Review: Uncharted

The curse of the video game to film adaptation too often rears its head – the problem is that games offer a particularly unique perspective on a story and your direct actions in playing it out. Like a book, you experience a game very differently to a film – you’re passive in a cinema or on your sofa watching something, but you’re active and involved in playing a game, just as your brain paints what you read in your own mind uniquely.

To this point, there’s not been an awful amount of evidence to argue that video game adaptations have got any better. I enjoyed Assassin’s Creed for the brave oddity that it was, but it wasn’t a stellar game film. Sony has struggled for years (over a decade now) to make a film of its Uncharted series, ploughing through directors and development hell, but having finally done it, Uncharted is enough of a success to suggest it’s come closer than most to breaking the curse.

Orphan Nathan “Nate” Drake (Tom Holland) scams and steals his way to a living having been abandoned by older brother Sam as a teenager, both having been convinced they’re related to Francis Drake and as such obsessed with treasure-hunting. Rumbled during a sting by swindler Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg), Nate joins forces with him to track down a fabled haul, in competition with Spanish billionaire Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), mercenary Braddock (Tati Gabrielle), and friend/foe Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali).

Having played every one of the five games, I can give the insight that (if you’re not aware of them) they’ve been some of the most cinematic and thrilling video games yet made. The irony is that they’re as close to immersive films as you could get, which makes it that much harder to create a movie that feels similar in style but that stands alone as a film.

In picking director Ruben Fleischer, whose previous films merge comedy and action (like Zombieland), Sony clearly aimed to bring the games’ balance of humour, story, character and action across. Fleischer achieves this quite well, and while the film does sometimes feel a bit rushed and slight, it capably balances these elements, though it can’t hold a torch to the games when it comes to involved, dramatic and engrossing action and environments (I’m not sure it’d be possible, to be honest!).

However, only one main set piece is stolen from the games, and the main plot and motivation (ie, the treasure) is new. Also, in casting Tom Holland rather than a mid-30s actor like the game character, room is left for creativity and breathing space as an origin for Drake. The screenplay by Rafe Lee Judkins, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway cleverly integrates much that makes the games great into this origin, while props and costumes are identical to game equivalents, rewarding those of us who’ve played them. It also jettisons the focus on the supernatural, a welcome shift given how tied to Indiana Jones the series already is, and as such resisting another connection.

The story is nothing particularly strong or weighty – if you’ve seen an Indiana Jones movie, or any treasure hunt film, you won’t be surprised by anything that happens here. What carries it through is the charm and chemistry from and between Holland and Wahlberg, a pairing I didn’t think would have suited these characters, but which seems perfect in retrospect.

Tom Holland’s involvement in franchises now essentially bakes in a fairly good audience, and Sony have been clever here to tie Spider-Man into a new franchise. The irony of this film’s long and torturous path to the screen is that Wahlberg was attached to the role of Nate for years, but is now playing Sully – Holland’s youthfulness dovetails strangely well with Wahlberg’s still youthful appearance, though the age gap is one big source of humour.

Holland strikes a different tone to his more scrappy, chaotic Spider-Man, playing more to his own age and giving Nate a mid-20s, try-anything bravado and charisma punctured with pratfalls or over-confident failures. While less grizzled than game Nate, his top comic timing and commitment to action and stunts set him aside as one of the only young actors capable of providing that balance.

As mentioned, chemistry with Wahlberg is surprisingly great, and they really complement one another in terms of how they authentically approach the characters as portrayed in the games. Wahlberg ably plays second fiddle and gives Sully more life than the often world-weary game equivalent – getting his own action scenes as well as plenty of sparky dialogue and manipulative smarm.

The film succeeds as an adaptation mainly because of these two, as well as shooting across the world in various international locations, including Barcelona and the South Pacific. A globe-trotting storyline is not the only similarity to a certain fedora-wearing American archaeologist (even the travel map tracking their progress owes a debt to those films), but editors Chris Lebenzon and Richard Pearson ably assist with keeping everything propulsive and constantly moving – it’s not a film with a lot of dead time.

I’ve talked at length about what makes it good: it’s not perfect by any sense though. Renowned cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung doesn’t really make much impact beyond a stunning set piece in a modern art gallery, and an over-abundance of greenscreen (thanks COVID) doesn’t help him out. Ramin Djawadi’s surprisingly forgettable score is also a shame given how good the composer is, though arrangements of the game’s memorable main theme hit perfectly when deployed.

Ali’s dodgy Aussie accent slightly derails an otherwise good performance as Nate’s on-off partner-in-crime/rival Chloe, merging the character’s humour and knowing nature with hints at a dark past and trust issues. Banderas’ Moncada is a bit of an inert antagonist to be quite honest, and doesn’t really get given much to work with beyond obvious character shift, though where his story goes was a nice surprise.

Antagonist Jo Braddock is played by the imposing Tati Gabrielle, who while physically capable and offering an air of danger is also really not that memorable or particularly vivid as a villain. Finally, game fans need to keep their eyes and ears open for a quick appearance by a memorable voice…

Overall, Uncharted is quite slight compared to the bigger treasure-hunter fish, but it’s a clever adaptation from console to cinema, and strong chemistry and humour stemming from casting Holland and Wahlberg means it does a good enough job of adapting and respecting the games, planting a flag for a new comedy-action franchise and for more homages to the series going forward.

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