Video game adaptation Uncharted reads its treasure map upside down

Uncharted (Sony Pictures)

Despite a strong lead performance from Tom Holland, this video game adaptation doesn’t fully escape the curse of its forebears.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A treasure hunter walks into a Papa John’s franchise in the middle of beautiful Barcelona. He’s there to unlock a complicated puzzle in the hopes of getting one step closer to finding the gold lost during the epic journey of Ferdinand Magellan 500 years prior. The man is Victor “Sully” Sullivan, played by Mark Wahlberg, who appears to be going through the motions without any real fun or excitement, just like this movie.

It’s a given with modern blockbusters that product placements will happen, but this isn’t like James Bond driving around in a Jaguar. A major action set piece in this film is set in an exotic locale yet still stuck in America’s worst pizza chain. It would be like if Spielberg shot Indiana Jones’ famous shootout from Raiders inside Egypt’s finest Orange Julius. It’s a flagrant use of corporate sponsorship that adds nothing to the story and embarrasses everyone involved.

The rest of Uncharted, a sort-of prequel to the popular action-adventure video game series from Naughty Dog, is competently made and has a few moments of inspiration, which makes it the Citizen Kane of video game adaptations by default. Director Ruben Fleischer, who knew how to have some big-budget fun with Zombieland, brings his journeyman bonafide to this one, but can’t give the film the epic grandeur needed for a fun adventure. He even wastes the talents of Park Chan-wook’s longtime DP, Chung-hoon Chung, Uncharted shot either in close-ups or the characters are surrounded by screensaver-level vistas.

Uncharted (Sony Pictures)
Uncharted (Sony Pictures)

The script, written by Rafe Judkins, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway, also doesn’t do anyone any favors here with a plot that works too much like the video games. The treasure-hunting crew must get Object A (Magellan’s gold) but before they get that, they need Object B (A random tree in Barcelona) but before they get that, they need Object C (A bedazzled cross from the 16th Century). This kind of plotting works when playing a goal-oriented video game where you can complete side-quests or collect items to keep things interesting, but when a film leans into this kind of deliberate plotting, it comes off like watching a PlayStation game cutscene instead of experiencing a story. 

The exceptions are two standout sequences that come too late to make a big difference. The first, involving a chaotic showdown in an airplane cargo hold, is one of the only sequences that captures the breathless, mad-cap action of the video games (keep your physics logic at home, please). 

But the climactic chase sequence is when Uncharted finally comes into its own, with an imaginative set-piece combining a helicopter chase with the swashbuckling fun of Pirates of the Caribbean. If only the filmmakers were able to start where they finished. Instead, they rely on Tom Holland‘s charisma as Nathan Drake to carry the day. 

Luckily, Holland is one of our most charming actors working today, and he knows how to center a blockbuster, so he’s mostly able to carry this thing on his back. Nathan starts out as a young boy in an orphanage, saying goodbye to his big brother, Sam (Rudy Pankow). When Sully tries to recruit the grown-up (and expert thief) Nathan to help him find Magellan’s gold, he mentions he’s worked with Sam in the past. Nathan’s love of history and adventure comes from his big bro, so when he hears his name mentioned, he jumps at the opportunity.

Uncharted (Sony Pictures)
Uncharted (Sony Pictures)

Nathan may be chasing gold, but he’s really chasing the brother that got away. It’s a deep emotional well that the game series taps into wonderfully (see Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception), but here it rings hollow. Holland does his best to keep himself (and the audience) emotionally invested, but the script hamstrings him with obvious foreshadowing and ham-fisted dialogue. 

Still, Holland’s innate charm helps usher us through some of the worst of it, especially early in the film when he works as a bartender in New York City. He spouts history lessons as he serves patrons cocktails and steals their jewelry at the same time, a nifty little reminder that he can do the plucky-lead thing in his sleep, even when tha material doesn’t serve him well.

The other notable performance here is Tati Gabrielle as Braddock, the diabolical minion for the Big Bad of the film, Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas). The only thing more badass than her sharp white haircut is her sleeve tattoos. Gabrielle brings a cunning, playful intensity to the role, but the movie sells her short by having Sully warn Nathan how terrifying she is without showing her doing anything. When the plot thickens, Gabrielle’s performance gets more magnetic and surprising, but the script keeps her from her full Bond villain potential.

Uncharted may not be the rollicking good time we want it to be, but people may forget that the first game wasn’t so hot either. With Holland at the center and infinitely fun ways to find treasure in beautiful locations, future sequels could get better as the games did. They could also jump ahead 20 years and cast Nathan Fillion to answer the prayers of the series’ ardent fans. But for now, we’re stuck with a dull attempt at a blockbuster franchise that’s as middle-of-the-road as the pizza that sponsors it.

Uncharted finds its way to theaters February 18th.

Uncharted Trailer:

Sean Price

Sean Price was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana before moving to Chicago to pursue improv and sketch comedy. He has written, directed and produced several short films, music videos, and feature length screenplays.

He’s also performed and co-written several sketch shows, including a film-centric solo show called “Sean Price Goes to the Movies by Himself” at the Playground Theater.

When he's not contributing to The Spool, you can see him perform improv regularly at the IO Theater and ComedySportz Chicago.

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