How is a movie based on a video game more soulless than the game itself? The knock against the world of gaming has long been that they lack a human element, but Ruben Fleischer’s “Uncharted” feels emptier than the award-winning franchise on which it’s based. Dominated by green screen special effects and thin treasure-hunt plotting, “Uncharted” fundamentally lacks the sense of adventure that turned the Sony games into some of the most beloved of all time. What’s most startling is how much the games themselves feel more cinematic in terms of world building, character, and narrative than the actual movie. It’s not quite as disastrous as some video game adaptations, and it’s at least light enough on its feet to never insult the intelligence of its fan base as so many of these movies tend to do. However, “Uncharted” seems to want to ride the goodwill of the video game adventures of Nathan Drake more than create any of its own; it takes no risks and feels like a bare minimum effort in terms of storytelling. Roger famously said that video games can never be art. The ones on which this movie is based are certainly more artistic.
Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) was conceived as a throwback to Indiana Jones and the serial adventure films that inspired him. He should be a smooth-talking treasure hunter, someone who exists in a slightly gray moral area wherein stealing priceless artifacts is warranted because no one else can really appreciate them like Drake. Holland has the agility but quite simply lacks the weight and world-weariness needed for a character like Drake, who was raised in an orphanage and is willing to steal to make ends meet. If Indiana was typically the smartest person in a room, Drake needs to be the one with the sharpest instincts, someone who sees the puzzles of history from a place of expertise and courage. Holland is a smart actor, but he’s just wrong here, always looking a little bit like a kid dressing up as his favorite video game character.
While working at a bar and stealing jewelry from his patrons, Drake is approached by Victor Sullivan aka Sully (Mark Wahlberg), who tells him that he got close to one of the most famous lost treasures in history with Nathan’s brother Sam. They stole the diary of the famous explorer Juan Sebastian Elcano, which will guide them to treasure that was hidden by the Magellan expedition. They quickly cross paths with Santiago Moncada (an Antonio Banderas so underutilized that one has to believe half his part was cut), the heir to the family that funded the original expedition. Moncada’s will is enforced by the tough Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) and the boys reunite with an old colleague of Sully’s in Barcelona named Chloe Frazier (Sophia Ali, who pretty much steals the movie).
“Uncharted” bounces these characters off each other on a journey to Spain and the Philippines, but nothing has any weight to it. It’s green screen performing that ignores how much setting can matter in a film like this one. Design never once feels like a consideration, whether Nathan and Chloe are crawling through a nondescript tunnel to hidden treasure or Sully is getting into one of the few fight scenes in an actual Papa John’s. A film like “Uncharted” needs to transport audiences. We need to go on the journey, not just watch actors pretend to fall out of planes. The “Uncharted” games take players around the world. You’ll never once get that feeling during this cold, distant adventure film.
If anything saves “Uncharted” from the depths of the worst video game adaptations, it’s the relative charm of the cast. Holland may be miscast, but he’s just an incredibly likable movie star, and I hope he can find parts that better utilize his charms. Wahlberg creates a nice balance between his charisma and the exhausted tone of a treasure hunter who has seen and done enough, and just wants that final gig that can set him up for life. Banderas is wasted and Gabrielle is inconsistent, but Ali is arguably the one performer who gets that “Uncharted” should be fun. She gives the film some much-needed energy and unpredictability when she’s on-screen.
“Uncharted” is another one of those projects that has been through so many potential production teams over the years that it lost its identity. There are reports going back to 2008 about different filmmakers trying to get this movie made and David O. Russell, Neil Burger, Joe Carnahan, Shawn Levy, Dan Trachtenberg, and Travis Knight were all rumored or even attached at different points. When a project goes through so many iterations over the years, it can often lead to a final film that feels like a compromise, a watered-down version that took the most common, most basic elements of everything that had been suggested over the years. “Uncharted” checks boxes for fans and newbies but does so in such a predictable manner that it lacks any edge or spark. I’ve played through some of the “Uncharted” games from beginning to end more than once, a multiple-hour commitment. It may only take two to watch it, but I’ll probably never see this movie again.
Opens in theaters on Friday, February 18th.