A young Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) moonlights by tending bar and pickpocketing unsuspecting customers. One night, he’s recruited by Victor Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) to locate a lost hoard of gold as well as Nate’s Brother, Sam (Rudy Pankow). But they have competition with business leader Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), who wants to use the treasure to restore his family’s fortune, going so far as to recruit mercenary Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle). Meanwhile, Drake and Sully have to cooperate with Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali) who’s ready to betray them at any moment to collect the treasure for herself.
Initially christened as Dude Raider for copying Lara Croft, the Uncharted series is one of PlayStation’s most popular franchises. Spanning four games and two spin-off adventures, it paved the way for big budget video games that rely on both story and action set pieces, even though the narratives amount to popcorn flicks that were already accused of ripping off Indiana Jones. But with over 41 million units sold, a movie was inevitable after the success of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, although Sony hasn’t had as much luck in the film industry. 2016’s Ratchet and Clank bombed at the box-office and cancelled an animated Sly Cooper movie. Uncharted itself went through more than a decade of development hell with directors and writers coming and going like David O. Russel, Neil Burger, Seth Gordon, Shawn Levy, and even Laika founder Travis Knight. Wahlberg was initially cast as the lead, but he ultimately aged out of the role and settled for the second spotlight. And with The Last of Us prepping for a release on HBO Max, it seems that Sony is more confident in transitioning its games to a different medium.
As someone who’s played the games religiously since the PlayStation 3, there was a lot of anticipation from the trailer showing the infamous airplane sequence from Drake’s Deception. And the final result is worthy enough to warrant a special cameo from one of the original stars. But that’s a personal preference because as with every video game movie, this is incredibly flawed. Trying to squeeze a twelve-hour single player campaign into two hours negates the backstories to one-off conversations. At times the treasure hunt is on autopilot when piecing the clues together. All the exploration is condensed to balance out character development and action, one of which takes place in a Papa John’s Pizza. Why they didn’t go with Subway is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t help that the villain with the most interesting motivation gets sidelined by the third act, even if the new antagonist has a playful history with one character.
If that’s what’s wrong, what makes up for it? The execution. Rather than being a straight adaptation of the first game, director Rubin Fleischer (Zombieland and Venom) combines elements from the four main entries to produce an adventure that doesn’t have to be a shot for shot recreation. This is one of the most intense game adaptations that knows what works for a movie to the point where the controller isn’t necessary. Holland is perfectly cast as a younger Nathan Drake that would bring tears to Nolan North in how he adapts the quips, physique, and confidence to an inexperienced youth. This is after all an origin story, and for a movie you can’t start off with a cocky, confident hero without building upon the foundation. Judging from word of mouth, people wanted Nathan Fillion to fill North’s shoes after the 2018 fan film, directed by Allan Ungar, showed what a smaller budget could accomplish (there’s always Chris Pratt if people think Holland is too young). Partnered with Wahlberg, they have a natural comradery that mimics their game counterparts. The same goes for the interactions between all the treasure hunters. The comedy is slick and unpredictable as everyone tries to tolerate the other in pursuit of a bigger reward, and it plays to the game’s strength of humor to both diffuse tension and lighten the mood. Sophia Ali is also perfect as a younger Cloe, always one step ahead of the naïve upstart yet sometimes filled with regret when decisions have to be made.
The rest of the action is so inventive that it’s surprising that they never made it into the games. Again, the plane sequence has a crafty intro and then a clever method of revisiting it from a different perspective. The climax involving a battle on two pirate ships carried into the air literally flies with the scenario in all directions. And while the fan film is the superior adaptation, the action’s direction feels like you friend swiped the controller. For all the problems of the Sony film, at least the action is directed like a movie, and not some Twitch broadcast like in 2005’s Doom:
Though there is a lack of bullets emanating from the main lead despite being a champion in fisticuffs. Some of this might be attributed to the epiphany that Nathan Drake killed hundreds of humans followed by some quirky one-liners over the course of five games. This disjointed tone has recently been criticized in Battlefield 2042. So, to answer the question that’s on everyone’s mind, yes, the games are better, but to those complaining about the lack of realism forget that the games were more about believability:
Despite its many shortcomings, Uncharted is a video game that adequately adapts to a different medium by leaving the controller behind. There are no surprises in terms of treasure hunting tropes, and the lack of focus on the villain is a major pitfall in an otherwise perfectly cast prequel that knows how to utilize the source material. Yes, the games are better, but name a video game movie that surpasses its interactive counterpart (the keyword is “movie”, not television series). For a movie adaptation of what should be a spectator session on Twitch, its execution puts it above other mediocre attempts at the genre. But in retrospect, Netflix shows like Castlevania and The Witcher have solidified television as the definitive medium for future video game adaptations. In television, writers and directors can keep the rich lore while branching into new territory. In a movie, two hours isn’t enough time to flesh out even one title in a franchise, thereby making video game movies more pointless despite the improvements over the years. Going off the polarizing reception among movie goers and gamers, it’s hard to pinpoint who would like this. Between movie buffs that are already familiar with better films like Indiana Jones and gamers that aren’t satisfied with the changes, this might not make the money it needs to continue the series. If given the support, Holland could grow into the role like he did with the MCU Spider-Man films, but at the very least he has proved himself worthy of both the ring and the iconic outfit. If you’re the least bit curious about a film adaptation to a franchise that’s already redefined cinematic storytelling, experience it on the big screen if only to support future video game adaptations that can improve where this faltered. But if you can’t get past the lack of innovations to the treasure hunting story or the lack of interactivity, either watch the Indiana Jones films (yes, including Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) or play the video games. As they say when trying new things in life, fortune favors the bold.