It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a triple-A videogame in possession of a fanbase must be in want of a subpar movie adaptation – so in many ways, it’s surprising that Uncharted took so long to get to the screen.
Plans to bring treasure-hunter Nathan Drake into live-action have been swirling around since the time the first PlayStation 3 title Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was released in 2007, with about half a dozen different directors, writers and stars attached to the project since then. Now, the game of development hell musical chairs has stopped with Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg signed on, and Zombieland’s Ruben Fleischer directing.
Unfortunately, the film hasn’t benefitted from its slow cook. Despite an obvious respect for the game and its traditions, Uncharted is an ultimately bland misfire from Sony that’s kneecapped by poor casting from the off. While there are flashes of what made the games so absorbing, there’s little here that feels exciting or original, and the best you can say is that it’s not an actively unpleasant watch.
The film is set before the timeline of the games, and seems carefully placed avoid ruffling too many fan feathers by telling a new story instead of "replacing" one from the games. The basics are the same, however: Nathan Drake (Holland) is a wisecracking, athletic treasure hunter tracking down some lost, ancient fortune in exotic climes, aided by his friend and mentor Sully (Wahlberg) while competing with other treasure hunters.
In this case, they’re hunting the lost gold of Ferdinand Magellan, a real-life historical figure who (in the world of the film) hid a load of treasure he was supposed to bring back to his wealthy backers. The descendant of those backers, Antonio Banderas’ Moncada, is now looking for the gold he considers rightfully his, hiring a rival tomb raider (Tati Gabrielle’s Braddock) to pursue Nate and Sully through swanky auctions, Spanish catacombs and lush tropical islands as they look for clues.
So far, so PlayStation – but as noted, there is one significant change. The film’s big gambit is to create something of an origin story for the Nathan Drake we met in 2007, showing how he met several of his friends and first got into the treasure-hunting biz. The Drake of the games is experienced, rough-and-ready and in his early 30s. Holland’s Drake, meanwhile, looks to be about a decade younger and is just starting out. Sully, meanwhile – portrayed in the games as an older, cigar-chomping Magnum PI type – is pretty unrecognisable, played by Wahlberg as an untrustworthy, worldly thief who takes Holland under his wing.
More like this
It’s easy to see why this approach was taken. There’s less chance of a direct comparison with the games, the film can’t be accused of "ruining" them and it allows for the casting of the fresh-faced Holland, whose stock couldn’t be higher for Sony following Spider-Man: No Way Home. One has the sense that the whole film was retrofitted to include his particular skillset, right down to the fancy acrobatics Nate employs in fight scenes.
So yes, the change makes sense. But here’s the thing – it just doesn't work. Uncharted falls into the same trap as Solo: A Star Wars story, giving us backstory for how a cool, worldly rogue started out as an innocent kid, thinking fans want that extra story. But part of the appeal of these characters is their chequered past, mysterious dealings and unspoken experiences. We meet them when they’re already formed into the best version of themselves – going back through their old baby photos is far less interesting.
And it doesn’t help that, as many fans had speculated, Holland is generally miscast as Drake. While the film tries to add a bit more grit to his wholesome Spider-Man persona – there’s a running “bit” where he chugs down alcoholic beverages, which slightly reminds of a teenager trying to look grown up – he’s still too much of an ingenue to fully convince in the role of street-smart treasure hunter.
You get the feeling watching this film that actually, Wahlberg would have made a better Nathan – during one attempt to make the film years ago he was actually signed on to play him, before the project stalled – but instead applies a version of the Drake personality to Sully, meaning that neither of the film’s key characters feels like they should.
To some, this might seem like fanboy griping. I recognise that a lot of my criticisms stem from videogame comparisons, and it could be argued that for most viewers that won’t matter. The majority of people who come to see Uncharted won’t have played the game and will just know this version of Nathan Drake, so on those terms perhaps the film can stand on its two feet.
But frankly, those feet are pretty unsteady anyway. Even without the knowledge that there’s a better version of this story out there, there’s no mistaking that Uncharted is bland and half-hearted, bringing little to the table that audiences won’t have seen done better before. The mysterious treasure hunts and old vaults sequences were better in National Treasure nearly 20 years ago, the stunts were better in the likes of Mission: Impossible and James Bond. Certainly, the buddy-movie chemistry between the leads has been more convincing in any number of films over the last decade.
It’s all just… OK. A couple of action sequences are fun (especially one involving a cargo plane, lifted directly from one of the games as signified by a fan-friendly cameo), there are some lovely locations and there are enough nods to the games to keep players happy (yes, Nathan does climb some things).
And of course, Uncharted always had a difficult path to navigate. In a well-plotted videogame, players are treated to something like 20-30 hours of slow-burn immersive storytelling, and no film could truly compete with that. Compared to a full Uncharted game release, a film adaptation would always look a little thin.
But that doesn’t excuse the series of own goals this film scores in its casting, script and general creative direction. For years, people have positively described the Uncharted games as cinematic – but based on this movie, that might be less of a compliment than it first appeared.