Adapting a video game into a movie has become an inherently Sisyphean task, as the legacy of these projects often leave much to be desired. Yet these movies’ infamously poor track record didn’t stop Sony Pictures from mining its own gaming properties, turning the immensely popular Sony Interactive game series Uncharted into a feature film. On paper, leveraging one of Sony Interactive’s most popular PlayStation franchises seems like a no-brainer. Yet herein lies the central tension of Uncharted the movie: if you’re turning a game inspired by adventure flicks like Indiana Jones into a film, does the final product result in an ouroboros-like circle? The answer is a resounding yes.
Hitting theaters a staggering 14 years after it was first announced, the Ruben Fleischer-helmed movie plays fast and loose with the previously established video game canon. Uncharted provides an origin story of famed adventure Nathan Drake (Tom Holland), combining the various threads of Nathan’s past—previously detailed across four PlayStation games—into one cohesive whole. The film quickly establishes Nathan’s connection to his older brother Sam through a flashback before springing forward to present-day NYC, as Nathan moonlights bartender with a penchant for Cocktail-like tricks—only to pick the pockets of the wealthy clientele he serves. In a whiplash-like fashion, Drake’s handy skillset is noticed by Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg, woefully miscast), who recruits the young buck to recover a secret key that could lead to the discovery of a treasure trove of missing gold from Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation. Drake is understandably skeptical until Sully mentions he and Sam—who Nathan hasn’t seen in years—got close to discovering the treasure. From there, the pair sets off on a globe-trotting expedition of their own, one which sees them encounter the villainous Santiago Moncada (Antonion Banderas, criminally underutilized) and his enforcer Jo Braddock (a scenery-chewing Tati Gabrielle) while also crossing paths with Chloe Frazier (Sophia Ali, the movie’s best performer), an old associate of Sully’s.
The adventure that ultimately unfolds channels little of what made the game series a beloved hit. The script (attributed to writers Rafe Lee Judkins, Art Marcum, and Matt Halloway) often feels stilted, cold, and devoid of any real personality; it’s a shame given how vibrantly the characters of the game exploded off the screen with their memorable charm. The same goes for the cinematic inspirations—Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean (both of which get direct nods in the dialog), and National Treasure, to name a few—which are glaringly apparent while containing none of what made those movies special. Hell, even the ripped straight-from-the-game setpiece feels devoid of any tension or excitement that made it so exhilarating to play upon its release in 2011. Part of this is the nature of big-budget blockbuster filmmaking in 2022; the big sequences are almost entirely green screen and create such a dissonance from the (fleetingly few) on-location scenes that you may wish you were just playing the game; at least you don’t have a stark clash between real people and glaringly obvious CGI there.
There is some treasure to be found amidst the ruins, however. There was much ado about the casting of Tom Holland as Drake, considering the protagonist of the game world is about a decade older than the No Way Home actor. Still, the movie’s function as an origin story works for resetting expectations accordingly. The cinematic Drake is new in his adventuring days and, as a result, lacks the pragmatism and caution of the game Drake. That’s not to say Holland’s version won’t end up there—a post-credit sequence certainly sets the stage for future tales—but this Drake skews far closer to the optimism Holland displayed as Peter Parker. It’s a different approach, but it mostly works (the script doesn’t do Holland many favors in terms of dialog) for this specific take. Overall, Holland acquits himself better here than he did in last year’s Cherry. The same goes for Sophia Ali, who effortlessly steps into the role of Chloe Frazer; Ali’s performance will likely be as well-received as her game counterpart—Ali nails Frazer’s conflicted self-interest and duplicitous nature.
While most of the action sequences feel a little inert, credit is due to the execution of the closing setpiece, which was the first moment where I felt some sense of actual scale and adventure. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t produce more stunning visuals, especially with Oldboy cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung behind the camera. If you can’t get something striking from the guy who shot this, well, then I don’t know what to tell you.
The lack of any real memorable moment feels like the main problem with Uncharted. Perhaps the project was doomed from the start; Fleischer is the seventh director to board the project throughout that 14-year-period. Some of the departures came from scheduling conflicts, others from creative disputes, but that much churn over such a long time likely led to a film that just needed to get out the door. As a result, Uncharted ultimately feels like a movie designed by committee. The resulting product doesn’t feel distinctive enough to separate itself from the adventure flicks it so clearly loves—but isn’t familiar enough to effectively channel what made the games so beloved in the first place.