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Review: Uncharted

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Warning: this review contains mild spoilers for Uncharted based only on trailers and promotional materials, as well as spoilers for the video game series.

After the departure of six directors (including notables like David O. Russell, Shawn Levy, and Travis Knight) and numerous actors and creators over the years, Uncharted, a film based on the hit PlayStation action-adventure video game series, has been through development hell, to say the least.

The Uncharted video game series combined the high-budget cinematic experience of Indiana Jones with the puzzle-solving and exotic adventures of Tomb Raider. Developed by PlayStation first-party studio Naughty dog and helmed by Crystal Dynamics alum Amy Hennig (Legacy of Kain), Uncharted follows the wisecracking Nathan Drake (Nolan North), his mentor Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Richard McGonagle) and journalist Elena Fisher (Emily Rose) as they venture to find treasure around the globe.

Now, nearly 13 years since it was initially announced, the Uncharted film has finally found the silver screen directed by Venom’s Ruben Fleischer and starring Tom Holland as Drake and Mark Wahlberg as Sully (once originally pinned to play Drake).

Uncharted provides a mildly entertaining romp that includes some fun and kinetic action set pieces. The film nails the worldly look (the film’s shooting locations of Spain and Germany are absolutely stunning), scope, and adventure of the games as elements of the game are satisfyingly brought to life on the big screen.

However, Uncharted becomes a somewhat forgettable adventure due to its lack of interesting characters and writing nuance that departs heavily from the source material. Though Holland is a formidable Drake, the same can’t be said for the rest of the characters as the wit, chemistry, charm, and camaraderie masterfully displayed in the games is lost – leaving Uncharted void of the “greatness from small beginnings” the franchise is known for.

Uncharted follows Nathan Drake, a down on his luck bartender with a knack for history and adventure. After he is recruited by big-time fortune hunter Victor Sullivan, Drake and Sully seek to recover the fortune of Ferdinand Magellan lost nearly 500 years ago. Drake and Sully must stay one step ahead of rival hunters Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas) and hired mercenary Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle), who hope to claim the treasure as Moncada’s birthright.

Right from the start of the film, Uncharted makes it clear that it is not out to retell the story of the games. Though Uncharted boasts a brand new adventure, it is still in line with previous Uncharted stories like the search for El Dorado (Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune) or the discovery of Captain Henry Avery’s lost treasure (Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End). Like the games, Drake and Sully go off to find lost pirate loot off the coast of some beautiful country; however, the film’s plot is a lot less nuanced and basic this time around.

For example, Magellan’s treasure is grounded in realism rather than something fantastical. As Uncharted is known for its supernatural elements (i.e. cursed Spaniards or Shangri-La guardians), the film foregoes these plot devices for something entirely realistic. Therefore, Uncharted is a very by the numbers adventure akin to National Treasure rather than Indiana Jones. Though this might be good for some, it does limit Uncharted to representing a basic “mercs vs mercs” type story — one that gets old quickly as Banderas’ Moncada and Gabrielle’s Braddock are painstakingly conventional and ultimately underutilized.

However, the biggest caveat of Uncharted’s move away from the games is with its characters.

Simply put, Drake and Sully (even Sophia Ali’s Chloe Frazer) are not the same characters from the game. Sully is more akin to Drake’s annoying uncle rather than the impactful and deep father figure showcased previously by McGonagle. Though Uncharted is an origin story (the film even takes some of its upbringings from Uncharted 4) and the film’s creators are shooting for a younger Drake in Holland, it’s hard not to see Wahlberg as completely miscast as Sully. The dynamic between Holland and Wahlberg feels incredibly awkward, with Wahlberg phoning it in for most scenes. The witty banter between Drake and Sully (a main staple of the series) is completely lost due to poor joke delivery made worse by the lack of chemistry between Holland and Wahlberg.

Additionally, Holland’s Drake is a lot less nuanced, relatable, and interesting than North’s. The dad-bod, mid-30s, wisecracking, and imperfect Drake played by North is exchanged for a younger Holland that retains his muscular Spider-Man physique (something Holland critiques himself in an interview with GQ).

Holland’s Drake moves and fights like a choreographed parkour expert rather than a stumbling everyday guy who makes it out alive by sheer luck alone (a trait that Nathan Fillion absolutely nails in the 2018 Uncharted fan film). Though Holland’s size and maneuverability lead to some impressive action scenes pinned with some cool camera work by Chung-hoon Chung (Old Boy, Last Night in Soho), the action feels void of personality and urgency seen in the games. When Holland yells “oh crap!” (a typical quip said by the Drake in the games), it never feels like Holland is in any immediate danger or consequence as we know he is likely to make it out nearly unscathed — another divergence from the physically beat up Drake seen at the end of every Uncharted game. Regardless, seeing Uncharted 3’s plane action set-piece come to life (along with the addition of some well-placed Easter eggs) on the big screen was incredibly satisfying to watch.

Though these action scenes are entertaining, Uncharted’s biggest falter is in its writing.

Uncharted as a series has been well known for its deep, complex, and humorous characters that are impossible not to love. From Sully’s “El-goddamn Dorado” to Nate’s fear of clowns, Uncharted as a series is very charming and heartwarming. In the games, Drake, Sully, Elena (who is absent in the film), and others represent a dysfunctional family with different personalities and misgivings. However, the theme of loyalty and honour among thieves has always been a main staple of the series.

This feeling is completely lost in the film due to the characters’ lack of camaraderie and chemistry. Throughout the film, each character cannot trust one another as story beats of backstabbing and outmaneuvering play a constant tiring role. As a result, Drake, Chloe, and Sully never truly get to the point where they feel connected or trusting of one another. Even by the end of Uncharted’s nearly two-hour runtime, I didn’t feel any of the characters grew into this dysfunctional family but rather just represented a tool as a means to an end. Though there are moments of character growth for Drake and Sully (and lesser for Chloe), I never felt like the film entirely nailed this dynamic to the point where each character became reliant and trusting in each other (as seen in the games). Instead, these characters seem to just exist with one another without any means of a fully developed relationship. Though these relationships will grow more in the sequel (something the film sets up for), it’s hard not to see Uncharted as missing to lay the foundation of these characters before setting up for something bigger — making the characters feel more one-note and conventional in the process.

Overall, Uncharted provides a fun but average video game-to-movie adaptation that sets up nicely for a more interesting sequel. Though the film exhibits some entertaining action and adventure and fun Easter eggs, it is weighted down by its lack of chemistry of the main cast, poor character development, and conventional writing.

 ★★★☆☆

Graphic: Nawaal Basha

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