adventure movie with decent chemistry between the leads. Its biggest shortcoming is how often the film is forced to struggle to rise above its, at best, mediocre script.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.