Video game narratives have evolved drastically in the past ten years, and developer Naughty Dog—the team behind the Uncharted and The Last of Us series—are at the forefront of challenging, exciting, linear storytelling in games. Such creative ingenuity is missing from the latest video-game adaptation Uncharted, which serves us a flimsy adventure film that would have felt underwhelming even by 2004 standards.
Here we get the origin story of the series’ hero Nathan Drake, a quippy, athletic history buff whose love of antiquities and discovering secrets lost to time gets him in all sorts of swash-buckling scrapes that are widely regarded as, on the whole, a lot of fun. But a terminally inert script and direction that can only be described as lacking makes this franchise hopeful feel a lot more desperate than exciting.
Tom Holland is Nathan, in a significantly younger casting choice than fans of the game will remember their hero. He’s paired with his smarmy mentor Sully—played feebly by Mark Wahlberg, who, when the film was first in development a dozen years ago, was attached to play Nathan. Together, they unite to rescue a limitless bounty lost on a seafaring voyage some 500 years prior, one wanted not only by Nathan, Sully, and the villainous Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), but that eluded Nathan’s missing older brother Sam, who he’s not seen for fifteen years.
In order to not waste an audience’s time, all a movie like Uncharted really needs is a clever mystery and fun action. The former is barely attempted; our historical puzzle has all the complexity of a tacky escape room, and our characters’ investigative prowess basically extends to saying they need to find a thing and then immediately going, “there it is.” It’s utterly baffling no-one has found the lost treasure prior to this, when Nathan and his team possess no unique skills and are faced with such an easily solvable challenge.
The action fares marginally better. While all the hand-to-hand combat suffers from the usual assault of shaky-cam and quick-cuts we’re used to from mediocre action films, there’s genuine enjoyment in the bigger, swooning set-pieces when the film embraces its over-the-top potential. But an action scene only feels compelling if we care about the people fighting for their lives, and the vague sketching our heroes receive does little to vitalise characters who have otherwise received four games worth of development. Thanks to Holland and Wahlberg, most of Uncharted consists of men with locked jaws and fixed stares talking about treasure.
It’s unfair to fault Holland, who manages to imbue Nathan with some spark with ease, clearly relishing in playing a character with more of an edge than he’s used to. The strength of Tom Holland’s performance, however, seems incongruous to any of the film’s contextual quality; he’s good because he’s a good performer, a charismatic and compelling screen presence, not because the compilation of any story and filmmaking elements aid him in any way.
And despite Wahlberg feeling woefully miscast, the pair aren’t entirely ineffectual together. There exist isolated moments of fun banter and energy between them, and at times the script remembers that character dynamics should be antagonistic in order for an audience to care about two people joining together by the end. But the laugh rate is far too low for a relationship that is supposed to be the heart of the series.
The lack of energy with the film’s comedic elements extends elsewhere, too. The directing style of Ruben Fleischer, who broke out with 2009’s Zombieland, is non-existent. Everything feels flat and unmotivated, characters will stand and meander around scenes with all the energy and drive of a video-game NPC; they’re just there when they’re needed, and not because anything compelling has driven them there. Our heroes walk into scenes in the same, completely unfazed way, regardless of whether they’re in a shabby New York apartment or a 500 year old pirate ship.
Delving into any of the discussions around the Uncharted game series, from fans as well as developers, is now a little depressing. It’s clear the game creators have put years of work into crafting something substantial, and there’s a wealth of fans who appreciate what’s been made. This film just shows a dismissive attitude towards what made that story great, leaving compelling characters feeling hollow. This isn’t an adaptation, it’s monetization, and a feeble attempt at that.