The conversation surrounding the translation of video games to film has been had many a time; they frequently sacrifice story in favor of action scenes that don’t play as well when you’re watching them as opposed to, well, actually playing through them. The thing with the “Uncharted” series, though, is that you can see the potential right there. Naughty Dog’s popular and critically-acclaimed Playstation series, which launched in 2007 with “Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune” and spawned three sequels and various spin-offs, boasts well-drawn characters, solid dialogue, interesting stories that bring real heart and drama into rip-roaring, globe-trotting adventures, and fantastically fun and over-the-top action set-pieces. Sony’s newly released film adaptation of the games from director Ruben Fleischer, titled “Uncharted,” is the opposite of all of those things.
“Uncharted” opens with a prologue, in which young Nathan Drake (Tiernan Jones) and his older brother Sam (Rudy Pankow) are arrested trying to steal a map tracing the Magellan expedition (the first known circumnavigation of the world). Sam runs off to avoid jail time, and 15 years later, it’s pretty obvious that his adoring brother (now played by Tom Holland) hasn’t seen or heard much from him since then. Nate works as a bartender in New York City and uses his skills to pick pockets on the side, which attracts the attention of Victor Sullivan, aka Sully (Mark Wahlberg), a treasure hunter who worked with Sam tracking treasure hidden by Magellan’s crew. Sully recruits a reluctant Nate to help him steal a cross at an auction that is believed to be one half of a key that could lead them to treasure—and perhaps discover what happened to Nate’s now-lost brother.
The duo’s adventure takes them from the Big Apple to a secret crypt in Barcelona to old ships in the Philippines. But while “Uncharted” is certainly watchable, it never feels like it is doing more than going through the motions in its aggressive mediocrity. The influence of Hollywood adventure movies like “Indiana Jones” has always been evident in the “Uncharted” games, but the familiarity of its genre tropes were always supplanted by the complex characters who took part in them, and stories that relied on history and the relationships crafted between those characters in equal measure. Even divorced from any knowledge of the games it is based on, the “Uncharted” movie fails to do this. It builds the central mentor/student relationship between Nate and Sully on what it supposes is witty banter (it usually isn’t) and a loosely constructed backstory that links them through Nate’s lost brother. Some humor can be drawn from the grudging bond they build over the course of the film, but there’s little indication that they actually care about each other. The same can be said for the supporting players. Sophia Ali’s Chloe Frazer is a fellow treasure hunter, a former associate of Sully’s who enters the picture because of the cross and who is posited as a potential love interest for Nate, but neither of those threads lead anywhere. The poor casting doesn’t help sell the lousy script any either. Wahlberg dispassionately smirks his way through the movie. Ali is rather bland. Holland certainly has a personality, but “Uncharted” just further drives home the fact that he isn’t a particularly good actor, coasting along on his likeability but incapable of exhibiting any real emotional depth. Antonio Banderas is the film’s by-the-books villain Santiago Moncada; Banderas is a beyond talented actor who has a menacing presence when given the right material, but this isn’t the right material. The stand-out by far is Tati Gabrielle as Jo, a mercenary working for Moncada who has an agenda of her own. Gabrielle is menacing and alluring, and she’s the one character whose actions we’re never entirely able to predict.
The cheap-looking CGI and disorientingly clumsy doesn’t help the movie either, but even though they don’t look great, it is fun to see where the film has drawn segments from the game, even down to the puzzles that require frequent reference to Nate’s journal. “Uncharted” serves more as a prequel rather than being based directly on any of the games’ plots, which does at least explain the potential reason for the absence of Elena Fisher, a reporter who meets Nate in the first game, and whose fish-out-of-water perspective helps serve as the audiences’ eyes and ears in a game otherwise populated by wildly skilled adventurers. And it explains why, in the film, Nate himself doesn’t come off as being particularly good at anything outside of spouting historical fun facts and slinging drinks; he lacks the physicality you’d expect to see in the hero of an action movie. The movie actually draws the most from the final game, 2016’s “Uncharted: A Thief’s End,” particularly in how it brings Sam into the story. But while a couple of post-credit sequences suggest the possible threads a sequel could pursue, I can’t help but wonder if a more simple approach would have been more effective to kickstart a potential film franchise, rather than trying to cram all these characters and lore into one film, a la the first game, almost all of whose action is set on one island (and which also has zombies—personally, I would have liked to see it).
The “Uncharted” movie has been in development since 2008, predating most the games in the series. Countless writers, cast members, and directors have come and gone. David O. Russell left to make “Silver Linings Playbook.” Shawn Levy departed to direct “Free Guy.” Seth Gordon walked away to make “Baywatch.” It says a lot about this movie that way back in 2012, Neil Burger left to make “Divergent” instead. I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that the “Uncharted” movie we got after all this time isn’t actually as bad as I anticipated. Warts and all, it’s never dull. But it’s never memorable or exciting either. It will likely disappoint fans of the games (of which I admittedly I am, if you can’t tell by now), but it isn’t really satisfying for those just looking for a fun couple of hours in the movie theater either. For a story about those seeking fortune and glory in uncharted territory, the path that “Uncharted” follows is always painfully obvious.
“Uncharted” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 116 minutes. Rated PG-13.