Uncharted and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
The quest for the truly great video game movie has felt like a moot point for years now; especially since people are rediscovering some of those old nineties films and realizing that they were actually pretty good. Mortal Kombat is well regarded for its fun action and interesting aesthetic (certainly more so than its 2021 counterpart) and I still maintain that the Super Mario Bros movie is an unsung classic of the dystopian sci-fi genre. Heck, even with the more recent films like Detective Pikachu, a good chunk of the Resident Evil movies, and arguably Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s hard to say with a straight face that we’re still waiting for someone to “get it right” when there are plenty of examples we can point to that are more than watchable. Now it’s time for Sony’s big cinematic money maker for the PlayStation to try and prove that it can be a good movie in its own right instead of just mimicking big-budget adventure films. Will it be another feather in the game industry’s cap as far as film adaptations, or will this be as quickly forgotten as that Tomb Raider movie from a few years ago? Let’s find out!!
Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) is a lovable crook in the heart of New York as he steals his way through a meager life because how else are you going to afford rent there? He has aspirations of… I guess being Indiana Jones at one point, but it’s not until some shady guy named Sully (Mark Wahlberg) offers him a job that his career as an adventurer finally gets off the ground. With promises of an impossibly large treasure as well as clues to what happened to his missing brother Sam, Nathan jet sets around the world to solve the mystery of Magellan’s lost gold! With the help of an associate of Sully’s named Chloe (Sophia Ali), can this unlikely team manage to find the treasure before ruthless businessman Santiago (Antonio Banderas) and his crew of even more ruthless mercenaries led by Jo (Tati Gabrielle) can take it for themselves? Who is this Sully guy anyway, and is he being forthright with everything he knows about Sam? Does Nathan have any idea what he set himself up for? I mean there are at least four games I could have shown him to give him a clue before he agreed to this ridiculous adventure.
It’s worth noting that I’m not much of a fan of the Uncharted games as I’ve only played the first one all the way through and my memories of it are pretty hazy. With that in mind, I can say that if you are looking for an adequate action film, then this manages to pass that pretty low bar. The fact that this does manage to succeed on its own completely separate from the source material is at least notable, but it also means that the movie doesn’t end up having much of an identity. Whatever iconography the original games had is either not particularly visible here (I don’t remember Nathan looking like a teenager) or utterly generic to the genre it was already an homage to. I mean say what you will about the Paul WS Anderson Resident Evil films, they made themselves distinct in the overcrowded zombie genre. Here? Not so much. You could rename this Indian Jones Junior or National Treasure: The Next Generation and hardly have to change a single detail to make it work which makes me curious as to how the fans are taking this, but regardless of all that it’s a decently crafted and entertaining enough little adventure film. I wish that a movie like this could set its sights a little bit higher and be about more than the well-polished spectacle, but if that’s what you’re looking for this manages to deliver which may be enough for both fans of the games and people who wouldn’t know a PlayStation from a karaoke machine.
You don’t make a movie off of an established franchise to then not use the assets it provides you, so let’s talk about how it handles those. Much like my half-remembered play-through of the first game, the characters are fun enough for the roles they have to fill but are not particularly memorable. Marky Mark is perfectly serviceable as the wise-cracking older guy, but his character is rather one-note and has a particularly juvenile character arc to go through. Still, at least he’s recognizable as that archetype that I vaguely remember Sully being in the games and is frankly a staple of the genre. The one who feels perhaps a bit too far off base is Tom Holland who is fine as an actor but carries a certain amount of baggage that doesn’t fit with the film. It feels like the movie never figured out if they wanted Nathan to be an adult or a teenager so the script has him acting like both throughout; young and inexperienced enough for this to be the first adventure, but also spends a lot of the movie drinking alcohol, and seeing Tom Holland down a bottle of booze is like watching Baby Herman suck on a cigar. This also might be more of a personal thing, but the jacked-up hero look was already starting to feel a bit gauche outside of guys like Dwayne Johnson and John Cena, and it’s especially off-putting on baby-faced Tom Holland who looks like a Cabbage Patch Kid fused with a He-Man action figure. Perhaps focusing on something like that is itself a bit gauche, but it comes off as yet another thing that was added to the movie to maximize the mass market appeal of this movie as they shave off all possible edges to make it smooth and palatable. None of the characters are particularly interesting or go through strong character arcs, and while it manages to stay funny and upbeat with some decently written dialogue, it always feels like a film at arm’s length; something we get to view from behind the glass instead of really getting into the world and its inhabitants.
Still, if we do adjust our expectations and look at this as little more than an overproduced theme park ride, then the action is at least strong enough for the time it has to fill. We’ve all seen the mid-air sequence in the trailers and that’s a lot of fun to see play out as are some of the hand-to-hand fight scenes where Nathan has to come up with plans on the fly; most of which are not very good but manage to work out due to sheer luck. Any good adventure also needs some memorable villains and this movie just manages to meet the mark, albeit with a few caveats. Antonio Banderas is collecting a paycheck the same way Nic Cage does in his weirder movies by just being an amped-up version of himself, but for something like this, you want a bad guy who is willing to chew a bit of scenery to add some much-needed flavor. The other villain is well acted by Tati Gabrielle, but she could have been elevated to a real standout of the movie if there had been some depth to her. There are not-so-subtle hints at a backstory between her and Sully, but it doesn’t get explored enough and so she feels underdeveloped and ultimately a wasted opportunity. The same is true with her henchmen who are pretty generic even by henchmen standards, though at least stand out as the boos goons compared to the lesser goons running around the place. Where the adventure really starts to stumble though are the puzzles that end up being pretty underwhelming. There’s the seed of a clever idea where the inner-workings of the puzzles are in plain sight due to the simple fact that the world has developed around it (an intricate chamber with a mysterious keyhole is now a nightclub with a poster over it), but the movie never quite makes it work. It ends up calling attention to the fact that this mystery is not all that complicated to solve and that modern technology would have found this stuff long before some dudes with a four-hundred-year-old diary.
The worst part of the movie is sadly the part that most resembles an Uncharted game and is kind of an issue with the genre as a whole. You can’t just have your characters motivated to find the treasure for its own sake; otherwise, there’s nothing to really separate them from the villains. In the games, Nathan Drake is mowing down human being after human being in pursuit of a treasure (i.e. looting from another culture’s property), and this movie ends up carrying over that attitude as well. It’s one thing where the treasure is something more than gold or if the villains are more than just treasure hunters, but to have our characters motivated only by the treasure itself into killing people… well it just doesn’t sit right with me and the ending of the movie falls flat because of it. There’s a clear point in the third act where they make this decision to continue pursuing the treasure via bloodshed, and it doesn’t even have the original game’s justification of an evil curse or whatever that could take over the world. This is where the mass market blockbuster polish starts to wear thin as the goal of creating an exciting third act was prioritized over any negative implications it may mean to the narrative, and it’s why I wish this movie could have aimed just a little bit higher than simply being a generic action showcase.
I played the first Uncharted game all the way through, and while I did enjoy my time with it, it’s just not something that stuck with me long enough to even get invested in trying the second game. Consciously or not, it seems like the filmmakers took that lesson to heart and what we end up with is a disposable popcorn flick. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and it’s certainly nice that this film doesn’t waste your time while staying at least somewhat engaging all the way through, but there are only so many brownie points I can give for that; even when it comes to video game movies. If you want to see something bright and punchy on the big screen then this will certainly fit the bill. Anything beyond that? Well, the movie would have had to try harder if it wanted to reach any loftier goals, so they can’t start complaining that meeting their mediocre goals led to a mediocre success.