There’s a temptation to grade on a curve with something like Uncharted, which falls into one of the classically doomed genres: video game adaptation.
There are a handful of watchable video game movies (the new Tomb Raider comes to mind, as does Paul W.S. Anderson’s initial Resident Evil). Some of them even approach a certain kind of goodness: I will defend Christophe Gans’s 2006 adaptation of Silent Hill, which uses set design, creepy fog, and genuinely terrifying character design to drape an oppressive blanket of dread over the proceedings. Helpfully, unlike most such films, Silent Hill had a very good cast: Radha Mitchell, Sean Bean, and Alice Krige are no slouches.
Unfortunately, most video game movies are more like the original Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie or the sequel to Silent Hill (which is, I’m not exaggerating, one of the ten worst movies I’ve ever seen) or almost any of the Resident Evilfilms after the first one (excepting the third, which takes place in the wastes of Vegas and hits just the right mix of absurd action and video game homages). While I appreciate the efforts to rehabilitate the absolutely dreadful Super Mario Bros., Bob Hoskins was correct to remember it as his biggest mistake and greatest regret.
The point of this preamble is to say that I’m not opposed to the idea that a video game could make a great movie. After all, for many years no one thought a comic book could make a great movie, and now we only make movies out of comics as best as I can tell. I’m just saying: the evidence shows it’s very hard to make a good video game movie, let alone a great one.
Which brings me to Uncharted, which is based on the series of games that began with Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. This is the sort of game series that feels particularly suited for adaptation to film: It is cinematic in the sense that it features exotic locations, it has action that’s well suited for both exciting stunts and entertaining gunplay, and it’s got a storyline that could’ve fit in with the adventures of Indiana Jones.
The team assembled for this picture looks, on paper, to have been adequate to the task. Director Ruben Fleischer’s work on the Zombieland films has been well received (though, for the record, I’m not really a fan). The cast is very solid: Tom Holland (playing Nathan Drake), Mark Wahlberg (playing Nathan’s mentor, Sully), and Antonio Banderas (playing the scion of the Spanish Moncada family hoping to track down billions in gold stolen from his ancestors centuries ago) all have decent track records, while Sophia Ali and Tati Gabrielle add some femininity and edginess to the proceedings.
But the final product feels a little paint-by-numbers. From the in medias res action-packed opening to the flashback to Drake’s childhood where we learn some of his backstory and the backstory of the quest at hand (something about Magellan and gold, that’s all you really need to know) to the fetch quest that teams Drake, Sully, and Chloe Frazer (Ali) to the puzzle-based search through the tunnels of Barcelona to the double- and triple-crosses by Mancado and henchwoman Braddock (Gabrielle) to the final big set piece involving flying pirate ships (just roll with it), you can feel the script (credited to three distinct teams comprising five writers) working through the motions as the film plays out in front of you.
This is not to say that the picture is aggressively bad (it’s very competently done!) or that say there aren’t some funny bits (Sully gets a cat! Scottish accents are hard to understand!). But the whole thing is just kind of … dull.
Tom Holland plays Drake like Peter Parkour,* hopping around and over and through various obstacles like he’s been pulled directly out of a film from 12 or so years ago. He’s done no favors by the part; there’s just a charisma mismatch when Holland is asked to play a young, wide-eyed Drake squaring off against and trying to stare down Banderas in the film’s opening act.
I will say that Uncharted doesn’t fall into the video game adaptation trap of feeling like a video game brought to life (see, e.g., the first-person sequence in Dwayne Johnson’s Doom). It just feels like a somewhat generic action movie. And that’s progress of a sort, I suppose.
*I will not be googling this phrase to see how many tens of thousands of people have already used it; it’s my joke, you must pay me royalties to use it.