Film Reviews

Uncharted – Film Review

The PlayStation exclusive Uncharted series has been in active development since 2008, merely one year after the first video game entry.  The likes of David O. Russell, Shawn Levy, Seth Gordon, Dan Trachtenberg, and Joe Carnahan have all, at one time or another, been attached to direct the live action version.  Mark Wahlberg has been linked for over a decade, originally slated to play, Nathan Drake, the property’s lead.

In 2017, Tom Holland was cast, as the project pivoted towards an origin story for the adventurer, with the previously 30-something Drake being retooled to his early-20s, and Wahlberg switched to the role of mentor Victor Sullivan.  With Covid delays, and a few final switches in the director’s chair, we arrive at the final film with a 25-year-old lead, in a work helmed by Venom director, Ruben Fleischer.

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After a short snippet of a plane-based action sequence that will turn out to begin the film’s final act, we pick up fifteen years in the past, with Nathan – Nate – a ten-year-old living with his older brother Sam in an orphanage.  Together, they get caught in a museum trying to steal the first map of the world, created after the Magellan expedition’s circumnavigation of the Earth.  Sam escapes the police and disappears, whilst Nate is returned to the home.

Picking up in the present day, Nate is a New York bartender who, in-between his work mixing cocktails, pickpockets his wealthier customers.  Spotted by fortune hunter Victor Sullivan (Wahlberg), Nate is encouraged to involve himself with Victor in the hunt for the gold hidden by Magellan and his crew.  Spanning adventures in New Work, Barcelona, and the Philippines, they work with Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali) – a fellow fortune, hunter, ex of Sullivan and a figure continually warning Drake not to trust their partner – to try to find a haul worth around $5 billion.

Photo by: Clay Enos, ©2021 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved.

On paper, Uncharted should be a reasonably easy adaptation. The games are cinematic in presentation, the locations varied and interesting, and the by-play between Victor and Nate in the games fun, well-written, and sparky.  Nate, himself, is a well-written character: young enough to be energetic and attractive, old enough to be just at the beginning of a little world weary.  Victor is usually a gruff, cigar chomping, yet light presence.  All of this is underpinned by jaw dropping action set pieces in a series of stories that are perpetual motion.

Films are not, however, realised on paper.  Although a stand-out in the video game market, Uncharted was heavily influenced by the Indiana Jones franchise, and it now emerges into a film market that has those films, all of the pale copies – such as National Treasure – as well as having been beaten by the similar adventuring archaeology/treasure hunting property of Tomb Raider.  Having anything new to say against that background is a little more challenging.

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To start with the (few) positives: this is a well-made, decently enough written film, that rarely drags, and always engages.  Tom Holland is fully committed, having gained 18 pounds of muscle for the part, and he attacks the role with relish.  He has decent enough chemistry with his co-stars, and leads a film that looks and feels expensive.  Holland’s personal skillset of having been a terrific gymnast means he can stamp a personal style of the action, and mimic some of the climbing and parkour that we see in the games, but with his own spin added.  That is it for the better features of this film – but it must be made clear that this is very watchable.

The problems with Uncharted begin with the casting.  Tom Holland is not playing Nathan Drake; he is playing Peter Parker as self-taught and from the wrong side of the tracks.  This is his No Way Home performance with a few rougher edges.  This is in no sense his fault, but there is little sense that this guy will come anywhere near to becoming the Nathan Drake that made this a property ripe for Hollywood adaptation in the first place.  Mark Wahlberg was a somewhat logical choice in 2010 to play the lead.  Whether it is in recognition of his loyalty to the project that Sony have kept him in the camp is unclear, but the central hook of this IP is the relationship between Nate and Victor – and the reflection it gives us of the different stages of their lives that they are at.  Here, they are, effectively, the same character, just 20-25 years apart in age.  That defocuses our attention on the lead, as the film has two, and they are really similar.

Photo by: Clay Enos, ©2020 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved.

The decision to have them meet when the younger man is 25 is fine, as far as it goes, but the games have them meet when Nate is 15.  Given he is an orphan, this makes Sully more of a father figure – albeit one who isn’t wholly the best influence.  Consequently, there is little in the way of a bond between the two at this stage, with Sullivan so unreliable that it is very hard to see why they are together.  This leads to another issue, that of the fact that the film leads us to conclude that they can only be together for reasons of greed.  This is incongruous with the young man we meet at the start of the film – one with a real reverence for history as something to be respected.

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Finally, there is the overall lack of originality in the product, deriving excessive influence from other films and the video games themselves.  With the film in general feeling like a pale copy of other movies, in the details they are copying from their own work.  An act 3 cargo plane sequence is a copy of a set piece from the third game.  This is backed up by a cameo from Nolan North (the Drake of the games) who makes the cringe-making observation that something similar once happened to him.  Those unfamiliar with the games will just be baffled by this, and for those who have played them, it is simply a reminder that this has been done better before.  This undermines any sense that this is a prequel, as this is inconsistent with previous tellings of these stories.  With that being the case, this has to be seen as a separate continuity – one that needs stronger inter-character dynamics and more originality in its set pieces if it is to go any further as a property.

Uncharted is out now at cinemas.

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