In the interest of fairness, this review should be prefaced by noting that this writer has never even owned a PlayStation, never mind played an Uncharted game. However, that’s not really the point when we’re talking about a $120 million blockbuster starring one of the world’s most popular stars, one that Sony really hope launches a franchise.
Bringing a beloved console favorite to the big screen requires a delicate balancing act, one that an alarmingly low number of adaptations have managed to pull off. Lean too far in the direction of unabashed fan service and you risk alienating casual audiences, but veer off to the opposite side of the equation and you could piss off the diehards.
Ruben Fleischer’s Uncharted tries to do both, often at the same time, but the end result is simply the latest in a long line of forgettable actioners that wink and nod to longtime enthusiasts of the source material, while forgetting to craft such trivialities as well-rounded characters, strong plotting, inventive set pieces, or even any sense of fun or urgency.
Uncharted was never going to escape the shadow of Indiana Jones, which is the template by which all globetrotting treasure-hunting adventures will always be measured, so it’s at least smart to name-drop the iconic series and utilize the signature red line on a map to signal far-flung travel, indicating that everybody is fully aware the project will be beaten over the head by contrast and comparison.
We’re dropped right into the cargo plane sequence from the very first frame, which then dives swiftly into a prologue building the dynamic between young Nathan Drake and his older brother Sam, before we jump ahead again into the present day to meet the Tom Holland-shaped version of our protagonist. He’s working as a bartender and petty thief, before Mark Wahlberg’s Sully shows up on the scene to immediately offer him a job, arousing a mixture of suspicion and intrigue.
Holland is without a doubt one of the most charming and likeable figures in Hollywood, but Nate is neither particularly charming or all that likeable, which has a lot more to do with the script than the Spider-Man star’s performance. The actor admitted he struggled with playing a so-called ‘cool guy’ after spending the majority of his career as an outcast of some description, and it shows. On a physical level, Holland gives everything he has to the performance as he pulls off some nifty fight choreography, but don’t go in expecting a charismatic tour-de-force.
His opposite number effectively plays himself, which is unfortunate when the square-jawed Mark Wahlberg: Action Hero persona is by far the least interesting weapon in his onscreen arsenal. Nate and Sully are supposed to gradually warm to each other with the aim of generating a classic buddy movie dynamic, but Holland and Wahlberg have precisely zero chemistry. You can’t buy them as friends, colleagues, or even verbal sparring partners, with the majority of the quips and one-liners falling flat.
Along the way, they run afoul of Antonio Banderas’ Santiago Moncada, who seeks the same pirate treasure as our central duo, and you absolutely will not care as to why. One-dimensional villains are par for the course in the studio sandbox, but the only interesting thing in the entirety of Uncharted involving the talented Spaniard turns him into a plot device which furthers the arc of Tati Gabrielle’s Jo Braddock, who at least manages to inject her paper-thin motivations with more personality than the writing deserves.
Sophia Ali’s Chloe Frazer is a definite highlight, though, bringing an enthusiasm to her scenes that nobody else among the cast even comes close to replicating, even if the majority of her contributions to the story are signposted from a mile away, robbing any element of surprise from the late-stage revelations we all know are coming.
There’s plenty to enjoy for fans of the games, even if watching several memorable moments unfold in live-action isn’t anywhere near as fun when you don’t have a controller in your hands. That being said, Uncharted could have done without making Nolan North’s cameo so blatantly on-the-nose, especially when a lot of casual viewers drawn in by the splashy CGI and Holland’s presence won’t have a clue who the voice acting legend even is.
The only time Uncharted really sings is during the climactic third act, which throws everything and the kitchen sink into the equation to deliver a certifiably bonkers finale that involves helicopters, flying pirate ships, cannons, swords, and much more.
That probably should have been the tone throughout, because seeing Wahlberg deliver exposition with a blank face every fifteen minutes to spell the next plot machination out to the audience grows tiring pretty quick. Our leads find a clue, talk it out for a little bit, solve the clue to uncover the next one; rinse and repeat for a solid 90 minutes or so. Plenty of video games are open-world these days, so it’s a touch ironic that Uncharted is so doggedly and derivatively linear.
Given the inconsistent CGI and relatively small scale of Uncharted up until the aforementioned gung-ho airborne naval warfare, the movie obviously couldn’t push the literal boat out from the first to last minute without breaking the bank, so the stakes are necessitated to remain relatively small before building to a crescendo. On the other side of the coin, it’s hard to invest in something that doesn’t really know what it wants to be, and none of the major players on both sides of the camera seem to have much clue, either.
Is it an old fashioned tale of good guys racing to find ancient loot before the bad guys get their hands on it? An origin story to set up multiple sequels? A star vehicle for Holland to prove he can thrive as a blockbuster leading man outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? The work of a studio desperate to create a money-spinning property that doesn’t revolve around either Spider-Man or Jumanji? A carefully-curated IP that’s just bland and formulaic enough so as not to offend anyone, without providing a single scrap of originality?
The answer is yes to all of the above, and that’s without even mentioning the pair of post-credits scenes, one of which has basically already been revealed in a previous TV spot, so there are clearly plans in mind for further installments, although the real question is whether or not the public will vote with their wallets to make it a reality. Uncharted was clearly aiming for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s ended up much closer to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Uncharted aims for old school adventure with a modern sheen, but the end result is the latest in a long line of immediately forgettable video game adaptations.