Movies · Reviews

‘Uncharted’ Fumbles a Golden Opportunity

Sony’s movie based on Sony’s video game series should be a no-brainer, but it misses the mark as even mindless entertainment.
Uncharted Review Tom Holland
Columbia Pictures
By  · Published on February 16th, 2022

The act of adapting a video game is taking an interactive story and removing the fun part — the playing of the game — which is the predominant draw of the medium. So the movie has to enhance the entertainment value of the story, whether that’s with over-the-top character portrayals (see Sonic the Hedgehog) or the sort of intense scares and action you’d expect from any good genre fare (see Silent Hill and some of the better Resident Evil installments). Uncharted, based on Sony’s hit video game series, gets points for at least making an effort with its outrageous characterizations and cinematic thrills. But it never overcomes two major problems: the “heroes” are unlikeable rogues, and their adventure is entirely based on greed. They’re indistinguishable from the “villains” in both regards.

Following an unnecessary bit of action in media res, the movie goes back 15 years to introduce us to orphan brothers Nathan and Sam Drake as they attempt to steal a map from a museum. Sam runs away, leaving his brother behind, and the next time we see Nathan, now played as an adult by Tom Holland, he’s a bartender and petty thief who snatches jewelry off his customers while waiting on them. In comes Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) with a proposition. Together, they will embark on a trip to find a lost treasure of gold dumped by the survivors of the Magellan expedition in 1522 — and maybe also find the long-lost Sam. After an internet search that lets Nathan and us in on who Sully is as a person/character, they team up and plan an auction-house heist.

That plan goes somewhat wrong, and it’s only the first of many fumbles made by the protagonists. Are we meant to be reminded that Nathan is a video game character and so by nature has a fallible brain – i.e. that of an everyday ordinary gamer – within his perfect superhero-fit body? At times he seems like a kid who has suddenly been given parkour skills but doesn’t exactly know what to do with them. Both Nathan and Sully are constantly dumbfounded by their luck as if they weren’t sure they could actually pull off any of the steps in their operation. Wahlberg, in particular, looks stunned most of the time as he utters “holy shit!” or “are you kidding me?!” in moments of astoundment coupled with relief. The two of them are nothing but knucklehead bros playing Indiana Jones.

But Indiana Jones, in addition to being more confident, has a moral code defining his treasure hunting exploits. He believes the artifacts he seeks belong in a museum (an honorable notion that is also a debatable one in certain global contexts) and definitely not in the hands of Nazis. Nathan and Sully just want the gold for themselves. As do the other mercenaries and henchmen they encounter, whether they be allies or adversaries (including far more interesting characters played by Sophia Ali and Tati Gabrielle, plus Steven Waddington as a Scottish accent personified). The big bad of Uncharted, Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), may in fact be the most entitled to the riches given that his ancestors financed the expedition in the first place so many centuries ago. What makes Nathan the one we should care about to find and walk away with the gold? He’s just the guy who wins the game, as it were.

That would be fine if he was sold as an antihero who then has to grow as a character, out of his small-time swindling and into someone more virtuous. Other characters tell him he’s a “good guy… too good,” but the movie doesn’t really do anything to show us that about him outside of his being more trusting than everyone else. That’s not good, it’s naive. Meanwhile, Sully is allotted the end of a character arc but not the beginning of one. To make up for their being underwritten, though, the movie does something even worse with the duo: it gives them incessant banter as though they’re supposed to be the ill-matched main characters in a buddy comedy, always bickering and jabbing for no other reason than to have them babbling on and on, perhaps to distract from the lackluster plot.

Of course, they keep on with the jokey back and forth even when the movie ups the action in the third act. Without going into spoilers, Uncharted delivers one of the more original and spectacular set-pieces in recent memory, at least conceptually. Ruben Fleischer’s directorial execution of this sequence – and as a result the editorial execution, as well – leaves a lot to be desired. But there are a number of shots where it all looks cool enough to achieve a sufficient wow factor. Then, it’s over, and so is the movie, sort of (there are two gratuitous end-credits scenes), and there’s no payoff to any of it. Blockbuster entertainment is often excused for being empty and mindless amusement, but shouldn’t one based on a video game offer a feeling of mission accomplished?

Maybe it’s unfair to view Uncharted as “a video game movie” first and simply a movie second. Should it do more or less, or should we even expect anything different from or excuse it as such for what it is? The movie begins with a logo for PlayStation Productions (the first film under this banner), so it’s hard to go in ignoring its video game connection. What viewers want out of something like this, whether they’re familiar with the games or not, will determine its success level to them. Still, anyone going out to the movies (these days especially) deserves a piece of entertainment that stands out on its own by having memorable moments, main characters who aren’t insufferable, and an ending that satisfies the promise that what has occurred beforehand has meant something.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.