Uncharted Synopsis: Treasure hunter Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) recruits street-smart Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) to help him recover a 500-year-old lost fortune amassed by explorer Ferdinand Magellan. What starts as a heist soon becomes a globe-trotting, white-knuckle race to reach the prize before the ruthless Santiago Moncada can get his hands on it.
The perilous adventures of Nathan Drake cemented the Uncharted franchise as an undeniable video game staple. Packaging the death-defying thrills and intriguing exploration of Indiana Jones for a modern age, Uncharted conjured a grand sense of adventure similar to its big-screen counterparts across five video games.
I luckily discovered the Uncharted franchise shortly after purchasing my PlayStation 4 and fell in love with its conceits. Developer Naughty Dog demonstrated a remarkable balance of pulse-pounding thrills with nuanced and emotionally-evolving storytelling. While several big-screen blockbusters tried to conjure the adventurous spirit of old-school staples, Uncharted resonated as one of the few adaptations to capture that energy effectively.
Considering the franchise’s success, it’s no surprise that Sony continues to attempt big-screen interpretations of Drake and his company of endearing thieves. Projects with David O. Russell and Limitless director Neil Burger involved ultimately crashed by the wayside as the brand endured a decade-plus in development hell. Like one of the lost relics Drake endlessly searches for, Uncharted seemed destined for an existence in adaptation purgatory.
Nearly 15 years after the first game, Uncharted finally makes its big-screen debut. Touting two Hollywood stars and a globe-trotting premise, Sony appears to set this adaptation up for big-screen success. It may rank in the dough financially, but Sony’s wayward cinematic interpretation of Uncharted reeks of cynicism and presents an inept understanding of its source material.
I frequently find myself in the role of a video game movie apologist, often advocating for misunderstood critical duds, like Tomb Raider and Monster Hunter, that possess an assured understanding of their source material. Viewed in the same adaptation context, Uncharted’s embrace of generic formula makes a mockery of the franchise’s noble narrative ambitions.
Matt Holloway, Rafe Judkins, and Art Marcum, a trio of screenwriter-for-hire personas, are dealt the complicated task of introducing the franchise to a new audience while paying tribute to its small-screen origins. It’s an assignment that the trio completely butcher, although I am sure studio tampering also played a significant role. The trio admitted to borrowing most inspiration from Uncharted 4: A Thieve’s End, which served as the last chapter in Nathan Drake’s adventure franchise.
Even newcomers to Uncharted can see the innate flaws in that approach. Several integral subplots to that game, including Nathan’s search for his long-lost brother, present themselves without the thematic substance that made them so effective. The movie comes off as a weirdly assembled hodgepodge of narrative beats and iconography from the games, elements that the screenplay blends into a poorly-balanced concoction of “remember this in the games” moments. As an experience, it doesn’t hold a candle to the captivating storytelling the Uncharted meticulously crafted over several games.
Much dismay is already out there about the film’s questionable casting choices. Spider-Man star Tom Holland serves as a capable-enough protagonist, but the actor struggles to convey Nathan’s distinct characteristics. Holland and the film neuter Nathan into an energetic puppy dog who stumbles into the life of an adventurer. In contrast, voice actor Nolan North conveyed rich textures under the character’s charismatic bravado. The games never shied away from Nathan’s selfish and egotistical falterings, which helped create a well-rounded lead for audiences to rally behind. Holland’s interpretation leaves viewers with nothing more than bland eagerness.
Other characters from the game come off as bizarre distortions of the source material. Mark Wahlberg is solely cast here for his marketability, with the actor’s typical machismo shtick serving zero relation to Sully’s suave personality. Where the games portrayed Nathan and Sully as intimately-entangled loners who seek solace in one another, Holland and Wahlberg relegate their relationship into a series of humorless one-liners. Sophia Ali presents some occasional charms as the enigmatic Chole Frazer, but the role strips the character of her agency and personality.
I can forgive haphazard adaptation choices if the film in its place creates its own inspired vision. Uncharted certainly doesn’t achieve that. Director Ruben Fleischer and his team present bland aesthetic choices that rarely liven the familiar adventure movie mold. The entire affair feels lifeless in its pursuits, sticking to the bare minimum of blockbuster formula despite adapting a canvas that’s ripe with excitement and inspired ideas.
Uncharted is equivalent to a bad TV pilot. The film introduces a new world of characters and ideas without giving viewers a single reason to invest. Executed without creativity or thought, it’s a film that properly lives up to the bad misnomers surrounding video game movies.