REVIEW: ‘Uncharted,’ a game that wants to be a movie is now a movie that should be a game

(Image: Sony Pictures Releasing)

Starting with Drake’s Fortune in 2007, Naughty Dog’s Uncharted video game franchise has become renowned for its effective storytelling, impressive setpieces, and memorable characters. Inspired by adventure novels, pulp magazines, and the Indiana Jones and National Treasure movies, the game and resultant franchise of the first popular examples of a video game trying to be a movie. Since then so many live action game-to-film adaptations have been released that the entire genre has earned a reputation for being generally bad, with the most notorious being Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li and all of Uwe Boll’s tax write-offs, and the most successful possibly being last year’s Werewolves Within (a contender for our Ten Best Films of 2021). Sadly, regardless of its early cinematic ambitions, Uncharted is unlikely to change this reputation. Even when separated from its gaming roots, the film simply lacks the charm and thrill that originally inspired the franchise.

Beginning on one of the most iconic scenes from the game series, Uncharted discards introducing its characters to instead introduce its tenuous grasp on physics as our then-unnamed hero Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) somehow flings himself forward along a trail of cargo boxes streaming from the open hold of an airplane. While Nathan’s apology to a man he instinctively kicks to his death does some work in establishing his character, starting the film on this scene typifies the unearned spectacle that overrides the rest of the movie. Even when the scene returns roughly halfway through the film’s narrative, there are no added stakes or investment in the character or the situation. It’s a neat visual, and fans of the series should enjoy the callback to the film, but by beginning at this point rather than another, either in the build-up to this scene or even the one immediately following, Uncharted tosses away any sense of, pardon the pun, gravity toward its story and characters.

The very start of “Uncharted”‘s troubles. (Image: Sony Pictures Releasing)

Character is another of Uncharted‘s main sticking points. While unfair to judge the film against the games it’s based on, only one of which I’ve personally played, it’s impossible not to look at how miscast Tom Holland is in the role of Nathan Drake. Between his known acrobatic skills and the remarkable condition he’s gotten into, Holland is easily believable in the physical tasks of the role: running, jumping, climbing; yet his presence, the way he talks, moves, and interacts with the other characters, simply doesn’t fit into the role of the swashbuckling action hero. The same boyish charm that made Holland such an endearing Peter Parker clashes with Drake’s implied bravado and swagger, shallow as those may be. It’s arguable Holland fits with this being Drake’s first adventure and easy to imagine him growing into the role, yet at this point in time Holland’s presence on screen simply isn’t big enough to carry the film.

Where the story requires a Drake whose confidence acts as cover for doubt, Holland comes off more as a kid trying to act like an adult, failing to sell the quips and banter which liter the script and the quirks and foibles meant to undercut Drake’s confidence. He seems to grow into the character as the film progresses, yet still fits into a role clearly designed for early 2000’s Nathan Fillion as much as Peter Parker fits the role of Captain Malcolm Reynolds: he may eventually learn to play the part, but he will never own the part. Holland is a talented actor, but this is not part for him right now. The same could be said of Sophia Ali, who has decent chemistry with Holland, but isn’t believable as an old partner for Wahlberg’s grizzled and often disinterested adventurer. This general doubt in the characters only adds to the distance of Uncharted‘s story, making the entire thing feel less like a thrill ride than a YouTube reaction video to watching a thrill ride.

Tom Holland handles the running and the jumping well. The other stuff… eh. (Image: Sony Pictures Releasing)

Contrary to the film’s video game origin, Uncharted could have benefited from adhering closer to reality. Although obvious effort is placed in the film’s action sequences, Uncharted feels like as a missed opportunity in spotlighting practical effects over computer generated imagery. Sure, we might not have had Tom Holland throwing himself forward against all laws of aerodynamics, but what would be lost in over-the-top spectacle could be gained in grit, intensity, and, as mentioned, gravity. At the very least, beginning on the ground, with all the force the world carries, would add weight to scenes of characters falling and tossing about. Instead, none of the film’s action sequences feel the least bit consequential, not only because we know that franchise demands dictate they survive and that they will do so unscathed, but that the action itself doesn’t look believable on screen.

Superheroes can get away with shaky physics because the characters are literally beyond human, but a film ostensibly set in the real world, where figures such as Ferdinand Magellan existed, should feel like it takes place in the real world. In one film, Uncharted jumps to same level of heightened reality it took Fast & Furious nine movies to reach. As an example in how much of a difference grounded action can make, compare Die Another Day, with its invisible cars and tsunami surfing, to Casino Royale‘s parkour chase through a construction site. Uncharted could’ve been a showcase for practical effects and stunt work in the vein of the franchise’s main cinematic influence, early Indiana Jones films, and a way for Holland to show-off his skills the way Tom Cruise does in Mission Impossible or Matt Damon in the Bourne films. If absolutely nothing else can we please, please, stop with the idea that people are able to launch themselves off falling objects? Leave that stuff to superheroes and video games.

Braddock in ‘Uncharted’ has a great look, and that’s about it. (Image: Sony Pictures Releasing)

There are enough enjoyable moments dotted throughout Uncharted‘s runtime to make the film decent popcorn entertainment, the type that’s watched when you have nothing else to do, absolutely must get out of the house for the first time in two years, or just want to turn your brain off for a couple of hours. As well, the film will surely do wonders for the careers of Holland, Ali, and Tati Gabrielle as, miscast as they are, they all look great. In fact, most of the film looks great. The sets are impressive, Spain and the Philippines are beautifully filmed, and the direction is competent if unremarkable. However, there is nothing on-screen that makes Uncharted an interesting or even necessary addition to the video game-to-film genre, likely making it the perfect addition to a genre that includes dozens of uninteresting and unnecessary game-to-film adaptations. Perhaps if any of the original writers, Amy Henning, Neil Druckman, and Josh Scherr, were involved in the production the film could’ve captured some of the charm and character that made the source material worth adapting in the first place. As is, the film isn’t exactly a generic adventure with an Uncharted skin, but it’s about as empty as a novel-to-film adaptation that uses the same names and locations without any of the themes or nuance captured in the prose. Perhaps we should start using the phrase, “The game is better.” Simply, the film feels empty, so light as to float away, entirely unlike a line of cargo dangling from the back of an airplane.

It’s like doing a puzzle in a video game, if the game does the puzzle for you. (Image: Sony Pictures Releasing)

More than any of its other troubles, Uncharted is a victim of timing. Ten years earlier, when the film was initially scheduled, and Nathan Fillion would’ve been perfect for a role that seems to be based on him. Ten years from now and perhaps Holland gains the swagger and weathering needed to pull off a roguish thief turned adventurer. As is, Uncharted‘s casting is clearly aimed at building toward future installments in the franchise. Unfortunately, given what’s on screen right now, the film isn’t worth having a future. Some things are better left lost.

Rating: 2 / 5

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.